Beneath T.S. Eliot's bland exterior glows the unwavering conviction that the poet, in the morning coat or drinking tea, possesses chiefly a more honest mind than most minds, yielding him at the end of rigorous vigors the intuition of some hidden reality of which one aspect, as it was for Conrad's Kurtz, is horror. And the poet walks through the streets of London or Boston bearing this intermittent knowledge.
I started writing fiction (and some poetry) fairly seriously during my junior and senior years in high school. I was involved in editing the school literary magazine, had several poems and stories in it, and won several awards in the Washington Star's contest for high school writers.
Like so many aspiring writers, though, I was never very good with the story aspect of fiction. It was the writing itself, and especially style, that drew my interest.
I had a lot of serious interests in my life in high school, and a lot of thoughts about careers. When asked, I usually said that I intended to become an electrical engineer. But I really wanted to do with my life was to be a writer. Now, I often joke that what I wanted to be when I grew up was a combination of Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway. I'm pretty sure that my mother, left to herself, would have fully supported me in this. But to my father, this goal was unrealistic, immature. He pointed out that very few writers manage to earn a reasonable living at what they do. (The idea that there can be value in taking on a challenge precisely because the odds are overwhelming against you was totally alien to him, and it was not an argument that I knew enough to make at the time.) If I wanted to write, that was fine, he said, but in that case but I should become a journalist. That was I could write and also have a way of earning a living. (In the same way, he said that if I was interested in mathematics and physics, then I should become an engineer.)
If I didn't want to become a journalist then I should concentrate on getting an ordinary job for the time being and write in my spare time until I could find out whether I was going to be successful.
Well, getting an ordinary job and writing in one's spare time is what almost all writers do. Nonetheless, my father's advice to do this was not good advice for a young writer. It's a question of where one's commitment lies. If one wants to be a writer then that should be one's primary commitment, and supporting oneself should be a secondary thing that one manages as best as one can. And someone young, I believe, should never think in terms of "for the time being." Because the things one does "for the time being" when one is young set one on a path that will determine the rest of one's life.
During my senior year in high school I got to know an older writer who had an enormous influence on me. This writer, a very charismatic individual, believed that good writing has to be based on the classics, and that before one can write anything worthwhile one has to read all the classics, starting with Greek and Roman literature, preferably in the original languages.
I accepted this and basically stopped writing, with the vague idea that some day I would be ready to write seriously. I don't think that this writer had intended me to take his words in this fashion, but he had given me a standard that was hopeless for me to satisfy. Perhaps I would have stopped writing fiction in any case. (During my first two years after high school, I did write an enormous number of incredibly long philosophical letters to various people in my life. Basically, I was writing essays and mailing them off to friends as letters.)
Even though I was no longer seriously writing fiction, when I started college at Johns Hopkins as an engineering major, I still had the vague idea that getting my engineering degree, and probably getting a job as an engineer, would just be a temporary thing until I would start writing seriously again and establish myself as a writer.
It was an enormous source of frustration to me that college didn't seem to leave me any time to write. (I was taking 23 units per semester in my freshman year.) But the real problem was that although I wanted to be a writer, the impulse to write just wasn't there.
In college, I assiduously avoided writing classes, mostly under the mistaken belief that they would destroy my ability to be original. (I earned six units of transferrable credit in freshman composition one Saturday afternoon at Johns Hopkins by taking a placement test.)
While in college, especially after I entered the University of Arizona as a sophomore, when I thought of writing it was primarily as a possible a way of earning a living. I subscribed to Writers Digest and had a try at writing fiction for commercial magazines -- which in those days meant women's magazines. That seemed to be acceptable to me because it was done for money and not for art. But I still had the problem that I just couldn't get the hang of creating plots, and furthermore I kept trying to write like Henry James, which made it unlikely that I would succeed with the editors of Redbook or McCalls.
The fact of the matter was that I didn't enjoy reading the stories in women's magazines. But I had no clue at that time that it's very difficult to be successful writing a kind of story that you don't like reading yourself.
I even thought about the possibility of writing for the "True Confession" magazines that were popular in those days. These magazines then played somewhat the same role that daytime talk shows like Jerry Springer play today. The stories in them, such as "My Husband Made Me Watch Him Having Sex with Other Women," were all fiction, although purporting to me true stories. The magazines paid fairly poorly, but some writers could make money by cranking out stories for them extremely quickly. I never made a serious attempt at this genre, not because I found it too sleazy, but because I didn't think I had enough imagination to create stories like this.
One of my overt reasons for taking theatre courses after I transferred to the University of Arizona was the idea that I ought to learn something about the theatre in case I later decided to be a playwright.
When I remember all this now, I can't help but thinking, "There was one really fucked up kid." I believed that my goal in life was to be a writer, and yet I went to college and studied everything but writing and -- most important -- did not write!
One of my major problems was that there have always been too many things I've been good at and too many things I wanted to do. Although I really wanted to become a writer, I also really wanted to learn mathematics and physics, and foreign languages, and certain parts of history. Furthermore, although in a certain way it is definitely true that I like to write (as evidenced then by my long philosophical letters and now by my web page), I never learned to find the process of writing fiction enjoyable. I could get interested in writing particular scenes, but it was always a painful process for me to write an entire story.
When I graduated from college and started working as a computer programmer in the San Francisco Bay Area, I decided that I would write a novel. I had no idea how one goes about writing a novel, but I tried to use two books as models: Flight From the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch, and Ritual in the Dark by Colin Wilson. I think I actually wrote five chapters, maybe fifteen thousand words. Even so, I still had no idea what the novel was supposed to be about. Just people talking, that was all.
