Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Notes Toward a More Coherent Essay, Someday, Maybe (Part 1, on the Fourth)

You know, writing something that is worth reading takes a long time. Maybe not for you, but for me I need at least a month to clear a comma from a lengthy prepositional phrase. I don’t want to just throw words out into the pixelverse. I want to write something that someone else might understand and maybe even appreciate.
In the meantime, I’ll scribble out this or scrawl out that – writing replies or replying to someone else’s queries. Some of these things echo what I’d like to say if I had the time to sit around and do what writers are supposed to do – and nothing else.
For example.
A writer friend for many years is getting back into the harness, sold a nonfiction piece and a short story to one of the pro-zines recently, has been asking me for advice – on particular stories and the field in general. He also read one of my recent book review columns for Galaxy’s Edge magazine (Am I a book reviewer? I am now. That doesn’t mean I’m a book critic or a scholar or a literary essayist. Circumstance has so far spared me from those fates). But he decided, since I was there and convenient to ask: “Is there something missing in my apprehension, something that will block my progress as a writer, if I simply cannot fathom some of the works of the so-called greats in the literary sf field?” He continues, I am willing to give PK Dick another try. But honestly, I have tried Le Guin, Delaney, Russ, others, and in each case I cannot go more than a few pages before putting the book aside, confused and irritated.”
He went on to describe a recent encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, where he got halfway through before giving up “in despair.” He liked the TV adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven, though, and thought maybe he should try again with that.
I replied that maybe he should. I think The Lathe of Heaven is still a favorite of mine (except on those days when The Left Hand of Darkness takes over). I also admitted that at times I find The Dispossessed a little too ponderous for me, but let’s not pursue that any further now, since I know many who consider it a masterpiece and love it dearly. It’s a great book no matter how I might stumble through it. The fault is all mine.
But my friend asked an honest question, so I tried to answer as honestly as I could:

That there’s so many books in the field of science fiction that we don’t want to read is part of the beauty of the form. Authors can write in so many ways, incorporate so many styles and techniques, and it’s still science fiction. To speak briefly of other “difficult” writers, I don’t think any other literary category, except perhaps fantasy (however one defines the boundaries of that field), contains the equivalent of Delany’s Dhalgren, or Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, or Lafferty’s Past Master, or Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise. Etc., etc., etc.
Science fiction is a coat of many colors, but we don’t have to like every shade of them.
Sf has had its crews of cultural movers and shakers over the years. … I try not to judge books by critics. A book review is a creative response to a book by one person. Often, I'll like a book lauded by a reviewer – but not for the same reasons.
Reviews and awards, at times, are a way for a culture to, consciously or unconsciously, try to impose a uniformity upon literature. Some might see it as “quality control,” and that’s fine. I’ve nothing against quality control (depending upon the qualities being, or not being, controlled), But in general, I don’t think much of uniformity – and neither does literature (in the widest sense of the term, without the capital L). Literature, in the widest sense, is bigger than that. It’s bigger than everything – almost. If we can read what we love and love what we read, the literary world would be a whole lot better off.
And any time I feel like I’m being forced to read a book – either in school, by compulsion, or through the influence of peers and “betters,” it distracts from any enjoyment I may receive from the task, if enjoyment is to be found there at all.
I want to meet the book on its own terms, and not the terms as defined by its supporters or detractors. Exceptions granted. But the whole notion of having books shoved into my face doesn’t help me figure out what I do or do not enjoy or what I value in my reading.
So, I wouldn't worry too much about what one “should” read in the field over what one wants to read.
If any of those highly-touted books keep calling to you, you’ll get to them, when the time is right. And if you don’t care for them, the “Lit Police” can’t take you away. They have no tin badges. They have no authority. Reading should be an exploration and an adventure, but it should probably contain equal measures of the familiar and the uncharted.
The best thing about books is that you can open them and go nearly anywhere.
The second best thing about books is that you can also close them and put them back on the shelf, whispering, “Not this one. Not now. Maybe not ever.” If reading can’t be an exercise in freedom, what’s the bloody point?

So there.

