Thoughts on My Legacy as a Writer

How will I be remembered as a writer? Will I be remembered at all? How would I like to be remembered? I think all artists, and those who think of themselves as artists, ponder this. An architect designing a public building must certainly wonder—will people a hundred years from now think it’s as delightful as I do, be indifferent to it, or will they consider it an abomination? Or will it have long been torn down as being not useful in the least? Have I wasted a lifetime thinking I’m something I’m not?

It may seem arrogant to speak of one’s own “legacy”—isn’t that something other people are supposed to consider? Yet it does take a certain degree of arrogance to be a writer, though no more so than people who start their own businesses because they want to do things their way, or  athletes training for the Olympics (or even the local team) because they feel they might prove themselves the best at what they do.

Actually, I don’t think arrogance is even the right word. I think self-belief describes it better. I’ve never felt the least bit arrogant, either about myself or my writing, and I think those who have known me would agree with this. But I do believe in what I’m doing and what I’ve done—I’ve never had a crisis of confidence. If I’ve suffered moments of doubt or frustration, it was always along the lines of, “Why don’t they see?’’ rather than, “Maybe I’m just not good enough at what I do.”

The fact that I can read something I wrote thirty or more years ago and still say, “Hey, this is remarkable stuff! And just what I meant to say, too!”—makes me think that I haven’t been kidding myself all these years. I know the writing’s good and the ideas sound. For me, that’s not the question. I’m more concerned with why the work hasn’t been found useful to others, and what I can do to preserve it—so that people in the future who might find it useful will know about it and be able to access it. That’s the reason I started this blog. Not to blow my own trumpet (I loathe self-promotion), but to leave a record so that something potentially valuable to others (though that’s their call) won’t perish. That’s the reason I’m getting involved with social media—not to show my pics or make new friends (or catch up with old ones), but to try to draw attention to the writing. No one else will do it, right? So now, near the end of my life, I become a publicist.

So let’s get back to the legacy thing. How do I see my work in the overall scheme of things? I suppose this has two sides: what I’ve left behind, and what effect it’ll have on others. I probably don’t need to consider the first one, as the answer to that has been implicit (or even spelled out) in what I’ve written for this blog. I know what I’ve left behind. So my concern, then, is whether or not the work will be found, understood, appreciated, published (or otherwise disseminated), and finally, used.

This is not such a pressing matter in one’s youth because there’s always tomorrow, and the next book just might strike a chord and let one see some of the fruits of one’s labor (in thought and action, not money!). But as a writer (or anyone, really) gets older, he or she naturally has less confidence in “tomorrow,” though it’s true that hope never dies. In my case I’m still querying literary agents about several of the books I’ve described in this blog. But one becomes realistic as a pattern of rejection repeats—and when a person actually sees the end approach, a certain philosophical “So that’s the way it is” moods descends. That’s the position I find myself in now. One wonders with more urgency, then, not about the value but of the viability of the work. And one begins to scheme about ways—writing a blog for example—to try to keep the work from being forgotten. So that if my tomorrow doesn’t come, hopefully the writing’s will.

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My Method of Writing

I never plan a book. While I’m finishing up or editing one project, I’m thinking of what the next one might be, and I usually get one or two ideas that stand out. In a month or two, one of them seems to win out, though I don’t know how. I don’t consider the whole thing rationally. Ideas come and go unexpectedly, and some of them seem to carry more weight than others. In the end, one takes hold and I start getting excited about it. I can’t wait to begin.

When I do actually start, how much of the book have I envisioned? Very little. If it’s a novel, I have the main character and the problem the character faces in mind. Sometimes that’s all. The way I get rolling is to write a prologue—I usually call it the Prelude. All of the novels described so far in this blog were started this way. The longest prologue opens Three Days at Albemarle, it consisting of a 3-page (fictional) Editor’s Introduction and nearly 14-page Prelude. All the novels after that have a Prelude of just one page. Why? Maybe it was because Three Days was the first novel I’d written in nine years (with non-fiction and plays written in the interim), and the subject was so large—what would a “good society” look like?—that I needed more time to ease into it, define (for myself) who the protagonist was and what he was looking for. Once I hit my stride with that, the next four books needed less groundwork because Three Days pretty much clarified the path I was on and all the later books followed along a similar trail.

