Monday, July 26, 2010

Watching "Mad Men" After Watching "Michael Clayton."

AMC played the George Clooney Movie "Michael Clayton"
as a lead-in to the season premiere of "Mad Men" last

Not a good idea.

As fine a TV show as Mad Men is much of the time, it
paled coming after the brilliant Michael Clayton.

The season premiere itself wasn't much to start with,
nothing really striking or memorable until the last minute or
two with Don blowing his top at the swimming suit execs and then
coming alive at last in the WSJ interview.

As a writer who obsessively rewrites whatever I'm reading
or listening to, I love pieces of art like Michael Clayton
because they short-circuit that obsession and carry me away
on their true and seamless writing, especially the dialogue.
Add that to the thematic heft of the movie, corporate & personal
corruption, George Clooney's effortless portrayal of a man
coming apart inside while appearing in control of all he
surveys and fixes, Tom Wilkinson's amazing prophet, etc.,
and you've got a film you might not want people to compare
your TV show to, however good it is.

Not fair, for whatever reasons, comparing the two? AMC
shouldn't have put them together like that, inviting the
comparison. It cannot be a mistake that the themes of corruption,
and even the looks and outlooks of the two main characters
played by Clooney and Jon Hamm, are so similar. Again, the
invitation to compare is blatant & not favorable for Mad Men.

Still, don't get me wrong, I'll be there next
Sunday at 10, hoping for the best, expecting Don to continue his
long liberation from self-exile if not from the pit & pendulum
of advertising.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Things Are Fighting Back.

I have many examples which I have compiled but
I will give this one small recent example to find
out how receptive others may be to the new reality:

I was washing the dishes this morning.
To be specific, I was washing the silverware.

The little silverware drainer cup thing was
about half-full with already washed silverware
from an earlier time. I debated whether to empty
that silverware into the silverware drawer first,
but decided against it because I didn't want to have
to dry my hands. So I decided to add the newly washed
silverware to the previously washed silverware in
the little silverware drainer cup.

So I was washing the "big" silverware first. It's not
really even silverware, but the big foot-and-a-half long
spoons and pancake flipper type things. There were three
of them. I washed and rinsed them and stuck them in the
drainer cup.

That's when I ran into a problem.

Either they didn't want to go in there, or the regular
small silverware that was already in there didn't want to have
them in there, or both, because there was a lot of resistance
from somewhere. Finally I just jammed the three big things
in there and they stayed and I went on to wash the new
batch of small dirty silverware.

When I rinsed the new batch of silverware and went to
put them in the cup, they either didn't want to go, or,
it looked and felt like to me, the three big silverware
had gotten together somehow and formed a barrier at an
angle and were stopping the new batch of clean silverware
from getting into the cup. Even when I tried to jam the
new silverware in, and let go, the new silerware, spoons
and forks, were pushed out of the cup and fell all over
the rubber thing and behind the drainer and I had to wash
them again.

I washed them again and tried it again, this time very
slowly so that I could see beyond any reasonable doubt
that there was unaccountable movement between the big
silverware and the little silverware that had nothing
to do with me, which all resulted in the new little
silverware once again being prevented and pushed out all
over again. It reminded me of people being pushed out
of a lifeboat by bullies.

I tried it again and the same thing happenmed, if not worse.

Finally I took the big silverware out and hung it up and
the new little silverware went in fine and dandy with the
old silverware in the drainer cup.

So, good news, bad news.

Bad news first: things are fighting back. Those that have ears
to hear, hear, and eyes to see, see.

Good news: things are not only fighting back against us,
they are fighting back against one another, which will
help us in the future through "divide and conquer" tactics.

Until then ...

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Monday, July 19, 2010

THE END of the Masterpiece Project, #0-90.

I have the worst cold in the world so it's a good time
to wrap up this preposterous project. I've said everything
I had to say worth saying already about masterpieces, if
anything, so the following is pure padding, may or may
not have anything to do with masterpieces, whatever
they are or not, & should not be read under any circumstances:

90. Who gets to decide what a masterpiece is? You.

89. Fog rolling in, iced coffee, the look on the girl's face as Jimi
destroys the guitar at Monterey Pop.

88. "What I would give for a sockful of horse manure right now."