And … Speaking of freedom, have a wonderful Fourth.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Style Isn’t Story

Sometimes, not too often, but still often enough, I get a student who believes that what you say in a work is less important than the way you say it.
“It’s all style, man! Who cares what it’s about?”
Yes, dear friends. These poor unfortunates are still with us.
Stories, if they’re to be considered at all, are just excuses to exercise one’s style – or should I put quotes around that word? Because what “style,” as these students practice it, consists of, for the most part, are certain distinctive traits of other authors placed in other contexts by the students emulating them. They insist they’re being “themselves,” but they’re really trying on stuff, experimenting, exercising – trying to figure out not who they are, but who they want to be – which is perfectly okay. That’s how you do it. That’s how you find out who you are: as a person, as a writer – as a person who is a writer. They don’t know it yet, but they will eventually.
How do I know?
I used to be one of them.
Back in the 1970s, when there were so many styles to choose from, like so many different hats to try on. And the “literary” side of the street had grown bored with telling stories. More so: they believed it was all in the technique, that the pyrotechnics was the show, and to settle on telling a compelling story to an audience was to lower yourself as an artist. It was like designing a chair that someone might actually enjoy sitting in. How dull! How utilitarian!
The artists above, the rabble below.
Usually, I shrink back from using terms like “elitist,” because they’re usually engaged in political forums and take on political taints that can’t be rinsed off. But one cannot view aesthetics that distinguish “highbrow” from middlebrow, to lowbrow, to no-brow, without feeling a sort of tyranny of exclusivity. “Don’t try this at home, kids. This is high art we’re talking here. Go back to your comic books.”
Well, move over, literati! I was going to show them what real art was all about.
Yeah, right.
Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a mind that was particularly attuned to nuance. It wouldn’t surprise me if I wasn’t alone in that, back then, for kids my age, with overactive imaginations and a great yearning to be nearly anywhere except where they were. I wanted spectacle and pyrotechnics and just about anything that blew a hole through the status quo.
I liked the nouvelle vague movies and experimental films that were all quick cutting and filters and effects and jumping around in the narrative, and interminglings of fantasy and brutal realism. I liked the dynamic perspectives of Jim Steranko comics and the surrealism of Steve Ditko (I was more in love with his work on Dr. Strange than anything he did with Spiderman). When I discovered New Wave science fiction, I was all for it. The less I understood of what I read, the better I thought it must have been.
“Wow! This is totally incomprehensible! It must be a work of genius!”
I wanted literature to be a huge ladle dipped into the unbridled unconscious, spread out on the page without benefit of organization or interpretation. The stranger the better. In music, I was thrilled by Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, The Stooges. I was looking for new languages and new grammar in visual expression, in sounds, in written works. No boundaries. No horizons. No walls. No “end” title.
Problem was, I didn’t know what I was rejecting, or if I was rejecting anything by embracing all these apparent manifestations of “the new” (And some of it, in spite of my generalizations, really were brilliant and wonderful; on an instinctual level, I was pretty good; on an intellectual or aesthetic level, I was a complete idiot).
I learned the history of literature backwards – of culture in general. I started with experimental writers and worked my way, years later, back to Chaucer and Beowulf.
Problem was, I didn’t know shit. I didn’t care, either.
But the further my interests went, the further I wanted – needed – to know more of that history.
One of the insights I picked up, as I increased my knowledge and experience, was that much of what I thought of as innovative had roots that went back to the very origins (or as far back as we could find) of the forms that interested me. For example, no postmodernist impressed me more than Sterne, Fielding and Cervantes.
Every age is an age of innovation and discovery. Some of these eras get more attention than others, and the attention varies from subsequent era to era. One period of the past speaks, or reflects, or echoes, a later age more directly than others. That’s when an author, or a whole era of literature is “rediscovered.”
Eventually, it became clear to me what had probably been clear to most of my contemporaries all along: innovations and experimentations in art forms are a means and not an end. The most successful explorations of “style” are the product of necessities driven by other needs. Something we want to say or tell can’t be told any other way.
We do what we have to do to make the work of art we want to make. While we’re doing it, we call it, “getting the job done.” Afterward, we may call it “style,” but rarely before. Style is something someone else calls your writing. You just call it “work.”
Simple enough, but it took me about thirty-one years to get there.
Now, it becomes my job to guide students away from the excesses in which I indulged, and produced reams and reams of unreadable drivel.
Can I do it? Maybe with some students. With others, no.
This is both good and bad. Good because the itinerant student in question has the intrinsic stubbornness that makes for a good writer. But that only works when the writer is, well, right. If not, the writer will spend a long, long time (like me) finding out that the hill chosen to die upon is actually two hills over.
We all live and learn. Some faster than others, but we learn. If you ever stop, it’s almost as if you’ve stopped being a writer. You’re just going through the motions.
Never sacrifice clarity to style. Style should enhance clarity, otherwise it’s holding you back.
Never sacrifice story to style, otherwise you’re just putting fancy wrapping paper around an empty package.
So I think: what the hell do I know? I’m just a guy who stumbled into a teaching job, and what I know about writing should be considered suspect at best. What does someone who really knows about writing have to say?
The nearest book on writing at hand is Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold. I open it up at random and the gods of serendipity smile upon me.
Page 234:

You have to know what you want to say.
If you have no clear goal, then you’re just fumbling around, smearing paint on canvas, pounding randomly on the piano keys, and throwing yourself about on the stage in semblance of a performance. If you don’t really know what you’re evoking, then all the exercises of style and form and tense and person will not disguise it.