Okay, so having a character in mind and knowing the problem faced, I use the Prelude to set the stage for the story to come—as much for me as for the reader, as I don’t really know until this point how the thing’s going to go. The Prelude is like a car battery jump-start. When I finish it—even just one page—it’s like the car starts and I begin to see the character driving. (The last three of the five novels I’ve talked about here have female protagonists. I find that very interesting, and I’d like to talk about that more at a later date.)

My next novel, Refugees From Albemarle, was easy to start because I already had two characters in mind from Three Days, and I had a location because I thought for sure Stef (with Ben in tow) would go to Santa Fe to (former girlfriend) Sue’s place, as he liked her a lot and he had nowhere else to go. In The Pearl Necklace, however, I knew my protagonist Jennifer Knox would be a lawyer because I had already imagined her taking on Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, but I had no idea where she would be living or what her family situation would be. After the Prelude, which established that she had an enormous fight of some sort on her hands, I simply started the first chapter by having her drive to work in a new Mercedes and arrive at a posh office—and I figured that characters would greet her at that office and she’d get pulled into the story (along with me). And that’s just what happened. That’s how I do it.

This goes on for about ten or twenty pages, me getting pulled along and often throwing in some considered things that I feel might add to the story or reappear later. But after that, I can say with all honesty that it pretty much writes itself (though not without massive effort). I hold the pen—I write in a notebook—and I put on paper what comes to mind. During this process, which lasts 3-5 hours a day, I exercise little or no conscious control. I suppose you could say that my subconscious mind is doing most of the writing. (If you think that sounds easy, try it sometime.)

To understand this better, imagine the driver of a car on a long trip spending a lot of time within his own thoughts, daydreaming of things past, of who will meet him on arrival and what they’ll do and so on; suddenly he jerks to attention with the thought, “Hey, I’d better pay attention to the road!” So the question is—who was driving the car during that time?! (I’ve done this enough times to know what I’m talking about.) The subconscious is capable of great feats when turned loose (hopefully with long years of discipline behind it). So it’s not so farfetched to say that I didn’t write those novels—my subconscious did most of the work. I think this is a more likely scenario than the one where the writer (or any creative person) says, “I really didn’t do it—I was just the vehicle.” This suggests an obvious question: who or what was this person the vehicle for?

Now we’re entering the realm of the mystical and I don’t really want to spend much time on it here, other than to say that in spite of much research, we don’t know all that much about the subconscious mind—I took a certificate in clinical hypnotherapy many years ago for just such study—and it’s possible that the deeper mind is somehow connected to the mystical. Spiritual traditions worldwide embracing ecstatic states point in this direction. Thus it’s feasible that some people are (and all are capable of being) divinely inspired. My rational mind shudders when I say that but I’m open-minded about it because I often get the feeling when reading my writing that whoever wrote it is a much better person than I am, and certainly smarter. That’s a funny feeling, I can tell you. It makes you feel that maybe you really are (or could be) a conduit for a power or intelligence greater than yourself. Are we talking about Jung’s collective unconscious here, or something from without? Or are they one and the same?

All right, so now I’m in the thick of the novel and the characters are really alive as far as I’m concerned because they seem to be dictating what happens next. I try to write a chapter or part of one at a sitting, and when I finish I’m exhausted. I’m too tired to think about it until the next day, though sometimes later in the day when I’m doing something else—listening to the radio or talking to someone—an idea will pop into my head and I write it down. Usually it’s not for tomorrow’s writing because I don’t even know what tomorrow’s about, but somehow it’s an idea or image important to the story. I figure I’ll blend it in when I can—if and when the characters call for it.

The next day I sit down, pick up the notebook, scan the previous 2-3 pages, and begin writing. The chapter just starts unfolding. This process is repeated for a year or more, and one day it just feels like the story is finished. Now is the time I compromise and say to myself—have I given the reader a satisfying climax and conclusion? I think this consciously, though I really don’t like to. I would prefer that the reader would have the same connection to the characters that I do and be moved by the ideas of the book as I have— without needing that emotional kick from “a well-constructed climax.” But that being unrealistic, I temper the last forty or so pages of my usual “subconscious writing” (as it seems to be) with a conscious effort to build on previous emotional points and take everything to a crescendo—and finish off with a fitting denouement. It’s here where I feel I relinquish the paramount position of the artist and turn at least part craftsman for the benefit of the reader.

