Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Latest Mantra and a couple of quotes

(a brief inclusion I'm adding to my class notes for the "Writing Short Stories" class I teach for Oakton's Alliance for Lifelong Learning Program. It will go at the end of the section on "Narrative -- Plotting -- 'Story.'"

Below that is a non-satori satori taken from Algis Budrys' brief little masterpiece, Writing to the Point. Did you ever wonder why it seems all the best books on writing are also the shortest? This will go after the 2007 satori about "the BING! moment."

So now your version of my class notes will be complete as well -- Kids! Collect them all!)

MY LATEST MANTRA (in 2014): Journalists, election campaign consultants, marketing “experts” and other souls who wish to sound sophisticated and erudite have seized upon the term “narrative.” It’s become the latest secret key and entrĂ© into what’s happening, how the world works and how to make the world seem like it is working. You can’t go half a minute watching a PBS talk show without hearing someone use it in some knowing fashion. Which is fine. I’m all for everyone with a smart phone thinking they know all the secrets of the universe (unless they think that by knowing them they should by rights control the universe as well, and then act upon that belief).
But when it comes to writing, specifically the writing of stories, and fictional ones at that, I find myself reciting this mantra as I read the work of a number of my student:
n  The “stuff that happens” is not the narrative.
n  The narrative is not the plot.
n  The plot is not the story.
Each may lead successively to the next, but never (or hardly ever) mistake the one for the other, or think that you may arrive at the end result without the aid of each (or at least two out of three).
And nothing is more important, at least to the writer, than the story.

 +   +   +
NOT-SO SATORI IN 2014: I keep looking for simple ways to say this, but Algis Budrys can’t be beaten at succinctness: “Writing primarily consists of forming a series of events in your mind and somehow transmitting them into the mind of a reader.”
And one more: “Story affects the reader through a balance between an engineered series of events and an artful depiction of what they mean to the characters involved in them. Without the art, the engineering is empty hackwork. Without the engineering, the art can’t be communicated clearly.”
(from Writing to the Point, The Unifont Company, Evanston, 1994)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Farewell Green Knight

I was in too great a state of shock to write about it immediately, but last night I discovered that environmental journalist, animal rights activist, raconteur and all-around humane human being Bob Carlson (who blogged the Hazard Hot Sheet as the “Green Knight”) passed away June 9.
Bob got in touch with me years ago, since he was a big fan of the saur stories, and we’d be in close correspondence for a few weeks, then I wouldn’t hear from him for months. Then BOOM! We’d be back talking about one thing or another. We were both children of the Sixties and shared many tastes in art, books, music and humor. And, like a lot of us from that generation, we were “experts” on a million seemingly unrelated topics. He was a great reader – and a reader of science fiction (where he must have first encountered my work) not a “fan” in the “fandom” sense. He just loved reading the stuff, and we filled a number of emails talking about our favorites, and exploring one esoteric subject or another.
What we also had in common, I suppose, was that we were often both struggling to get along: to get bills paid, scrabbling along for subsistence in one way or another. That may explain the months in between correspondence at times. I’m not sure if I even spoke to him over the phone – maybe once or twice. I’m shy about telephone conversations because I’m a talker, and once I’m on the phone I never shut up. I imagined if Bob and I got on the phone we’d talk until dawn and the phone bill would be large enough to fund a Mars mission.
God, I wish I hadn’t been so cheap.
Once or twice we talked about collaborating on a saur story or two. I was a little too cautious – too protective –since I had some plans for saur stories and I wanted to make my way through them before I took “the guys” through any other further adventures.
Damn. I wish I wasn’t such a slow writer. I wish I wasn’t such a stick-in-the-mud about launching into new stories, new ideas.
I remember once, one of my oldest friends was approached by Bob on Facebook, and she asked me if this guy was okay. I told he could seem a bit overwhelming at times, but he was a good guy.
A very good guy. Top dollar. Solid.
But… overwhelming. Yeah. His mind was as big as the universe and, as our old buddy Axel the little blue theropod will tell you, that’s a pretty big place.
And his love of animals: I don’t think I’ve known anyone who worked as tirelessly and selflessly for abandoned and rescue animals. He never flinched from taking in an extra little friend who needed a home and love. His heart was, as they say these days, an awesome thing.
I also remember he once sent me a story – about a chicken named Henny Penny, and it was an updated fable – a little bit of Chicken Little and a little bit of the one who crossed the road; and he worked into it a number of his environmental concerns, corporatization, animal rights and probably a dozen other interesting things into a few tight pages.
He lost his copy of the story with a computer crash. I lost my copy of the story with a computer crash of my own. I did manage to retrieve a lot of stuff, some of which is still on a CD-ROM, but I couldn’t access the story. Bob asked about it several times, since he wanted to revise it. I told him that, as painful as it would be, he should just start from scratch and write it over again, as I had to do on a number of lost stories. Easier to say than to do. As far as I know, he never did. I would love to see what he would have come up with if he had.
I also remember Bob, in several emails, reminiscing about San Francisco and the Bay Area, where he’d spent his younger years. Life had moved him to St. Louis, which is as good a place to be as any, I suppose, but Bob’s heart, as the song says, was in San Francisco.
I hope he’s there now, in some shape or form or permutation.
I wish I could sing, like the Little Sparrow, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” I regret – a lot. We live in a big world that fools us all the time: fools us that it is smaller, manageable, in our grasp – and that even though new things come along, everything we remember will be here always. All our friends, all our loves, are granted some sort of immunity from time, and we are never going to feel any more loss than we already have.
So reading about the death of Bob really kicked me a good one in the gut. Last month, hearing of Larry Santoro passing did the same thing. October of last year, Delphyne Woods – I nearly dropped dead myself.
Death isn’t taking any vacations.
And from now on (he says, fingers crossed) I’m not taking anything for granted.
If you know someone you haven’t heard from in a while – send them a line. Give them a call. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch.
I know – so many people, so little time, but – just try not to lose touch. You’ll have a few less regrets when your own time comes.
JUST ONE MORE THING: I found out about Bob’s death because I was working on a “sort of” saur story last night. It’s about a lot of things, as all stories are, but Agnes and Sluggo are in it, and I’m trying to sneak a few more guys into it, like Doc and Kara and Eliot and Cyrano and Charlie (at least I’ll try. But the story is really more about Reggie, and kids, and loneliness in a world in a world where corporations will spend trillions to find out everything about you, but nobody wants to know you.
So… I was working on this scene set in a toy store, and they’re selling saurs in there, and the sales staff is all dressed up in safari togs, and this one sales rep is wearing a pith helmet.
Yes, I said “pith helmet.” (those of you who knew Bob know why this is important.)
I type the words in: “pith helmet.” I look at them. I look at each letter in each word.
Suddenly, the voice in my head says, “Where’s Bob?” I can’t see those words without seeing Bob in his pith helmet. He was so proud of that thing when he got it. He sent me pictures.
And he looked great in it. He looked perfect.
“Where’s Bob?” So I searched. And with disarming swiftness I learned what happened.
And almost as instantly I went into a state of shock, or The Bummers, or whatever it is that happens to you when the news is so bad you just shut down and turn the world off.
Whatever it is, I’ve been feeling it too much.
So, the next saur story I finish, I’m dedicating to Bob.
Take care of yourselves, everybody.

And don’t lose touch – ever.