Unlike many writers, I did not keep the chapters of my unfinished novel in a drawer forever, but threw them away a few years later. They were no loss.
When I was in graduate school in La Jolla, I attempted to start a novel with an S & M theme. (For quite some time I had found it extremely frustrating that I could have so many powerful and creative S & M fantasies, and yet couldn't come up with a story when I sat down to write fiction.)
--- Lee Lady, "Tales My Grammar Told Me"
Then when I was teaching at the University of Kansas I became interested in writing a novel whose lead character would be a commercially successful poet with seven wives. In retrospect, I think that my poet, named Harry Bogart, was probably a lot like Leonard Cohn, but at the time, Leonard Cohn was completely unknown.
My idea was that the novel would be in the form of interviews. I found the sort of interviews that at that time were published in Playboy and The Realist quite interesting, and I thought it would be very interesting to write fictional interviews of that sort. I had most of the main characters fairly well imagined, and I wrote interviews with four or five of them, but, once again, couldn't come up with a real story.
Probably this renunciation would have been permanent, if only the University of Hawaii had been willing to pay me a decent salary during my first few years here. But in Hawaii I found myself in financial hell -- this was the time when my daughter started attending college -- with every indication that as time went by, my situation would only get worse, not better. So the thought occurred to me that maybe I could earn a little money by selling stories to the science fiction magazines. Since it had been so long since I'd seriously done any writing, I hoped that my "writer's block" might have disappeared, and that I might be able to write fiction as easily as some science fictions writers were apparently able to.
I wrote a number of stories and sent them out to the science fiction magazines, regularly getting rejection slips in return. Isaac Asimov's at that time was edited by George Scithers, and he had a crew of assistant editors who would send by a page of helpful comments along with the rejection slips, explaining that I needed to do all those things that I was completely unable to do -- such as finding a good idea, coming up with a plot, etc.
Writing science fiction became a major part of my life during my first years at the University of Hawaii. From reading the science fiction magazines and Locus, I became aware that a lot of the successful young science fiction writers had attended the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop, and I decided that I would do my very best to be admitted to Clarion as soon as my three-year NSF grant ran out and I had my summers free.
I don't think I still have any of the pre-Clarion stories I submitted to the science fiction magazines except the following one. I would certainly not care to share any of the others. But "Teddy Bears Are No Picnic," although lacking a rational plot, has some fairly good things in it and looks almost like a real story.
I got the idea for this story one day when I was reading one of the many "bar stories" in a science fiction magazine. It occurred to me that the bars in these stories were totally unlike any bar that I had ever been in -- most of which had been boring and depressing. And I thought it might be fun to write a story about the kind of real bar that I had experience with.
I wrote about two pages, and as usual couldn't figure out where to go from there.
But one day I was reading another story I'd been working on, and came across a sentence that read, "The hill was very steep." And I thought to myself, "That is an incredibly boring sentence." I decided that it was about I learned better than to ever write sentences that boring.
So I decided that as a way of learning to write more lively sentences, it would be a good idea to write a Raymond Chandler pastiche. And when I looked at the two or three pages I had of the teddy bear story, something about the tone of voice suggested to me that it was actually a detective story that would be perfect for for that purpose.
Inside the story, I parodied three famous science fiction story cycles: Arthur C. Clark's White Hart series, the Gavaghan's Bar stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and Spider Robinson's Callahan's stories. And for each of these parodies, I wanted to do my best to match the style of the stories I was parodying. And yet somehow all this had to fit in with the Raymond Chandler style of the overall story.
It was actually a very ambitious challenge, and it was the kind of thing that most interested me about writing in those days. It's certainly not a completely successful story, but unlike the stories I had written before that time, I'm still not embarrassed to show it to people.
It got me accepted to Clarion, at least, so it wasn't all bad. (Furthermore, even while my teachers at Clarion were explaining to me that it was no good as a story, they also acknowledged that they found it extremely funny.)
It's a matter of honor that students do not present the workshop with old stories, written before Clarion. In my case, it was a moot point in any case, because I simply didn't have any old work that was decent enough to be submitted to the judgement of my fellow students.
In the workshopping process, I was a very assertive critic, and generally recognized as a fairly astute one. But for more than a week, I was unable to produce any stories of my own, aside from the Teddy Bear story that I'd submitted with my application. (During the first week of Clarion, we mostly workshopped these application stories, waiting for students to have a chance to write new stuff.)
I felt under a lot of pressure. My fellow students were quite impressed with my critical comments in the workshop, and they kept asking, "When are we going to see some of your stuff?" But I couldn't come up with anything. I had a horrible fear that I would go through the entire six weeks without being able to write a single story.
In my conference with Robin Scott Wilson during the first week, I had showed him a brief fragment I'd once written. Basically, out of nowhere I'd come up with the sentences, "The alien spaceship landed in Suzi Stoneham's back yard between the lilac bushes and the rock garden. It broke two limbs of the best cherry tree as it came down, and Suzi marched out to complain."
There was something about these sentences I thought was really good. (Kate Wilhelm also later commented favorably on them.) But as usual I couldn't figure out what the story would be. I'd written a little less than two pages.
Robin Scott Wilson looked at this and pointed to a sentence close to the end of what I'd written: "Suzi Stoneham did not approve of petty behavior."
"There," Robin said, "is your story."
It took me several days of frustrated thinking before I was able to figure out to use his suggestion, but finally I wrote my first Clarion story.