Now the story is finished—but the book isn’t. Far from it. I go back to the beginning and start editing. Because of the free-flowing nature of the writing (though it’s not at all “stream-of-consciousness”-type writing in the Joycean sense), I find a lot to change or delete. Usually a few words or a sentence here and there, but sometimes a whole page is absolutely useless, and once I cut an entire chapter. (You have no idea how that hurts or how I might agonize for days before making such a decision.) This first read-through with corrections takes about two weeks or so. Because it’s not as mentally exhausting as the actual writing, I can do it for 5-6 hours a day before I start seeing double and throw in the towel. When the run-through is completely finished, I wait a day or two and start again. I do this about five times, or until I find I’m hardly changing a thing. Then it’s time to put it on the laptop.

Seeing it in print on a screen gives it an entirely different feel than reading it in longhand, and many new things emerge that I think need changing. I do another four or five run-throughs. Hopefully by this time, I’ve already got a good idea for the next book and put this one aside for a week or two in order to start on that. Then I go back to the previous book with fresher eyes and correct it once or twice more. Finally it’s finished and ready to be queried to literary agents. I can, however, pick it up four or five months or even a year later and new corrections emerge—minor ones, like changing a word or adding a sentence.

Well, that’s about how it goes. The actual writing part, anyway. The fact is that I’ve spent the greater part of my waking life either writing or thinking about writing. Even when I’m watching a movie or talking to people in a restaurant, I seem to be processing everything, seeing how it fits in to “the big picture” or my understanding of it. Like I said in an earlier post, I’m not interested in telling stories as such. My brief is to apply all of my talents to the work at hand—to envision a future we can live with. I try to do that through a story. I feel so lucky—privileged, really—to know my purpose in life, and to have known since high school. And such fascinating work!

Khayyam’s poem comes to mind here:

“Ah Love! could you and I with him conspire

                                  To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,

                                  Would we not shatter it to bits—and then

                                  Remold it nearer to the heart’s desire!”

 

That’s what I’ve been all about—shattering and remolding. You could say I’m in the demolition/construction business.

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How I Started

I wrote in my last post that I’m lucky to have known my purpose since high school. I think it’s important to put that on the record because I’ve been so involved with writing since then—to the apparent detriment of everything else—that people probably thought I was wandering or was trying to “find myself.” After all, I traveled a lot, never kept a job for more than a year or two (my record is four years—teaching and writing newspaper articles in Tokyo), I went through a number of women and didn’t get married until I was 39, and I was mostly poor or at least lived poor because I was socking money away in the bank to free myself up for the next book. But all that time, I was never “looking for myself.” I’d found myself long ago. I was just exploring as much of life as I could, wherever I could find it, then trying to make some sense of it and put it on the page.

So how did this odyssey start? I can say that I’d always been intensely aware of injustice in the world, even as a kid. I’m not going to go into my childhood here, other than to say that I had a writer’s temperament (though I didn’t write) since elementary school and even before. Not because I had a terrible childhood (I didn’t) but because I looked around and could “envision something better.” I could see more and more as I went through the grades that the culture of which we were a part—“the world”—was somehow out of whack. The older I got, the feeling in me grew greater that this was my baseball park. Maybe there was something I could do. For sure I knew that something had to be done.

The breakthrough came when I was a senior in high school. I was President of the Student Council, I was a decent basketball player (and I got a lot better in later years), had friends and girlfriends, got good grades, so my position at school was solid. Only I wasn’t looking at my position—I was looking at the world around me. I thought there was something I should be doing, something more, but I didn’t know what it was. Then we were asked to write a short play for Speech and Drama class. The teacher would choose the best one and we would do a reading and record it. I went home and wrote Hank’s Orange Crate Folly, about a white guy (Hank) who becomes friends with a black guy—this was 1965—and everybody, especially Hank’s wife, tries to break it up. I used some crude language (I think the most offensive line was probably something like, “Why are you hanging around with a damned shaved ape?”), but I thought the topic warranted it, in order to reflect the feeling of the times.