87. With this cold, my brain feels like an empty walnut packed
in pressurized styrofoam.

86. I just read an interview with a fellow named Bradley Sands
that is more entertaining & true than five of the six stories of his
I read afterwards.

87. I once heard an interview with the guy who wrote Bridges
of Madison County & I was prepared to despise him but I liked
him quite a bit, despite my worst intentions.

88. I also saw an interview with David Lynch, the director,
who I am no fan of, and I was also ready to not like him at all,
but he was quite a present & likable fellow, meditates, honest.
Hmmm. I like the human being better than the artist, or the art?

87. Here's a paragraph from this story I'm writing:

He turned out to be a spectacular guest, absolutely no bother.
He kept to himself, ate like a bird, took regular showers, if
brief (to preserve water?), and hardly made a sound day or night.
He read biographies from the library which Lloyd checked out for him,
almost one a day, from General Patton to Mother Teresa to Bob Dylan,
quietly listened to talk radio, went for walks, and wrote in a journal that I
bought when I saw him at the picnic table in the backyard trying
unsuccessfully to hold some loose papers together in the wind.
I tried not to read any of it as I helped him gather the pages,
but I did see the phrase "family of leaves," which I kept thinking
about. I considered it a beautiful phrase, though sad,
not to mention eerie, considering the coincidence of the blowing pages. I
wondered if he had come up with it himself or if he was quoting
somebody. I meant to google the phrase but didn’t, because I wanted him
to have made it up.

86. "Art begins with resistance--at the point where resistance is overcome.
No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor."
-Andre Gide

I think the great labor can be spent in the years leading up to the writing of the masterpiece, but the writing of the masterpiece itself can be as effortless as a dream.

85. "The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order."

84. I badly need to eat something but have zero-minus appetite.

83. I saw an old movie last night called "On Borrowed Time"
in which Death as a gentleman came to get an old man
who didn't want to go. Somehow the old man had gotten the power
to keep anybody who went up in his big apple tree up there in the
tree, so he tricked Death up in the tree to get him an apple before
he took him, and so death was stuck up there. Death was cordial
and patient throughout. At one point the old man asked Death
what he knew about something, and Death said, "I am unknowing."
I recommend the movie, although (SPOILER COMING) I must warn
the squeamish among you--it ends happily.

82. I type with one finger, and a thumb for the spacebar.

81. I told you not to read this.

80. Do you think this whole thing suggests I feel I've written a masterpiece?

79. You know, some things are considered masterpieces at the time, and then later they are not considered masterpieces at all.

78. I don't understand people who are angry that certain things are considered masterpieces, even if it's obvious that those things are not masterpieces. That's why it's always important for me to remember that I get to decide.

77. The more I believe in experts, the less capable I am of discerning a masterpiece.

76. I didn't know who Flannery O'Connor was when I read the story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," and I said, "I don't know who this guy is, but he sure as hell can write."

75. How did my once-favorite NY Housewife become the most obnoxious of all?

74. I read that Shakespeare was a racist and we shouldn't put another dime in his pocket.

73. This can't be all there is, please, although what isn't here must be contained in this, or else it still doesn't make sense.

72. Did I say that I believe that the subject of a book has to be a mystery that is bigger than my brain, my intelligence, my knowledge, and yet that is what every word in the the book is about, what it dwells in? Well, not every word. I hate that when people say every word must serve the theme, or the point, or whatever. But every sentence, or at least every paragraph, that's OK. I've just begun to learn and
see and feel and appreciate the quiet wonder of a paragraph.

71. I have no appetite, no brain. I'm high on emptiness.

70. "The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence." -Cyril Connolly

I think I agree, but since every masterpiece is unlike any other, there is no telling what one is, because there is nothing to compare it to.

69. If you can't find your masterpiece, try to hide from it, and it will have no choice but to come looking for you.

0-68. "The human fool is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art."
-Leonardo da Vinci

Oh, wait, that's "foot", not "fool". Sorry, Leo.