I had wanted for some time to write a sword & sorcery story. It wasn't that I especially liked sword and sorcery, or was even very familiar with the genre, but it was a kind of story that a lot of young writers wrote, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write one myself.
Often I looked for incongruities as the basis for a story, and one day it occurred to me that it would be an amusingly absurd incongruity to have a CPA as the hero of a sword & sorcery story.
At first, I thought of using the Arthur C. Clark idea that any sufficiently advanced technology will be perceived as magic. (An idea, incidentally, which I no longer believe. I think that there are very fundamental distinctions between science and magic. But that's another story -- so to speak.) So I thought that in a medieval culture, a skill like double-entry bookkeeping might be thought of as a form of magic.
However as I started to develop the story, I decided that there would be more story-potential and more fun in the premise that actual magic was used in order to do bookkeeping: there would be spells for adding up columns of numbers and so on.
My objective was not to write a salable sword & sorcery story or, for that matter, even a legitimate one. My objective was simply to have a story that was finished, whether it was any good or not, and could be submitted to the workshop. I allowed myself to shamelessly camp it up, going for complete burlesque and mixing together elements that didn't belong together at all. And yet somehow the end result was not primarily a funny story.
The name "Madelina" was a joking reference to my fellow student Madeleine Robins. I don't know quite why, except that she seemed to be the most attractive amongst the women in our group. (She was not, however, one of the two women I myself was strongly attracted to.)
I got about three-quarters of the way through this story without incredible agony. (For me, there's always a lot of agony involved in writing a story, but to that point, it didn't reach the incredible stage.) As people now like to say, I "put my characters up a tree and threw rocks at them," not holding back at all in creating their predicament.
But when it came time to write the ending, it seemed that I had created the characters' predicament much too effectively, for I couldn't think of any possible way of getting them out of it.
I asked all of my fellow students for ideas on how to finish the story, and was given a number of them, none of which were at all satisfactory to me. But in thinking about what was wrong with the suggestions that had been given to me, I realized what the ending should be. And I have to say that, whatever the flaws in the rest of the story, the ending is quite brilliant.
Furthermore, the ending I came up with depended on a number of little items which had occurred here and there throughout the story. When I'd put these items in, I hadn't had any particular reason for them; I had just found them mildly entertaining. But now, with the ending I had come up with, all these little pieces of random information suddenly seemed "planted" in order to set up the final resolution. There was very little of the previous writing that I needed to revise in order to be consistent with the ending.
"Spell of Fidelity" was an obvious title for the story. I think that, judged purely in isolation, it's a very good title for a sword & sorcery title. It probably deserves a better story, but I don't think I'll ever have the interest in writing one.
Looking for incongruities that might be the basis for a story -- the fish out of water and so on -- I came up with the idea of a wizard in the academic world. How would academia deal with a professor whose publications were in handwritten volumes where a spell would be needed to turn each page?
I thought of the professor having to deal with an especially dumb female student. I spent days trying to figure out how to write a story about this but couldn't get started.
Then two opening sentences suddenly popped into my head: "The girl in the front row in Professor Reggert's Wizardry I class was trouble waiting for a place to happen. But then all students are trouble." Once I had those first two sentences, then I managed to write five or six pages of the story.
It was still not that clear that I had a viable idea, though. The basic situation was that he had this dreadful female student that he was forced to put up with, but so what? I think that I had already written the scene where she takes off her clothes in his office and he has to keep her invisible when the dean stops by for a talk, which was amusing, but it still didn't seem like a story. Furthermore, I was having a very hard time forcing myself to work on it. I just couldn't seem to get myself ' really interested.
Suddenly I had an idea that enabled me to relate this story to what was happening to me at Clarion: he would fall in love with this young woman, and that would destroy him. Once I realized that this could actually be a story about what had been happening to me in the workshop, I found the energy to write it, up to the ending. But just as with "Spell of Fidelity," I couldn't think of any way of resolving the situation I had created for my characters.
After getting lots of advice from my fellow students, none of which was what I was looking for, I finally came up with an ending that appealed to my sense of humor (the demon Fredericus is never sent back to the world where he belongs, but goes off and becomes the leader of a rock band), and finishes with a bit of a sermon with seemed to me to fit well within the science fiction tradition. (Oddly enough, somehow this seems to be more of a science fiction story than a fantasy story. The concept is fantasy, but the tone is science fiction.)
The name Fredericus, incidentally, was chosen because of a remark made in class by Joe Haldeman. He said that Gene Wolfe had advised writers to never have a character named Fred, because one then winds up with the irritating rhyme, "Fred said" at the ends of many sentences. A comment like this was like a challenge to me and many of my fellow students.
One of my fellow students, Madeleine Robins, said that she always privately thought of my first story as being called "Spell of Futility." This was not really a comment on the story, she said, but it just fit her general mood in the workshop. (I don't know why. To me, she represented in all the things I wished I was and was not.) It seemed like a good title, in any case, and I decided to use it for my new story, even though it didn't really fit.
Is there writing after Clarion? This is the question I think many Clarion graduates are confronted with after they get back home from East Lansing. It's not uncommon for someone to stop writing for a year or more (sometimes much more!) after Clarion.
At Clarion, I had actually been able to write fiction. Four of the five pieces I wrote there, for all their flaws, were at least real stories with legitimate plots. The characterization was at least adequate. (My wife said, "This has really transformed your writing. For the first time, your stories have real people in them.") Now the question was whether I could do the same thing without being in the Clarion environment.