Why did I choose this particular topic? In a sense I have my father to thank for it. He was an intelligent, kind, honest, clean-living man for whom I always had the utmost respect and affection for. Yet as far as I was concerned, he had one major flaw—he didn’t like black people. I suppose this might be attributed to his going from city to city to look for work during the Depression, the upshot of which was (as he tells it), sitting down one day and asking himself, “Is this what you want from life?” Inspired—or desperate, as the case may be—he “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” educated himself, got himself a trade (he became an electrician), married my mother, fought in WWII, bought a house and eventually a new car and a bigger house and a cabin cruiser and lived out a comfortable version of the American Dream.

His complaint: if he, on the road looking for work at fourteen, no education, no connections, could make something of himself, why couldn’t black people? Why did they constantly ask for handouts? According to him, it was because they were lazy, shiftless, and preferred the largesse of the taxpayer. My dad was a good Republican and this is how he saw it. I heard countless diatribes on the subject at the dinner table, by a man who was otherwise reasonable, generous, tolerant and full of sympathy for his fellow man. But the fact is that I had never met a black person and had no basis for judgment, so I was neutral on the subject.

Then I got a scholarship to a summer theater school at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (those of you in the know will nod with recognition), and here I met the sons and daughters of company presidents and top auto executives. Among the other scholarship students was a black kid my age—16—and he had none of the negative qualities my dad had postulated. He was talented, clever, sincere, funny and a genuinely nice guy. (Months later I invited him, along with the rest of the Cranbrook bunch, to a Senior Class party I had at my house; my classmates gathered around him like he was an exhibit at the zoo, and to a person they were impressed, as I heard in full and glowing reports at school on Monday.) So now the question was: why were blacks viewed as they were by so many in our society in 1965? That’s why I found myself writing Hank’s Orange Crate Folly that year.

Anyway, in that brief play, Hank’s contemporaries’ various strategies work and the friendship with the black guy is broken up. In utter frustration and disillusionment, Hank runs outside exclaiming, “Why can’t people see that what they’re doing is wrong? Am I the only one who sees?” or something to that effect. (I’ve got the play in a cardboard box but haven’t read it for decades.) He more or less flips out and jumps onto an orange crate, babbling now that he’s God or some such nonsense. There’s clearly no payoff in this so he says something like, “No, a martyr! I’ll be a martyr!” and runs into the street and is hit and killed by a car. Talk about your messianic message—how full we are of ourselves as teenagers!

My teacher, Ms Sumner, a recent college grad and still idealistic, loved the play (all eight or so pages of it!) and chose it for recording by the class. “But I’d better clear it with the Principal first,” she said to me; “the subject [black-white friendship] is, after all, a little controversial.” The next thing I knew, I was summoned to the Principal’s office and thoroughly denounced for writing such disgusting trash—and told I could be replaced as Student Council President! This was my introduction to writing.

As a footnote to this story, Ms Sumner was incredibly supportive of me, not only in this particular episode but during the two years I’d known her since she started teaching at the high school. The year of the play, I had a falling out with my mother over the Christmas holiday and I showed up at the house where Ms Sumner and her roommate were living (in the next town over); she put me up on the sofa for a couple days til things cooled off at home. “Don’t tell anyone! I’ll lose my job!” she said. She told me something that week that I think went a long way to tiding me over after I took such a berating from the Principal: “You’re very perceptive,” she said, and I could tell it came from the heart. I don’t know whether this acknowledgement gave me the courage to keep writing or not, but because I liked and respected her so much, I can say that it really helped.

A second footnote to the above story: years later my parents went on a cruise to Jamaica and had a great time. “The people there were fantastic,” my father later enthused. I was surprised. “I thought you didn’t like black people, Dad,” I commented. “But that’s their country,” he replied. Apparently, all along he hadn’t been against black people as such but only African-American blacks because in his mind they never made themselves real Americans, nor did they make something of their lives in America like he did.

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My Female Protagonists

I mentioned in an earlier post that three out of my last five novels have had women as the lead character. I’d like to talk about how that came about.

First I should say that I’ve written more than five novels. If you count the earlier ones found in what I’ve categorized as Minor Works (some of them short), the total is higher, plus a couple of unfinished, untyped ones sitting in the same cardboard box as my first piece of writing, Hank’s Orange Crate Folly. I hope to talk about these minor works later, but the point here is that virtually all my novels until the last three have had male protagonists. After all, I’m a man and I think I know men pretty well.