I'm free now & I believe my appetite is waking.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Masterpiece, #91-92

91. Stop in the mystery.
Don't solve it.
Don't wrap it up.
Don't come to a clever or dramatic conclusion
about it.
Just stop in it & stay there
for the whole masterpiece.

92. A masterpiece is simply a book
you were meant to write.
You, personally.
You may have already written it.
You may have just begun it
and not know it
because it is too easy or funny
or real or un-masterpiece-like.
It may begin in the form of an email
that you decided discretion was the better
part of valor not to send, or an idle post
on some internet site, a note
to somebody you love
or can't stand, or a scrap
of passing strangers' conversation that lingered
and couldn't not be jotted down.
A masterpiece is simply a book
you personally are meant to write.
You may never write it
but know that it's there
and that everything you do write
calls to it and comes from it.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Masterpiece, #93-94.

93. "Man cannot live without a permanent trust
in something indestructible in himself,
and at the same time
that indestructible something
as well as his trust in it
may remain permanently concealed from him."

94. "Stop resisting everything.
Stop resisting anything. Or
at least imagine, for a moment,
what it would be like."
-Old Man in a Dream

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

One Hundred Essential Secrets of Writing a Masterpiece (Secrets 95-100).

I will be revealing these requirements one at a time,
one a day, unless I am compelled to add more than one a day
or less than one a day.

95. Only one in one hundred masterpieces are known to be masterpieces
by their creators at the time they are writing them.

Therefore, it is better to not know you are writing a masterpiece,
if you are. In other words, it is more likely that you are writing
a masterpiece if you don't know that you're writing a masterpiece.

For every known masterpiece, there are one hundred masterpieces
nobody has ever heard of.

Even if you know you are writing a masterpiece, it's better that you keep
that fact from yourself, in order not to become nervous and blow it.

It is all right, however, if you know you are writing a masterpiece,
and you really are writing one, to enjoy it with a little awe
and a touch of wonder, as long as the awe and wonder remain objective,
as in, "Hmm, this is a masterpiece in the making, but it's too late
to stop now, so I may as well finish it and see if anybody else agrees
or notices."

If you are going to write a masterpiece, never start out intending
to write one, but allow yourself to have a glimmer of it here and there,
much as you might pretend not to see a fox in the corner of your eye
in the woods in order to keep it there, draw it closer, increase
the chills up and down the spine without having the fox know and bolt.

"Whatever you think writing a masterpiece may feel like, it does not
feel like that. It feels like something else, something smaller
and quieter, like writing a very good sentence, followed by a remarkable
sentence, followed by a simple sentence, then a silent sentence, and
then another very good sentence, etc., and before you know it, you have
a very good paragraph, or even a remarkable paragraph, and you're on your way." -Melville

a. Know yourself.
b. Be yourself.
c. Forget yourself.

97. Before/while you start writing, listen to a piece of music
that will open your heart and/or mystify your reason, such as
Warren Zevon's "Please Stay" (recorded when he knew he was
dying), or Chet Baker's "Tenderly," or Emmylou Harris" "Goodbye"
(written by Steve Earle), or some gem of innocence by Sparklehorse.

The bridge from not writing to writing is as passing through
a wall, or from the dimension of the mundane to the dimension of
inspiration. There are one million ways to be not writing; there
is only one way to be writing. We forget what joy writing is and
remember it only as a task and a chore--until we start writing.
Music can transport us from the state of the laboring mind to the
state of the soul in clarity and contemplation.

THEN, AFTER writing, the heart that is taxed in creating needs the
salve of music that is pure beauty, like Pachabel's Canon in D, or
Al Green's "Love & Happiness," or Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," or
Etta James' "At Last." This sort of music not only eases the heart's
return to the "real" world, it conditions the heart to anticipate
reward at the end of the writing day and to therefore be more willing
to abandon all its resources in the service of the writing. As absurd
as this may sound, trust me that it is even more absurd to dismiss
it without experimentation.