I never saw the problem for myself as being able to write a good story. The problem was how one manages to write a story at all, and despite having completed five completed at Clarion, I still didn't (and don't) understand how a story gets written, or, for that matter, how it gets started.
I know that for me, the energy comes from the words. So to get a story going, I need to have some good words. So one strategy I considered (one that has been frequently recommended) was to start with a few good paragraphs without any idea of where they were headed, and then see what I could do with them.
The idea was to start with a hook. A hook is an opening for a story, maybe a sentence or a paragraph, that hooks the reader in, makes him want to keep reading. It took me a long time to understand that a hook is not merely something that is bizarre. But rather a hook is an indication that something very strange, or at least very interesting, is going on, so that the reader cannot put the story down without reading on to learn how this will turn out or what will happen next. The classic advice to writers of westerns and other pulp fiction was "Shoot the sheriff on the first page."
Here are a couple of hooks I wrote. Unfortunately, as a strategy for writing a story, this actually didn't work for me very well. The words in these two hooks are, in my opinion, quite good, although perhaps the style is just slightly overdone. In any case, the hooks certainly succeed in making me want to know what the story is. Unfortunately, I never did figure out what would happen next.
One of the magazines that a lot of young fantasy writers aspired to be published in at that time was The Twilight Zone Magazine. They announced a contest for new writers, and I determined to enter it.
Looking through my notebook (actually a folder of loose sheets of typed paper), I found a short paragraph about a young woman I had frequently seen standing in a doorway on Broadway when I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old living in San Francisco. I don't know why this woman had fascinated me so much. As my note said, "She was not pretty, or even interesting in any obvious way." But I decided to try and write a story about her. Since it was for The Twilight Zone, it would have to be a contemporary fantasy. Eventually I decided to make it a ghost story.
I had a hell of a time writing the story. I was determined from the beginning that it be written in second person, but I couldn't figure out a plot at all, and wound up writing it backwards and forwards and sideways and shuffling all the pieces around, and still couldn't make it work.
I was trying to capture the flavor and mood of North Beach (San Francisco), as it had been in around 1964, without explicitly setting the story in North Beach. (Like San Francisco, my city was named for a saint: "Saint Theresa." Other than that, the name was not intended to have any deep significance.) For some time, I had been inventing interesting names for streets, since I was annoyed by the fact that so many stories take place on Elm Street or Oak Street or Grove Street. So I used a lot of those street names in the story. In retrospect, I can see that the quirkiness of these names is to some extent intrusive.
I had put an old guy into the story based on an old man named Lawrence who I used to frequently see on the street in North Beach and give money to. I decided to call him Dmitri, just because I wanted a fairly unusual name. Dmitri and the young girl, who finally wound up being called Stephanie, didn't really seem to belong in the same story. But I gave Dmitri somewhat the same role that Lawrence had played in my life, partly a confident but mostly a source of information about the community.
Unlike a lot of writers, I've never had much success in trying to take a part of my own personal history and turning it into a story. The parts of my past which are really meaningful to me don't seem to lend themselves to a coherent narrative structure -- a plot.
But over and over again, what happens is that I start by trying to imagine an abstract story about some characters who are only images in my mind, and I reach the point where the story just doesn't seem to want to go any further. I find myself unable to imagine the elements I need, or the things I imagine don't seem to have much power. And then suddenly, or gradually, as happened with "the Chekhovian Smile," I realize that the things in my story correspond quite closely with crucial elements in my own life, and I start drawing more and more on important elements of my own past.
The idea of having the couple in "The Chekhovian Smile" go up to a hotel room came out of my own experience staying in many many seedy hotels. The experience of walking in the morning, especially on a bright Sunday morning, through a part of town dedicated to nightlife was one I had had in several different cities.
In order to have a plot, of course, one's character has to have a problem. Thinking of problems for my characters to deal with was my major problem in writing fiction. But in thinking back over my own personal concerns, and my experiences the previous year at Clarion, I decided that Stephanie's problem should be that she was afraid of sex. Making her a teenage runaway was something that took much less thought, and my only concern was that that might be too obvious a choice.
Stephanie was not based on any particular young girl, except for the one who had provided the original image, and whom I had never even talked to. But I have met hundreds of Stephanies all over the country. I've talked to many of them, and eavesdropped on the conversations of many others. You can see them anytime you walk down Haight Street in San Francisco or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Most of them are not runaways or victims of rape or other violence. In fact, it's probably a fair criticism to say that the Stephanie in my story is a fairly sanitized version of a teenage runway. A more realistic portray of a girl in Stephanie's situation would have been much grimmer. (See Evelyn Lau's book Runaway.)
Finally, in a stroke of genius, I realized that the way to give the story a workable structure would be to interlace the narrator's encounter with Stephanie with his conversations with Dmitri the next day. It then became a little hard to keep the two interlaced portions straight, so I decided that it would make sense to have the conversation with Dmitri be in present tense and the events of the night before in past tense.
Usually what enables me to start writing a story is to get a few sentences, preferably the first few sentences of the story. These sentences set the tone of voice for the story, which seems to be the most important factor in my finding the words to write it down.
In this story, though, I had pretty much established the tone of voice from the very beginning. The tone of voice was really there in the original entry in second person my notebook. But now, even when the overall shape of the story seemed somewhat satisfactory, I still couldn't think of a good opening for it. Finally, looking through my notebook again, I came across the beginning of a poem I had never been able to finish, and I realized that this poem would make a perfect opening for this story.
I suppose that by then I'd already figured out that the story was really about loneliness.