In the very early writing, I think I gave women less credit than they deserved (and men too, except for the hero), maybe because I lost the love of my life at age nineteen to a shallow and uninspiring guy with a Corvette and a “future.” Later, being unemployed or underemployed didn’t afford me the opportunity to meet and spend time with the cream of the crop women-wise, so to speak, so the narrowness and quality of my field probably contributed to my placement of women as second fiddles in my fiction. That changed as time went on (and I got a little wiser), and by the time I wrote Three Days at Albemarle and its sequel, Refugees From Albemarle, female characters were incredibly strong and vital, and in the case of Refugees, Meelahnee the Native American woman was probably the shining exemplar of high ideals in that book—even more so than the protagonist Ben, who I saw as terribly flawed (though all the more human for it, I hoped).

I became wonderfully at ease with Meelahnee—her courage, her insight, her warmth, her sensuality, her good judgment—to the point that I’d like to have married her myself. I knew her, I admired her, and it occurred to me that if I liked and understood her so well, why couldn’t I write an entire book about a woman? But frankly, I found the proposition daunting, because in effect I’d be saying, “I know how a woman thinks and feels,” something nearly all men (including Freud!) found impossible to do. Not one to shy away from a challenge, though, I conjured up Jennifer Knox, a successful Chicago lawyer who wanted to reform the law (starting with the Patriot Act), and I said to myself, “Well, there she is; let’s run with her!”

It turned out to be less difficult than I thought—maybe because by then I’d had plenty of experience writing (secondary) female characters; I was mature enough to appreciate women on a deeper level and recognize the many qualities they possess; I felt buoyed by my success with (and feeling for) Meelahnee; and finally, maybe because so much of my writing is subconscious, the feminine side of my psyche (my anima) was able to flow through.

By the time I got to Robin in Land of Fleurs, it was even easier (writing a woman, not writing the book) because I really thought I knew what I was doing. So much so that I felt comfortable enough to gamble and make her not just a woman, but the feminine side of a man. I was writing an anima!

This seems to raise the question—how much of Meelahnee, Jennifer or Robin was really me? Or was just that part of me we call the “feminine side” of men? Or was it neither of these but just me imagining what the feminine must be? Who can say? A more fitting question might be, how much of myself did I see in them? I think just the fact that I was speaking through them (or more accurately, they were speaking through me) leads me to believe that I had consciously or unconsciously turned off the filter distinguishing what was masculine and what was feminine in myself and let whatever Meelahnee, Jennifer or Robin would say or do pour out onto the page naturally.

One can only wonder, then, where these feminine voices came from. What complicates it, at least for me, is that no women (or men, for that matter) have read these books, so I get no feedback about whether I’ve created real women or just my own conception of women. All I can say is, they feel like real women to me. That’s all I have to go on.

A final complication is that I may have created more or less authentic women (that is, correctly understood the essence of womanhood) but lack the skill as a writer to put that essence onto the page. I’ve never felt that I lacked skill, but with such a difficult proposition as this, I’ve certainly wondered at times if I had enough skill to do women justice on the page. I suppose only women who read my recent work would have the answer to that—and so far there have been none. And I’m not the type to go to friends and acquaintances and ask, “Will you read this novel and tell me if I got the woman right?” There’d be no point—I’ve already given it my all, not as a craftsman who might steadily improve his technique with more practice but as a mature artist whose talent has reached a fullness and equilibrium (as I see it) that probably will change very little in the future.

Of course, I can always learn more—I do all the time, believe me, and still pore over the many facets of life ravenously—but I doubt that I’ll ever be able to feel more than I do right now and understand those feelings, and that’s what the writing’s based on. I’ve run the gamut, believe me. So I don’t think I’ll ever get any closer to understanding what a woman feels than I do right now. I may pick up tidbits, but as far as essence is concerned, I’ve either got it down or I don’t.

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Why I Don’t Write Movies

I made two 16mm films while a student at UCLA. I met actors and directors, agents and cameramen. I was in major studio offices and on their sound stages. I wrote a screenplay and shopped it around town. But I don’t think that I really wanted to work in Hollywood, except in brief and sophomoric fantasies involving starlets, Porsches, beach houses, parties. All guys have ’em, and it’s only a matter of what you’re willing to do or give up in order to make it a reality.