On the previous page (233), in describing the New Wave sf writers:

In the breakaway from traditional form, what had also occurred was a disinheritance of the storytelling structure. Much of this experimentation was necessary, creating an important expansion of the range of ideas and treatments available to authors, yet it also gave comfort to the idea that traditional forms were worthless and should be discarded. The result, for a while, was a nihilistic abandonment of story.
Fortunately, this trend didn’t last long –

That’s the word from David Gerrold, and he does, without dispute, know a thing or two about writing.

So – do what you have to do. And may the light shine upon you sooner rather than later.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Cathedral and the Story

At the risk of infuriating my students and colleagues yet again, and doing so in the shadow of the recent, tragic fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, I've been thinking recently about the similarities between stories and cathedrals, and maybe how the one helps to explain the other, at least to some degree.
I often refer to stories having “shapes.” I learned the phrase “story-shaped idea” from somewhere and it has never left me. I have had numerous problems with discussions of story structure as practiced in academic and non-academic circles. I learned only recently what a “Freytag Triangle”  (or “Pyramid”) is, and it turns out to be the renaming of a description for “story” I've encountered most of my life, and found true only in the most general (and least helpful) sense.
The Freytag Triangle.  Writers fly into it and are never seen again.
Three-Act Structure.  For the geometrically-impaired.
Six-Act Structure.  Three-Act structure cut into smaller pieces.
Plotto. Pick a plot – any plot.
The Lester Dent Master Plot. Pick this plot!
The Hero’s Journey. A train that only travels in circles.
Narratology Don’t Go There!
Seriously, all these terms surrounding narrative structure are all fine and well (when I'm in a good mood), but they are at best what you might call “analytic.” Some of them apply best to completed works but do little to help the author of a work in progress. Some of them will help an author construct a plot, but a plot is not a story.
I return to the brilliant observation of book editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden: “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.”
Narratives or plots may be “structured,” but stories are shapes, like containers, or vessels.
On a practical level, they must perform a function and contain the elements essential to make the comprehensible and meaningful communication we tend to call a story.
On an aesthetic level, the variations of shapes, colors, materials and the like are limitless. Function may dictate form, but both form and function are determined by that natural force: Story.
We may not know what it is, but we recognize it when we see it.
More or less.
Sometimes function hides in form, but it is certainly there.
Sometimes the form proclaims the function loudly.
Story can’t survive without a structure, and a structure without a story has no purpose.
The same, to some degree, can be said for cathedrals.
They have elements that help define them as cathedrals: narthex, nave, transept, choir, ambulatory, towers, gables, pinnacle, niche, tympanum, rose window … and so on. Other structures may contain these elements, but are not cathedrals, but nearly all cathedrals will contain these elements – and something more.
At the heart of a story is a point. It may not be a “big” point, or a good point, and it may not be one consciously conceived by its author, but if you look at the story long enough, you’ll find it. One may argue that it is there only because you’ve searched for it, and it’s the product of your searching more than it is of the author’s intention, but it doesn’t matter. Stories are for readers, an audience, and this is one of the things readers do with what they read – again, whether it was their primary intention or not. We read stories for many reasons, and some of those reasons we’re not conscious of at first, or even later, or ever.
At the heart of every cathedral, likewise, is a point. It is a manifestation of a view of the universe, of metaphysics, of theology.
It is a model of the universe as conceived by its initial adherents, perhaps, but it is more than a treatise written in stone, wood, and glass. And one doesn’t have to be an adherent to the worldview, or metaphysics, or theology, to appreciate the point the building makes.
It is a design, but it is not the product of any single designer (except for more recent examples); it is the product of many, laborers, craftspeople, artisans.
Each cathedral built along the general principles outlined by what we recognize as common or defining elements to the structure, but each one is distinct, different – its own experience. And every individual who journeys into the structure will find something distinct and, possibly, wondrous within it (and around it), beyond the intended tenets of any specific religion, spirituality, or theology.
And this is one reason why we are often moved so deeply when we visit these places. They are singular structures, but their very singular-ness is an echo of an entire reality – not to be mistaken for “reality” itself, whatever that is, but a response to reality, one of many within the human experience.
Which also can be said, without too great an exaggeration, of a story. The materials differ (thank heavens for that; fiction is cheaper and easier to carry around), but the results, potentially, are often the same.