I think that the tone of voice, incidentally, comes from old-time radio programs I used to listen to when I was a kid. I can't remember what the program was anymore, but it used to start out with a long introduction in the second person before it finally moved into the actual dramatization. I think that "The Chekhovian Smile" is meant to be read aloud this way, as a radio script. It seems to work well when I read it aloud, anyway. Some day I mean to record it on audiotape.
I had taken a Russian drama class a couple of years earlier, and had studied several Chekhov plays. Uncle Vanya had had a particular resonance for me. It occurred to me that The Chekhovian Smile would make a good title for a story. So I I decided to use that for the story I'd just written. It wasn't really that good a fit, but I introduced a sentence or two into the story to justify the title.
The Twilight Zone contest had asked for stories of less than 2500 words. By now, my story was three times that long. I did send it to the Twilight Zone as a regular submission. The editor (T.E.D. Kline at that time, as I recall) hated it. I then submitted it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and got it back with no comment. I didn't submit it anywhere else. In a way, I like to think of it as a private story, written for myself and to be shown for friends, not something written for publication.
Some people find the second-person narration annoying, others find it quite natural. It is one thing about the story I am completely unwilling to change, because I regard it as an intrinsic part of the story.
Some people, especially men, are very irritated by the narrator's passivity and self-pity. Well, a lot of people have that problem with me as well (although I think the self-pity is now considerably diminished). The fact is that this story represents who I am probably better than any of my others, except maybe my recent story The Existential Café.
One of the lessons of Clarion seemed to be that one of the best ways for me to be able to write was to be in a workshop. So in the spring of 1983, I tried to sign up for the graduate fiction workshop from the English Department at UH. I wasn't sure that I'd be allowed to do that, because I hadn't taken the undergraduate fiction workshop, or in fact any other courses in English, in my entire academic career. So I prepared myself to put up a strong argument that I was qualified to be in the workshop.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the workshop was being taught by a visiting writer, a Candadian poet name Michael Ondaatje, and I wasn't able to find him to talk to before the beginning of the semester.
I had thought that there would probably be about six or seven people in a graduate workshop with so many prerequisites listed in the catalog. But to my surprise, when I went to enroll there were already fifteen students in the class, and several more on a waiting list.
Furthermore, when I went to class the first day, although there were a few students who had done quite a bit of writing, a large number said that they had never actually finished a story. Obviously I had been mistaken in taking the prerequisites in the catalog seriously.
I tried to impress Michael Ondaatje with the fact that I knew a fair amount about fiction, so that he would let me participate in the class without being enrolled. Unfortunately, this was precisely the wrong strategy. Ondaatje did not want to approach fiction according to any accepted rules, but wanted the class to experiment, fool around, see what we could come up with. So a day before the third class meeting, when we accidentally ran into each other on campus, he asked me not to return to class.
For me, this, combined with the inexperience of the students in the workshop, was an extremely discouraging thing. I decided that it was simply hopeless to try to be involved in writing workshops on campus, and did not make another attempt to sign up for one until 1994, when I was lucky enough to have Lynne Scharon Schwartz as a teacher.
While as a professor myself I could sympathize with Ondaatje's desire to teach the sort of course that would meet his own needs, I could never forgive him for not having realized what a harmful effect being kicked out of his workshop would have on my life. (I should say here, though, that he was in fact an extremely nice guy and of course never realized how important that course was to me.) A few years later, I started seeing some books of his reviewed very favorably. They sounded very interesting, but I refused to read them. It was only in 1995, when I started hearing universal praise from the English majors I knew, that I finally realized that I had to give up and read The English Patient. I'm glad I read it befor the movie came out. Good as the movie was, the book was, in my opinion, a whole lot better.
At our second class meeting, Ondaatje had asked us to write a one or two page sketch for the next class. "Not a story, just a brief account of some incident."
I wracked my brains trying to come up with something on such short notice. Looking through my notebook, I noticed that for a long time I had wanted to write a dialogue where two people talk, but each is so obsessed with a particular topic that they talk across each other rather than with each other. And yet somehow the two monologues do interlace, and every once in a while there is a genuine interaction.
I tried to come up with an idea for such a dual monologue, until suddenly I realized that I had actually been involved in a conversation like this myself, at Clarion. And so I wrote that conversation down. Naturally I rearranged it a little, but for the most part it's pretty much "plagiarism from real life."
It wound up being quite a bit more than the two pages Ondaatje had asked for, but it was still extremely short. Unfortunately, the title I finally gave it, "Armistice Talks," probably only makes sense if one knows a lot more about the interaction between "Carla" and me than is given in the story.
I still have to wonder whether Michael Ondaatje would have kicked me out of the workshop if he'd seen this story first.
When I went on my sabbatical in 1983-84, my intention was to devote a large part of that year to my writing, either writing a novel or completing several publishable short stories. What happened, though, was that I got interested in NLP instead.
It was actually my interest in writing that caused me to learn about NLP. I decided that I ought to learn about hypnosis, as a possible way of dealing with my writer's block. And in the hypnosis course I took, I found out about NLP and eventually decided that it was absolutely something I wanted to learn to do.
During my NLP training, I found that writer's block was a fatally attractive problem for my fellow students. Many students were completely sure that they could cure me of it, and none of them had a clue as to what was involved. NLP helped me in many very important ways, and in fact completely changed my life; but I can't say that it was ever any help with my writer's block.
One of the consequences of my going through the NLP training was that when I came back from my sabbatical in 1984, I didn't want to devote time to writing fiction or learning Russian or any other solitary occupation. I wanted to devote all my time and energy to things that involved interacting with other people. (My being newly divorced was also a factor in this attitude.)