           Something else turned me off. I was told by more than a few journeymen (though never higher-ups) that Hollywood revolved around money, sex and drugs. In that order. I certainly saw plenty of it in my years in L.A., though not being in much of a position to partake myself. To tell you the truth, of the three, I was really only interested in the women.

            I actually had a few chances to get my foot in the door of that American fantasyland that mixes work and play like no other—a couple of UCLA friends had fathers in the Business, as they called it, and asked me to work on film projects with them that would surely have afforded me at least partial entrance. Instead, when I graduated, I took off to Europe for a year.

           The reasons for my decision are complex, I suppose, but revolve around two things. First, film is a collaborative endeavor, and whoever has an idea that might make a movie work better—and thus put more bums on seats, as the Brits say—has a voice. In my case I’m not concerned that adding a scene or changing someone’s character might sell more tickets. That’s the ultimate goal, whatever high-flown philosophy you hear in “The making of…” featurettes on your DVDs. In other words, commerce trumps art (or anything else). Even a respected director who has complete creative control has to think about box office if he wants to continue making pictures.

            For me, then, writing screenplays would no doubt involve a lot of frustration and probably disillusionment. “Serious” writers who are lured to the Dream Factory (so-called in an anthropological study by Powdermaker) have always been advised to “go in and get out quickly”—take the money and run, as they say—or risk being seduced by the money and sex (and possibly drugs) to stay and find oneself compromised by too many people who are there to get rich and live the charmed life. I couldn’t see how jumping into that would be in any way advantageous to me or what I was trying to accomplish.

           The second reason why I eventually turned my back on Hollywood (though no one there is crying about it!) is that my temperament isn’t at all suited for that environment. An unfortunate amount of deception goes on there (often under the aegis of “pitching”), and because I tend to take people at their word, I could find myself hardened, even cynical, very quickly. I had no desire to close myself off or lose whatever sensitivity I have—and possibly even honesty—just to survive there, let alone prosper. Hey, I was 21. What would happen to my writing under those conditions, I wondered. Of course, it could be argued that I didn’t think I was tough enough to compete with the beasts of that particular forest and there may be some truth to that. But it may also be true that my vision was strong enough that I knew what was good and what was bad for my work; moreover, I think it took some strength to resist the call of the Sirens, which is unimaginably powerful out there, believe me. Thus you could probably say that both weakness and strength kept me out of Hollywood.

           How’s this for a regret, though: the very thing that at first repelled me—that everyone with a credible brainstorm or who’s a fast-talker gets to put their fingerprint on the work—this is collaboration—on occasion made me wonder in the early days if working with others could actually improve my writing—dramatically or stylistically, at least. The old “two heads are better than one” idea. Having published so little in my lifetime, how could I not sometimes find myself thinking this? Of course you don’t have to go to Hollywood to work with collaborators—many literary agents were once editors and thus work with their writers to polish up their books before even submitting them to publishers, where editors there add even more expertise. But film-making has this built into the process—every day dozens if not hundreds of people are putting their stamp on the work, and some films are so beautifully done—perfect dialogue, engaging music, incredible acting and so on—that a lonely novelist (this is just an image, mind you) plying his lonely trade must certainly envy those who create art so well as a team.

            I should say that I haven’t felt this way often—and I’m never lonely when I write because my characters are there with me—but I do admit to occasionally having lapsed into a wistful sigh, figuratively speaking, when pondering ways to make the work better, even perfect. And my meager publishing history makes this feeling all the more poignant.

           What do I do about it? Nothing! My belief in what I’m writing has always been solid and I truly believe that only I can do what I do. Certainly someone could suggest a stronger climax, more foreshadowing, greater descriptive detail, increasing the role of a particular character, adding color and so on—all designed to appeal to the audience—but to me these are technical points and are of less concern to me in achieving my essential goal—saying what needs to be said. An editor might help in small but important ways to improve how it’s said (the form), but to me it’s what is being said (the content) that’s most important.