Neither cathedrals nor stories should ever be taken for granted.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Remembrances of Papers Lost

I’ve been thinking about papers – school papers (as opposed to newspapers or rolling papers) – one especially that I wrote for high school English in my senior year. I broke every rule about how to produce the paper (someday I’ll tell the story how, but not now) and I still received an A+ on it. It was about film editing and how it was one of the defining elements of what makes a movie a movie.
For reasons that so far escape me, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I may have actually said in that paper, wondering if I still believed any of it.
Too bad the paper was never returned to me. I’d had a chance to look it over. Mr. senior year English teacher, Mr. Hurley, allowed me to see the grade he placed on it, but needed it back for whatever arcane recording purposes Chicago Public Schools teachers needed to hold on to senior papers. I saw the grade, glanced over its contents and a few penciled-in comments, and back it went into Mr. Hurley’s folder.
On the last day of classes, my last day of high school, I sought out Mr. Hurley in his classroom. In the corridors, students were emptying their lockers as if they were those German military functionaries you always saw in the World War II movies, where the Allies are advancing and the Axis minions are throwing all their maps and files into big fires. I probably didn’t see any bonfires in the hallways of John F. Kennedy High School, but it looked like the word was out that everything – EVERYTHING! – must be destroyed. The trash cans were filled to the max, so the hallways effectively became the trash cans. The other significant difference was that the students were in a much better mood about dumping textbooks into garbage bins than the gray-uniformed officers seemed to be about torching their precious documents (the moral to this side-tale appears to be that any organization which lives by bureaucracy dies by bureaucracy).
When confronted, Mr. Hurley claimed my paper was in his office and would be “difficult to locate at this moment.” I’m not sure if he was speaking of the paper or his office. Either way, he looked like a man with a briefcase filled with embezzled funds and a phony passport in the pocket of his sportcoat. Or perhaps he was afraid the First Division had already secured that part of the building. Whatever was really on his mind, he looked surprised that I would want the paper returned, but insisted he would get it back to me “somehow.”
That was in 1973.
Since then, I have seen neither the paper nor Mr. Hurley.
Mr. Hurley was never someone you’d characterize as a teacher dedicated to his subject. I don’t recall many literary discussions in his class, nor did he ever endeavor to instill in his students a love for the written word. I do recall we spent a lot of time going over selected cantos from Paradise Lost, but I also recall we were considering them more like a legal document than a work of poetry.
English as a subject for Mr. Hurley was one of those “skills” you pick up to advance your opportunities for advancement in the faceless offices of industry and commerce. Your District Supervisor might note that you can hammer out a letter more grammatically than your fellow underlings, or make a better presentation at a sales conference, and thereby you’ll earn enough to purchase a better grade of white shirt to go along with your double-knit suit and Christmas tie.
To Mr. Hurley, from what I experienced, the inherent value of literature as literature was no value at all. He was a notably uninspiring English teacher, though he may have been a good chess player (I believe he also sponsored the school’s chess team).
My adolescent thoughts on film editing are no great loss to the world, I suppose. I just wonder, as I enter (or extend my occupancy of) my dotage, what those thought were. I may have been smart, by accident. Or I may have been stupid in a seemingly smart way. In those days, I was a passionate lover of the cinema. Today, I find myself rather estranged from the medium, with notable exceptions. I find myself ranting over the shortage of great films and great filmmaking – until I encounter a great film, and my love of the form is reborn.
I am curious, though, if the paper might help me figure out if I loved cinema because it was a great storytelling medium, or if I discovered my love of storytelling from my love of movies. The difference may be slight, but it’s the slight distinctions that mean the most.
There are two other of my papers that are apparently lost to the ages, both of them dating from my grad school years at Northwestern University. The professors for whom I wrote them are now deceased.
In one of them, I came up with my most incisive thoughts on the novelist Muriel Spark and her great novel, Loitering With Intent. The paper effectively saved my grade. I was expecting a B at best from Professor Elizabeth Dipple and somehow managed to pull an A- on the strength of that paper. The thoughts came to me, though, in the midst of some 3 a.m. inspiration (and a haze of caffeine and nicotine) and for the most part now escape me. I would like to read over my “brilliant” analysis of Ms. Spark’s novel, in case I ever need to be that brilliant again. But I doubt I ever will (see the paper or ever be that brilliant, take your pick).
The other paper took on Heart of Darkness – a topic my professor specifically warned the class against because, to paraphrase, “I have read everything that has been said or ever can be said about that book, and nothing you can write will strike me as new or interesting.”
Yet I persisted, approaching the novel as a critique of reality, eventually connecting it up to the works of – believe it or not – Philip K. Dick. It all had to do with A.) the frame story, and B.) Marlow’s hatred of lies, leading to the lie Marlow tells in the end. Oh, it also had references to the “fascination of the abomination,” the description of one being “captured by the incredible that is the very essence of dreams,” and Marlow’s regarding his choice of nightmares. I linked all these to Borges, Philip K. Dick and Gene Wolfe.
How I got away with it, I’ll never know.
While I was working on a final examination in class, the professor, Alfred Appel, looked over the final papers that were turned in at the beginning of class, including mine. At a point halfway through the examination, I heard the professor loudly whisper, “Son of a bitch!” I looked up and could see he was reading one of the papers. Either from immodest egotism, or unhealthy self-contempt, I could not help but suspect he had gotten to my paper.
But I did receive an A for the course, whether on the strength of that paper or not, I’ll never know.
I kind of wish I could know, but I can’t.
So I’ll just have to come up with something better.

Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Spy in the House of STEM

I was about to post a blog piece that was introspective, soul-searching, and serious, but thought better of it.
Who wants to read such boring prattle? I used to fill up volumes with that kind of crap back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Let me tell you about something I did recently that made me feel good.
As of recent, circumstances have driven me into the employ of a company that provides afterschool “enrichment” programs for grade school children in the area (and a number of places around the country, so I’ve been told recently). Originally, this company provided chess classes, but not they have branched into “robotics” and allegedly engineering-related classes. The kids spend an hour a week assembling remote-controlled vehicles built from plastic parts in kits – sort of off-brand Legos. Each kit has a few cheap motor, a battery pack, and the remote control. 
The purpose for this is, allegedly, to interest kids in STEM-related stuff. For parents and school officials, STEM is big. STEM is what’s going to save their kids from abject poverty, scrounging through dumpsters and sleeping in underpasses. While the rest of the world (or at least the neighborhood) collapses into naked savagery and cannibalism, STEM kids will be heading for air-conditioned offices in their auto-drive cars, ready to spend the day designing plastic robot dogs that catch ping pong balls, or managing the folks who do.
I could go into this in greater detail, but why bother? The folks who designed the courses and manage the program haven’t, so why should I? Teachers in this program are “trained” through a series of videos that, needless to say, provide them with very little that resembles the reality of what they’ll find at the ground level. It’s sort of like finding oneself in a full-scale firefight after having just completed Basic Training. One is promised some sort of calculated strategies, and instead receives – mayhem!
In a few brief months I’ve gathered enough war stories to bore you and annoy you all through the coming cold winter months. Some kids actually want to put together stuff from the robot kits. Some are actually quite good at it. Some kids just want to exercise their right to refuse to do anything you ask them. Some want to throw things around.
Only a few – but a significant few – we’ll either raise their hands, or step up and ask you, “Do I really have to do this?”
All I can tell them is, no. You don’t have to do this. What do you want to do?
A few of them asked, “Can I color pictures?”
I said, sure. Would you like to color pictures of dinosaurs?”
They look up, their eyes suddenly bright at the prospect, and nod.
After the first week, I started to bring downloaded coloring pictures of dinosaurs I found online. “Be prepared.”
They’re not robots, but we can call it STEM, because ... science.
Is it what my supervisors want me to do? Of course not. Is it what the parents want me to do? I have no idea. Do they want me to indoctrinate them into a world of engineering that will allegedly guarantee them relevance and value in a changing world? Or do they want me to simply keep them busy for an hour a week so that they don’t get into some greater trouble.
What am I supposed to “teach” these kids?
I can teach them what my supervisors expect me to teach them – but no. The kids never listen to me the way they listen to other teachers. They sense the anarchy in my bones. They know I have no “authority.” I’m a stranger in these parts. They can do what they want, whether it’s playing with robots or not playing with robots.
All I can teach is what I am, and what I love. That’s all the authority I’ve got.
And what I am, and what I love, often includes dinosaurs.
Last Thursday, one of the students in a “circuits” (i.e. circuitry) class I’m subbing for gets up from her table, walks to the place on the floor where the jackets and backpacks are being stored. She can’t be older than a first-grader. She lies down on one of the jackets as if it were a cushion. She looks tired, bored, and sad. The other teacher I’m working with asks her, “What’s the matter?” Doesn’t she want to learn about circuits and play with the motors and propellers attached to them?
She shakes her head. No. She looks even sadder.
My co-teacher asks her, “Is there anything you want to do?”
Even sadder shake of her head.
So I ask her, “Would you like to color some pictures of dinosaurs?”
Her eyes light up. She rises from her improvised cushion like Lazarus rising from his tomb.
We walk over to the box where I keep my teaching stuff. She chooses one of the dinosaur coloring pictures from my folder. She races back to her table with the picture and finds crayons … somewhere. Soon, she runs back to me and shows me the result of her coloring.
“See my dinosaur!”
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her. “I especially like what you did with the green.” I point to the region along the dinosaur’s back.”
She runs back to her table. Somewhere, somehow, she’s found a pair of scissors. She carefully cuts the dinosaur away from its paper background, then runs back to me.
“See my dinosaur!”
“Beautiful!” I say. “You did an incredible job of coloring the dinosaur and cutting him out.”
“Can I take him home?”
“Of course.”
“I love my dinosaur!”
“Who wouldn’t?”
The class was the last one in a session, and it’s part of the regimen to hand out medals to the groups and teams that did the best with projects and a final competition. A lot of the kids get a kick out of the medals, and that’s understandable and great. I’m not on competitions, so I don’t stress those kinds of things, but if my supervisors want competitions, I’ll do what’s needed to comply. Everybody gets medals.
But what warmed my heart on that last day of class, so close to the Christmas holidays, was the girl with her crayon-colored dinosaur. She was more proud of her dinosaur than the “STEM” medal. And that’s fine with me. Some kids do robots. Some don’t. Some are big on engineering. Some want to color dinosaurs.  We need as many kids coloring dinosaurs as we do building robots. More power to all of them.
I’m a lousy employee.
But I may be a decent teacher.
Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Not In Our Stars