In retrospect, I can't really say that I think I was wrong about this. It would have been nice to have worked on writing fiction, and if I had, I think I'd be a published writer today. But the things I did between 1984 and 1994 were extremely valuable to me, and I can't regret them.
In the spring of 1990, Carol Walker contacted me from New Mexico State University to let me know that my thesis advisor, Fred Richman, was retiring. She asked if I could send something for his retirement dinner. "Anything: an anecdote, some recollection, a poem, even a mathematical paper." At first I couldn't think of anything, but then I remembered a joke that I'd been told in a North Beach Bar. I thought that some of the NMSU people might like it, so I decided to write it up.
When I started writing it, it got a bit out of hand. It had been a shaggy dog story to start with, but now it turned into an actual little piece of fiction, written in what was intended to be a Damon Runyon style. I sent it to Carol Walker by email, but apparently she didn't like it at all, because she never even acknowledged it. Whether it was ever presented to Fred or not I don't know, but I'm sure that by now he's found it on my web page.
This story in a way has been a source of great frustration to me. I wrote it up in two days, probably spending four or six hours on it altogether. (Since then, I've done some very minor revisions.) In the years since, I often torture myself wondering how it's possible that I can sometimes write something like this almost effortlessly, and yet when I have to write a short story for a workshop, the process is sheer agony.
Having thought about this for many years, I think that part of the answer, just as with "Armistice Talks," is that I knew that I had a very short deadline, so I didn't have time to agonize. And the other part of the answer is that in both of these stories, I knew from the start basically what happened. Once I know what happens, it's usually not that hard to find words to write it down. But most of the stories I write don't start with a sequence of events that I know; they start with words that I like, and which I then have to develop a narrative out of.
In the spring of 1994, I decided that it was time for me to stop being defeatist about getting into workshops in the English Department. The fiction workshop that semester was taught by a woman named Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I went by her office before the semester began and managed to find her in. We seemed to have a good rapport, and she agreed to let me participate in the workshop without being registered more because she found me an interesting person, I believe, than because of my writing background.
She asked us to write two stories for the workshop. As usual, I sat in front of my computer, staring at the screen, having no idea what I could write a story about. There were several different themes in my life I considered as subjects, but none of them seemed to have any potential as stories.
One thing I thought about quite a bit was the various personas I'm aware of in myself -- in particular, the ones I call the "Bad-ass Biker" and "The North Beach Hipster." But I couldn't think what to do with this idea, until suddenly a sentence came into my head: "The Bad-ass Biker strides down the street in his leather jacket, looking pimps, whores, and crack dealers straight in the eye, stepping around the occasional body with gunshot wounds." With this sentence, I was able to get started on a story which I eventually shaped into an account of one day in my life. Contrary to the title, though, it is far from an "ordinary day," but rather a composite of many different things that have happened to me over a period of years, plus a few bits of pure fiction.
For my second story for Lynne Sharon Schwartz, I started with the fact that my friend Brenda in San Francisco had once, before going to Europe for six months, covered the men's bathroom in the Saloon (in the North Beach area) with graffiti about herself, so that people wouldn't forget her while she was gone (as if anyone would!) To make a story, I needed another character, so I created one very much like myself as I was in my twenties. While trying to think of a name for him, I decided that as a gesture toward multiculturalism I should make him Japanese. (Chinese or Latin American would have worked just as well.)
Trying to figure out where the story should go, I gradually started modeling it on an evening I had once spent with Brenda. However the ressemblance between that evening and what I wrote lies mostly in the general mood, rather than the actual events that happened. (In fact, we were never in bed together, and on that evening Brenda asked me to leave her apartment at about five in the morning, leaving me to walk about two miles home. At the time, I was quite upset and angry at her because of that.)
In the fall of 1994, the English Department's visiting writer was Molly Giles, from San Francisco State, and she taught the graduate fiction workshop that semester. I realized that I needed to plan in advance if I wanted to get into her workshop, so I sent her "The Chekhovian Smile" and "Life Begins at Midnight" via campus mail -- my best story and my most recent one. However when I went to the first day of class, it was clear that she hadn't read the two stories, and she said that she would choose which non-English majors would be allowed into the class by a random drawing.
I was a little ambivalent about taking the class anyway, because I was still emotionally recovering from a series of four intense scenes I'd done with my dominatrix friend Petra that summer. Furthermore, when Giles announced the schedule of work she expected students to do, I thought it might be more than I could manage. So I didn't participate in her drawing and didn't take the workshop.
Later that fall, I saw that the following semester the graduate fiction workshop was again being offered. The instructor listed was Heller. I thought to myself, "Is it really possible that the University of Hawaii has managed to get Joseph Heller to come here as a visiting writer? Well, if it's true, then it will completely impossible to get into his workshop."
But the next time I saw Paul Lyons, my friend from the English Department who hangs out at Anna Bannana's he told me that the visiting writer would be a guy named Steve Heller, from Kansas State. I managed to talk to Heller on the phone, and he was agreeable to my participating in the workshop without registering. The truth was, he seemed a little awed by the fact that I am a full professor in the mathematics department.
He wanted something he could workshop for the second class meeting, so I gave him "The Chekhovian Smile," which he didn't completely care for. (It was obvious that he had very little familiarity with fantasy writing, and he thought the story should be made ambiguous as to whether the ghost part actually happened or was only the narrator's hallucination. He also hated the protagonist's passivity and self-pity.)
I wanted to base my first story for this workshop (which unfortunately turned out to be the only story I wrote for it) on a woman named Sheri Martinelli who I had known when I was about 17 years old.