However, if you already know this, please ignore this step and accept
my thanks for reading it anyway, for I enjoyed writing it.

98. Always make sure that
"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.

99. Rewriting is not rewriting. Rewriting is writing at a deeper,
more relaxed level than the level of the raw original first-draft
writing. In rewriting there's no great divide between the "creative"
& "critical" "sides" of the brain. The "critical" side's criticalness
is transmuted by the heat of the creative into enlivening & clarifying
observation. They are not enemies, but essential allies. It's up to the
writer to introduce the creative & the critical, in the act of writing,
to help or allow them to befriend one another. Or the writer just steps
out of the way as the self-dismissed wall between the critical & creative.
The psychic place where rewriting happens is a combo of critical &
creative, a place where they meet as compadres, helpmates, allies in a
kind of hyper-awake intuitional swaying which simply knows what to do
& what not to do, when to begin & when to stop.

100. Make absolutely sure that you include a detail, metaphor,
line of dialogue, aside, or description which is utterly irrelevant
to the story, to the development of character, or to the advancement
of the plot. It may even be meaningless, or gibberish, as long as
it is not too obtrusive. Bury it in the middle of the story or
novel. It will be an invitation to the subconscious of the reader to
truly surrender to the tale and to your writing. Furthermore, it is
a tribute to fallibility and will liberate you from perfectionism.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I'm taking a little break from the long-distance running
of writing novels, in order to write a short story, the
first I've written in many many moons.

It's a quiet story, a strange story, with a human mystery
at its core. An unknown gentleman appears in the life of
a woman, a widower with two teenaged children. The identity
of the gentleman is the mystery, and his compelling anonymity
is contagious, disturbing and enlivening the other three.

Somebody wrote somewhere:

"Nobody writes quietly enough.
It may be impossible to write quietly enough.
I predict the greatest writer of the future
will be the quietest writer who ever wrote."

Oh, actually, I wrote that. But I happen to
believe it anyway.

So I'm trying to apply what I believe there to the real
world of my own story here.

The story, as it's unfurling now, will end in a longishly
conversation that includes the woman, her son and daughter,
and the unknown man, in the family's living room,
while a show on TV plays with the sound down, a show on
Discovery about continental drift.

I've eliminated all the obvious spectacular reveals
about the man's identity, which is a secret even to
himself, for he has lost his memory. He was found wandering
around the town fair in a damp suit without ID after having
driven a stolen car into the river. It has been a couple weeks
since the accident and he shows no sign of regaining his memory,
even of his name.

He is not an alien, is not dangerous, in a physical sense,
is not a psycho, has not escaped from anyplace, does not
know the woman is a past life, is not wanted, etc.
He may be lying in small details about his activities since
the accident in the river, untruths which he will reveal and
which he considers "necessary."

I don't know how it's going to end, although I do have the
final image. The conversation itself is what is going to be
quietly advanced, or circled around that image, which comes
from the show playing soundlessly on TV. That image will tie
the little world of what is transpiring in the living room
to the big world of the history of the planet and where we
are today as human beings. So it is ambitious in that sense,
that little click at the end which will not detonate, but
will ring it all into focus, the mystery unsolved but enlarged,
an enlarged embrace of the mystery, its sadness and beauty.

Endings in novels are sometimes great, sometimes good, sometimes
not so good, but in rare cases do they change the way I feel
about the whole book. I might think, "That's not how I'd have
ended it," but I usually wouldn't toss the book across the
room if I loved the work up to then. Too much territory has
been covered in a novel for me personally to hate a book
only because it's ending disappointed.

In a short story, the ending feels much more important, almost
as if the story were made for it, as the firing and flight of an
arrow exists for the bull's-eye.

So, I'm dedicated to making the ending quiet, to preserving
the mystery of this gentleman and his relationship to this
family, but also to revealing enough, having the discovery of
some human mystery be just substantial enough, that the reader, starting
with me, is satisfied, though he may not know why, or be able
to say why, or need to say why. At the heart of it is identity
and anonymity, and the connections we have with one another when
everything artificial and extraneous has been removed, or is simply

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