           If one of the novels were to be published tomorrow and I was offered a movie deal, would I take it? Probably not. I suppose I’d have to be convinced by the producers and director that they understood the work, respected its integrity and would remain faithful to it—to the point of wanting me on the set to make sure. Not being a well-known novelist, I’m pretty confident I couldn’t demand such conditions. In any case, being forever hopeful (as well as wanting my ideas dispersed as widely as possible so that they might gain in influence), I’d probably meet with interested parties to sound them out about these issues, but realistically I could easily imagine nothing coming from it. I’m not one to take the money and run. I never have been. The important thing is the work and what it says. In fact, to me that’s really the only thing.

           This isn’t meant to be a diatribe against Hollywood—though overall I don’t think its output has been healthy for the culture, either in exulting violence and romance as the solution to problems, or creating a celebrity class that we worship shamelessly. I know there are (and I’ve met) countless good people in the Business, and many of them strive primarily for artistic excellence. Some may even be idealistic. But the very real corruption of Mammon is so complete and overwhelming there and the pay-offs so great that I have avoided it like I would crack cocaine.

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Form vs Content

In my discussion of writing for Hollywood, I mentioned that I focused on content—in other words, the meaning of the work rather than how it’s expressed. This may be a perilous approach, however—I learned while living in Japan that form may be as important as content, and in many cases, form is content. Let me relate a little story to better explain what I mean.

My first months in Tokyo, I was living in a “foreigners’ house”—travelers staying there for varying lengths of time paid 38,000 yen a month, while Japanese (comprising about half the residents) paid 75,000 yen a month—for the privilege of hobnobbing with these peculiar strangers and practicing English. One Japanese woman there taught me how to cook something called okonomiyaki, which is a savory pancake containing shredded cabbage, green onions, pork strips and a few other items, topped with a semisweet brown sauce and fish flakes. “What does okonomiyaki mean?” I asked her. She said it was “as you like it” in Japanese. A couple days later I was in the kitchen, cooking it again. A Japanese guy was watching me with consummate interest, and when I opened a can of clams and put them in, he was aghast. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Making okonomiyaki,” I answered; “it means ‘as you like it,’ so I’m putting in what I like.” “But that’s not how you make it!” he sputtered.

Talk about a clash of cultures! To him, making a dish called “as you like it” meant following a more or less prescribed recipe, whereas I fully intended to put in whatever I liked. Neither of us understood the other’s eccentric interpretation. This was merely the first of many lessons where I learned the importance of form in Japan. The meaning of so many actions comes through the way they’re done. I could make the best okonomiyaki my Japanese acquaintance ever ate but to him it wouldn’t be okonomiyaki. It would be that crazy foreigner’s bastardization of okonomiyaki— a completely different dish!

This brings me to my point. I focus so much on content in my writing, letting the form (sentence structure, vocabulary, pace, use of humor, metaphor, etc) more or less automatically serve as the vehicle to carry that content. Only during the editing do I start to pay more attention to the form in order to “polish it.” But my primary concern is what I’m saying. The ethical philosophy. The meaning. Suggestions for a better future, not how I word those suggestions. But think of the old saw: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Maybe I’ve been remiss in not paying more attention to the form of the writing—making it cleverer, faster-paced, funnier, more entertaining. But it always seemed to me that these are things of the craftsman—the popular writer, the spy novelist, screenwriter, author of romances. Entertainers, then. I’ve never aspired to entertain. Better that I shake people up, provoke them, make them think. Nowadays, is this a dead-end street?

I think of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr in this regard. He said—about thirty years ago—something to the effect that, “If I were starting out today, no one would publish me.” In other words, he knew he wasn’t what you’d call a popular writer, but some publishers in his early days cared as much about books, about ideas, as they did about money—and would take a chance on someone who they thought had something to say. Vonnegut was remarking that those publishers are gone. Few would disagree that they’ve generally been replaced by corporate owners, seemingly concerned only with the bottom line. Maybe one must write slick, compelling prose—regardless of content—to have the slightest chance of being published today. God knows, there’s plenty of trash being published, content-wise, though much of it skillfully written.

In defense of publishing, one might say that people at small presses still care. That’s certainly true, but when such a publisher reads 5,000-10,000 query letters a year and puts out 5-10 books, it’s obvious that the chances of someone actually reading your manuscript are slim to nonexistent.