“It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal”

On an afternoon I’m supposed to be writing, I get up and walk around. I fidget. It happens when something isn’t coming out right.
I’m in a library. Books surround me. There are times when this can feel oppressive to a writer with a work in progress. So many books. Why add to the noise of language? What will one more work add to this vast outpouring of story?
There are other times when the shelves and shelves of books feel like a resource. I have an army of allies. At the right moment, you can hear the books whispering to you. Some of them are whispering answers. Some of them are trying to help you finish your story.
You take from a random shelf a random book and turn to a random page. Except it isn’t a random choice – you have been pulled by some uncanny magnetism to the right book at the right page at the right moment.
Or it could be truly random. Outside the framework of causalities real and imagined, most everything is.
This time I reach for David Gerrold’s book on science fiction writing, Worlds of Wonder, because I don’t have a copy of it at home (well, I do, but it’s from the Columbia library, which means it one day has to return to their shelves).
The “random” page I turn to is under the chapter title “Transformation” (page 101) and addresses the matter of fictional characters, specifically protagonists, and ways to think about the problem of change that most every fictional protagonist has to face.
The whole matter of characters in fiction has been on my mind a lot. Science fiction has always been perceived as having problems with the creation of vivid characters. For much of its history, the criticism has been valid, with many and varied notable exceptions.
The criticism remains valid. I had been reading through the most recent “Best of” anthology for science fiction, looking for stories I wanted to assign to my students for class reading. I found many great stories with many wonderful characters, but I also waded through pages and pages of depictions of empty people, dead inside, psychologically opaque, mechanisms suffering “hardware issues.”
It wasn’t that these characters weren’t interesting in their deadness, so to speak, but that this same kind of character kept on showing up again and again and again until it sounded to my reader’s ear like a pianist banging on the same key over and over.
Today, we have better writers, better schooled in both sciences and arts, and the ones who pursue short fiction are rarely burdened with the necessity to hammer out one story after another to make a living. There is no living to be made from writing short stories. So why should all these protagonists be so similar? Why do so many of them seem to be simply going through the motions?
I have an interest in this question as a teacher. I want my students to be the writers who will break this contemporary convention. But I also have an interest as a writer myself. Have I fallen into the same morass? Or will I, eventually? Is there something I can keep in mind so that I can maintain my own standard that places character at the core of any successful story?
At the outset, Gerrold tells us, The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.” The story can go no further without it. It’s the reason for everything included in the story and the reason why the story is about this character, not someone else.
In boldface: “Transformation is the reinvention of the self by the Self.” The problem, or nemesis, or obstacle, the character faces is not so much what prevents the transformation, it is the self, or “Self” defining the obstacle as insurmountable, at least by the character. Gerrold describes the character as saying, “I can’t handle this,” then continues, “By choosing to make this situation the problem, the hero creates himself as the source of the problem. Until he recognizes his own authorship of the dilemma, he cannot create himself as the source of the resolution.”
Forgive me if my summary makes this idea seem too convoluted. The simple version, best as I can manage it, is: “The real conflict of the story is not between the character and the external obstacle, but the character in conflict with him/her/it/they self.”
Which reminded me a lot of William Faulkner, in his Nobel lecture: “… the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
An obvious, and fitting, connection.
What it also reminded me of was this passage I encountered in Louis H. Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea, his last great statement to beliefs in art, and nature, and its reflection in his architectural work, published the year of his death in 1924. Sullivan writes of himself in the third person, which can be a tad annoying for twenty-first century readers, but bear with him here. He describes the moment when his aesthetics all clicked together for him:

He had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution. That a postulate which does not contain and suggest its own solution is not in any sense a problem, but a misstatement of fact or an incomplete one. … he had reached the advanced position that if one wished to solve the problem of man's nature, he must seek the solution within man himself. ...

In other words, chosen by that author with an uncanny penchant for finding “other words” that live forever, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. …”
Or, as Gerrold states it, “The moment in which the hero recognizes, ‘I’m the problem – ” he also recognizes the corollary: “—therefore I’m the solution!” His commitment becomes ‘I can handle this. I will handle this.’”
Story structures can vary. In a “realistic” story, the problems may not be so apparent. In a science fiction story, the science-fictional concept may serve to define the internal conflict. The concrete representation is external and tangible, but the solution is internal – is personal, even if the subject is personhood itself, as it can so often be in contemporary sf.
It may seem overly self-reflective to say that the character’s plight echoes the plight of the author in writing a story. The solution is to found in the problem itself; if the problem is within the author’s imagination, so is the solution.
Let’s throw this in, just for the hell of it, a little something I picked up in a faculty seminar when novelist Nami Moon was teaching at my school. Conflicts can be divided into two groups: “Chronic conflict” (long term, over the course of the character’s life), “Acute conflict” (the immediate situation which spurs the problem within the story).
There’s a distinction here that’s useful in most any kind of fiction, but may work with exceptional success in a science fiction story. The science-fictional problem in the story reflects what has long-dogged the central character, in fact, defines that character.
Science fiction can and very often does explore the concrete representations of emotional and metaphorical hopes and fears – we fear change; we need change; we fear the “other”; we are the “other.”
What makes the form so thrilling and interesting that it can expand upon these basic emotional dichotomies to limitless dimensions. We have more than one universe to play with.

It’s just important that, in making these stories memorable and resonant, that we remember where to seek the solutions to their immense and wondrous problems.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Insist on Your Cup of Stars