It's always hell for me to get a story started. I decided that one way to figure out what this story would be about would be to write my notes in the form of letters to my friend Janet ("Lady Green"). I had once written about 30 articles to her in the form of letters about various women in my life, and this finally amounted to about 60,000 words written over the course of about a month. So I decided that maybe writing letters to her about my story would be a way of freeing up my creativity. It would also allow her to eavesdrop on my creative process, which I thought might interest her. (It did, I think, mildly, but not nearly as much as I had wanted it to. The truth of the matter is that she already knows how to make her own creative process work pretty much on demand, so I'm the one who should be studying her, not the other way around.) (C.f. Genesis of a Short Story.)
Writing letters to Janet did not make "Let's Do Lunch" easy to write. In fact, despite the fact that I had a rough outline of the story before I started (or maybe it was because of that fact), I had a hell of a time getting it written. The good thing about the way I'd done my notes, though, was that by the time I finished I had a pretty good record of all the stages of creation.
The way the story came out didn't agree at all with my initial conception. Heller and many of the students in the class (especially the males) hated the protagonist for being such a complete twit. Unfortunately, this is a problem that people will probably always have with my writing, because so much of it taps into the deep-rooted twitness at the core of my own being. (And if Woody Allen can get away with it, why can't I?)
In the fall of 1996, there was no visiting writer, However the English Department offered the graduate fiction workshop with Ian Macmillan as the teacher.
For a long long time I had wanted to write a story about a woman named Spider who I had dreamed about once, maybe in 1982. The name was really the only thing I had that was definite, but over the years I had had various ideas about what sort of character she might be.
Recently, I had thought of making this story into a horror story. I wanted Spider to be some kind of artist, maybe a musician, maybe a jewelry maker. But finally I decided that she should be a painter. The idea of the horror story was that she paints horrible frightening pictures, but is an extremely gentle person herself. However occasionally at night she goes out and kills someone -- but always someone who deserves it.
The initial scene of the story was planned to have Spider showing her friend Eileen her newest painting, and Eileen commenting on how horrifying it was. As so often in my stories, the problem in getting it started was that there was really no conflict. So I decided that Eileen could try to talk Spider into working for an advertising agency run by her friend Bradley.
As I tried to make this work, I finally realized that it would be better to bring Bradley right into the first scene instead of just having him be a topic of conversation. And instead of having them all just sit around the kitchen table making small talk, I realized that it would be better to give them some immediate purpose to be working towards. Finally I realized that they could be taking a group of Spider's paintings to a gallery for a show.
I was reading a lot of Ann Beattie at this time, and so in the initial stages this story was strongly influenced by Beattie. But I was also learning about Rilke from Frank Stewart's poetry class, and as I got further into the story and needed a theme to make it jell, I realized that the story might be about the sense of alienation which pervades so much of Rilke's work.
Eventually, of course, it wound up being a totally different story from what I had planned. I reached a point where I realized that it was coming to an end, and there wasn't time to develop a horror-story ending as I had planned. I'm not very happy with the ending I wound up with, especially the rather heavy dose of new-age stuff. Nonetheless, in some ways "The Existential Café" expresses the person that I am better than anything else I've written, except for maybe "The Chekhovian Smile."
Finally, a short-short ("sudden fiction") I wrote for an open mike poetry reading I used to attend at the Beat Museum in San Francisco's North Beach district. It was partly prompted by the comment by a friend of mine that some publication had referred to him, to his amused embarrassment, as "the Tiger Woods of Rope Bondage."
For all the very real flaws in my stories, I think that some of my fiction has some very real value. However when it comes to poetry, I can hardly claim much expertise even as a reader, much less as a writer.
Most of the poems below are novelty poems, and some of them do appeal to some people -- especially people who don't know much about poetry. A couple of others were written for classes. I'm not sure they even be called competent, but I hope they're not completely atrocious.
The first poem, my famous "grammar poem," has been a big hit with English majors and language students.
I wrote it in about 1978. I was married then to a woman who was a pretty good fibre artist. At that time, she was doing mostly soft sculpture, and liked to incorporate jokes into the pieces she made. One day she told me that she was thinking about making an animal with "adverbial claws." To which my response was, "Huh?"
"Isn't that a thing in grammar?" she asked. "And aren't there something called `iambic feet'?"
I was intrigued with this idea, and started making a list of all the other grammatical terms I could think of that could be interpreted in absurd ways. Some of the things I came up with were rather obvious, and have been used by many other people (especially in the Sunday comics), such as confusing "verb" with "bird." I came up with a line, though, which I considered absolutely inspired, namely: "A verb in the hand is worth a double negative."
After I got a few stanzas, I realized that I had committed myself to making the damn thing rhyme, as well as having some sort of semi-regular meter.
I have to thank my daughter (Gretchen Cole) for the line "Of a conjunction caught," which I think is quite good. I had the rest of that stanza, but couldn't figure out a line that would provide a rhyme for "not."
Pleonastic refers to a word that is logically unnecessary but grammatically required, such as the "ne" is French negation. This meaning is here irrelevant, though; I simply used the word because it sounds a lot like "prehistoric" or "pleistocene."
A solecism is a fancy term for a grammatical error. Thus those who use solecisms would be grammatical outlaws.
In many languages, such as Latin, German, and Russian, nouns are declined, just as verbs are conjugated. (I missed an opportunity there: to have two verbs furiously conjugating.)
Morphemes are the primitive units of meaning of which words are constituted. Prefixes and suffices are one type of morphemes.