Let’s get back to my prose. What’s my assessment of it? Good ideas or not, am I just a bad writer? Is that the reason for my lack of publishing success? I think it’s the responsibility of every writer to consider this.

Every time I go back to something I’ve written, I’m actually impressed by the freshness of the writing. It’s smooth; it’s clear; the metaphors are striking; my “take” on the language I think is unique. It’s involving—or perhaps more modestly, it involves me! There are even times when I’m reading along and I say something aloud along the lines of, “That’s incredible!” In other words, I have a pretty high estimation of the work, quite aside from the reverence I feel for the ideas I’m trying to explore. I do have a way with words, if you’ll permit my presumption.

So no, I don’t think the writing’s bad. I don’t consider it great by any means, but it is extremely good. It’s just that don’t focus on that, as if I were creating an “art form.” My strength is more in seeing and I think understanding the aspect of life I’m considering, simplifying it and putting it on the page. How well I put it on the page could be debatable. I will, however, stand up to anyone when it comes to content and I might go so far as to say (and this may cost me credibility) that no one today says what needs to be said—about people, about our culture, about the future—like I do. If there’s such a thing as inspiration, maybe I’m inspired about that.

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Am I An Intellectual?

You might think that anyone with a Ph.D. who claims to write novels is suspect, but it’s important for me to say that I’m not an academic who writes novels but simply a writer who eventually got a Ph.D. I did it to study people and culture more deeply (my subject: Social Philosophy) and maybe even get a job where I could teach higher-level students and have more time to write. But the fact is that I never had an academic career.

            I taught a class or two or a one-off seminar at the universities of Washington and Oregon, Seattle University, the Wright Institute in Berkeley, U.C. Davis and others. I was never a full-time faculty member—my degree was multi-disciplinary and no department would claim me—and instead I was always “picking up the crumbs that fell from the table,” as one colleague described it. Only when I taught at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh five years ago for a couple of years was I a bona fide faculty member—and a full professor at that. (Pannasastra is the “Harvard” of Cambodia but is actually more like “South Chattanooga Community College.”) Every other job I’ve had since the early 1980s has been teaching English as a second language—something I fell into in Japan. I found the work easy and enjoyable—every class was a social hour, it seemed to me, and an education—and I always had the time and the energy to write.

       The one book where I did put my academic background to work was The Meanings of Love, the non-fiction book where I really felt I had to fully substantiate my position. The book itself isn’t academic in style, but I relied on my considerable study and research to make my case (to my own satisfaction). But the real foundation of the book is my understanding of the subject—my own knowledge, backed up by research.

           Aside from that book, I think I use my formal education as a “reality check” when I do my writing. That is, my subconscious mostly writes the books (as I explained earlier) but I use my conscious mind to “keep it real.” My research background prevents me—I hope—from writing what might be considered naive fantasy. Maybe this is why I keep saying that I stand so strongly behind what I’m trying to say: I write from the heart but it’s backed by solid knowledge of the real world.

           Exactly what is my academic background? For the doctorate, I took courses in the departments of Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, and Education. My dissertation was on using thought categories from the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas to analyze the content of social thought conveyed in national education curriculum packages. If you’ve never read a book by Habermas, I can tell you you’re in for an adventure! Moreover, of the four members of my dissertation committee, one had a Ph.D. from Harvard and one from UC Berkeley, and two others got their doctorates from the University of Oregon. They thrashed me almost to the point of bleeding over every chapter I submitted for their approval. So although it may not be what one would call a sterling background, I feel confident that it was more than sufficient to guide me in what’s real and what’s merely wishful thinking in my writing. That’s what I mean by “reality check.” Moreover, my own private reading in history, economics, biology, astronomy and other fields has reinforced this.

           So back to the question: am I an intellectual? The answer is no. Above all, I’m a man of feeling. I trained my mind—eight years at university—for the purpose of complementing and balancing that orientation. I’m not sure one can understand life by being a specialist, either of the mind or of the heart; your chances are better if you’re an “informed mongrel” out there in the streets, following scent trails, knocking over trash cans, pissing on various people’s property to gauge their reactions. You’ve got to taste everything, love everything, suffer everything, if you’re going to have any inkling at all of what the human drama is all about.  

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