When human beings, or even dinosaurs, fail to deliver consolation in times of doubt, uncertainty, and maybe even a little despair, there are always libraries.
For instance …
This afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. It’s been a bad week, in some ways. Not so bad in others. One part of me wanted to just sit at home, lie on the bed, and contemplate my misfortune. Luckily, I recognized that doing so never solved anything. I have a lot of work to do – work that I want to avoid, and still have to some degree.
And, of course, I have writing to do as well, which I don’t want to avoid, but I had a hard time working myself to get any done. I’m in the dumps.
My fall class at Columbia was canceled.
And this time, I can’t really blame the administration, the department, or anyone but the students. They just didn’t sign up.
Not enough of them. Just nine, I think. And I thank those nine for signing up. And I also apologize that now there won’t be a course for them to take.
But when you get ready to put on a show, so to speak, and no one comes, you can’t help feeling bad. Feeling like a failure. Or an outcast. I have some experience in feeling like an outcast.
And when you feel like an outcast, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to soldier on and produce new work. Even if you’ve had some relative success, all you can remember are the failures, the empty rooms, the silence.
So, sitting in the library, I started writing, then looked around. Who needs any more stories? I’m surrounded by five thousand books. Who needs to read anything by me? What the hell do I know? I think science fiction will not only save literature, but maybe save the world. How dumb can you get? If readers don’t want Tiptree, Delany, Sturgeon, Lafferty, on and on and on, who the hell wants me?
Well, this is no good, I thought. I got up and started checking out the shelves, looking for something to read to remind me what good words look like when put together. Good sentences. Good storytelling. I also wanted to see what books I have loved are still hogging shelf space. On previous scans of the shelves, I’d discovered a number of my favorites had been “disappeared” to make more space. Catalog searches proved they were gone. Kaput. Outta here.
But I did find this: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
Memory is the ultimate censor, but if I recall correctly, Jackson’s novel was the first “grownup” novel I read, excluding books by Wells and Stevenson, which some considered “kid stuff” (the Wells novels were in editions specifically marketed to children).
I had also included the novel in a list of books that made a great impression on me or were favorites. I had read Hill House in many years. I retained my very first copy of it in my library, but handle it with care, afraid it might turn to dust if I finger through it too rapidly.
Did it still retain its power?
I took the edition off the shelf, flipped it open, and started reading at a random page. It’s early in the novel: Eleanor’s car trip to Hill House. It’s a section that fascinated me when I first read it as a kid and which still fascinates me. You would think a boy, especially a boy living in Chicago, in Garfield Ridge – a place of mediocre little schools and mean-spirited, mediocre little minds, a paradise for the venal and the superficial – would be bored by all this. “Come on! Let’s get to the house! Let’s get to all the haunted stuff!”
But no. I didn’t know who Eleanor was, but somehow I detected a kindred spirit in her. She didn’t feel at home at home. She is wandering, heading off to Hill House, daydreaming along the way.
She stops at a “country restaurant” and notices the family at another table, the only other customers at that time of day: parents, a young boy and a little girl.

… The light from the stream below touched the ceiling and the polished tables and glanced along the little girl’s curls, and the little girl’s mother said calmly, “She wants her cup of stars.”
Indeed, yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.
“Her little cup,” the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill’s good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. “It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.” The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, “You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from the glass?”
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
“You’re spoiling her,” the father said. “She ought not to be allowed these whims.”
“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.
When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gray stream tumbled along below her. …

This is an incredible moment that a lesser author would have probably cut in an early draft – “No, let’s get to the action. Let’s not dawdle.” Or an editor would have made the same suggestion. “No one wants to read about country restaurants! Hell, let’s get this show on the road!”
But the show is on the road. The show is Eleanor. And in this little moment we get the answer to the question I keep asking students and fellow writers when I read their work, and so often – so very, very often – they cannot answer with even faint success: “Why the hell should I care what happens to this person?”
Eleanor wants her cup of stars.
We all want our cup of stars.
Eleanor knows. She was trapped into being like everyone else, at least on the outside. You concede your cup of stars and for the rest of your life you struggle to get it back. Eleanor and the little girl exchange this wisdom silently, and it is not simply Eleanor imparting wisdom to the little girl – she isn’t. The little girl is imparting as much to Eleanor as Eleanor is warning the little girl.
I don’t pretend to know what great literature is. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that I know good storytelling, and good writing, and how to bring a notion across to its most powerful effect. And this is certainly great storytelling, great writing – a brief moment, a stop on the road to destiny that tells us almost everything we need to know about Eleanor while revealing a startling awareness of our own secret dreams.

There’s a lot of talk these days, especially among folks of my generation, about whether books we read when we were young “stand up” today. Maybe they have a point, because a lot of what they read (me too) was a lot of crap. Earnest crap. Exciting crap. But … crap.
But then I think: stand up? To whom? Who has appointed these arthritic bozos the Grand Jury of Literature? They were stupid enough to read and love the crap in their youth. I should take their judgments seriously now?
Perhaps it makes one feel cool and wise now to eviscerate the giants of our youth, to call “Fraud!” and “Foul!” on former heroes. Perhaps that’s an exercise everyone needs to perform to understand how the world changes and how we change within that world.
But perhaps a few moments should be spent not in judging how the works we read in youth stand up for us, but how well we stand up against the works we read.
Have we kept our cup of stars?
I went back to my reading table and scribbled out a few more pages of words, most of which I will probably cross out and try to come up with better ones, reminding myself of something I’ve been telling myself a lot: All great stories are love stories. All great stories are about loneliness. These two sentences are not mutually exclusive.

Writing is never easy, but the only way you get it done is to keep going through the tangle of uncertainty and fear and emptiness. Take a break, enjoy your coffee, but at the end of road, Hill House awaits.