The couplet " For want of a straight line/ From Paradise Lost" makes no kind of sense whatsoever to me, except that Paradise Lost is, of course, made up of lines. Nonetheless, this couplet frequently gets appreciative " Ah"s from audiences.
A lot of people manage to figure out " The world is sick/ All glory's transitive." Just think of the telegram Gloria Swanson is reputed to have sent to her producer when she got ill on the streetcar and couldn't make it to a weekend shooting: " Sick transit. Gloria Monday." (That's a joke. Add smiley.)
The next poem is my only published literary work. I wrote it about a year after attending Clarion, at a time when I was extremely depressed. I sent it off with a humorous covering letter to George Scithers at Amazing Science Fiction and he fairly promptly sent back a letter accepting it and a check for $5.
The following poem is based on some of Milton Erickson's "confusion patterns" that I learned when studying hypnosis. Unfortunately, the typographic variation I've used below doesn't begin to be a substitute for the shifting voice tone with which this should be read aloud. (Imagine it being read by Laurie Anderson.)
It's really a trance induction in the form of a poem. So far, nobody I've ever read it to has ever gone into a trance. (My NLP friends laugh, especially when I get to the third stanza.) A lot of people are just puzzled by it, figuring it's just too deep for them to understand. But every once in a while, someone will come up to me after I've read it aloud and say, " I'm really glad you read that poem. It says some things that I've been thinking a lot about recently." I never ask them to be more specific, because that would be contrary to the spirit of the poem.
The following is a novelty poem I created spontaneously one evening when I was first dating my ex-wife. I'm certainly no Ogden Nash, but some people smile when I read it.
In the fall of 1996, I decided for several reasons that I wanted to learn something about contemporary poetry, and so I took a class from Frank Stewart at the University of Hawaii.
One of the reasons I wanted to learn something about poetry was that for the past several years I'd been going to poetry slams which were given in Honolulu twice a month and organized by a lecturer in the English Department named Paul Pinkosh. I had read a few of my own poems at these slams, which were reasonably well received, but mostly I was reading things by Tom Waits. (In Honolulu, unlike San Francisco, most people have not even heard of Tom Waits.) I'm hardly the first, of course, to have noticed that in many of his songs -- such as "Diamonds On My Windshield," " 9th and Hennepin," or "Who Are You (This Time)?" -- Waits is carrying on the "poetry and jazz" tradition of the Beats. I found that even his more melodic songs worked fairly well as poems, unlike the lyrics of Bob Dylan, which tend to sound awfully thin when read without music.
As I studied the songs of Tom Waits more and more, I realized that here was poetry that actually made sense to me and that I could definitely relate to. So maybe poetry wasn't as completely alien to me as I thought. And the more I listened to Tom Waits, and also to Laurie Anderson, the more I started to feel that this was something I ought to be able to do myself. (Unfortunately, though, so far I have not written anything that is in any way comparable to the work of either of these two writers.)
Frank Stewart's class started out with Walt Whitman, which was not exactly what I'd been looking for, but which turned out to be much more interesting than I'd expected. He also had us read some Rilke, who I was completely unfamiliar with at that time. I will always be grateful to Frank for this. Rilke, I think, is pretty much the poet I have always been looking for. His poetry is what I once wanted to find in the French poets, but never quite found. (Probably the French poet who came the closest was Appollinaire).
I hadn't realize that the class would be in large part a workshop, and that we would be expected to write poems as well as read them. I started looking through a book of Edward Hopper reproductions, and to my astonishment I came up with something that, despite a number of clichés and other weaknesses (pointed out to me by Morgan Blair), is a real poem.
In the spring of 1997, I took (after considerable hesitation) the advanced graduate poetry workshop offered at the University of Hawaii by Morgan Blair (the professor formerly known as Faye Kicknosway). She is a teacher who has a great deal to offer, although she can also be extremely frustrating and infuriating. I certainly learned a whole lot from her, about writing and about other things. But I could never manage to write the sort of things she wanted us to.
She gave us a number of poems by John Yau all based on a painting called "Corpse and Mirror" by Jasper Johns, and asked us to write a poem about a painting. I decided to write a prose poem about several paintings by Matisse. It was not at all what Morgan wanted, but despite several very good suggestions from her, I was never able to revise it satisfactorily. (When I read it now, I can see that it is in need of a lot of quite straightforward editing. It's very much a first draft.)
Nonetheless, despite some major flaws, I think that in its own way it has a certain charm.
And finally a short poem I wrote for the open-mike reading in North Beach I've mentioned before. I had actually written the opening lines several years before, but had never been able to figure out what to do with them. They were in large part inspired by a well known Beatles song:
She came in through the bathroom window,Then later there are the lines
Protected by a silver spoon.
She said she'd always been a dancer.Rhythmically this is a perfect match for the opening lines. For some strange reason, this song appealed to me a whole lot. Eventually I realized that the rhythm was perfect iambic.
She danced in twenty clubs a night.
And so, trying to figure out how to create the same effect myself, I came up with the lines
A woman walks in high-heeled shoesBut as I say, it was years before I was able to figure out what to do with these lines.
Across a wooden floor.
As I finally started coming up with more lines, it occurred to me that some extent I was retraversing the territory of Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven. And so I decided to go with that idea, ending with the well known quote. And this suggested the idea that there should be a pervasive cynicism throughout the poem.
Somehow I had the feeling that this poem was actually meant to be a song. I had in mind something in the style of Leonard Cohen. In any case, a musician told me that it's in 6/8 time.
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