Monday, June 30, 2014

In the Now

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

In the Now

A fiction writer confesses his new-found love for writing in the present tense. Here’s why you may want to consider bringing your own fiction into the present.

First published in Writer’s Digest

For years, I’ve been fighting off the present tense.
I don’t mean this as some Buddhist confession. I mean that, during the past twenty years, as literary novels began bursting forth with he says, she walks and they dance, I refused to participate. As a staunch minimalist, firmly opposed to anything that muddies the author/reader connection, I saw present-tense narrative as a showy, intrusive gimmick – and vowed my fealty to the great past-tense tradition.
Boy, was I due for a comeuppance.
During a holiday visit, I ransacked my sister’s bookshelves and picked up Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman’s 2001 novel about a small-town hero with a dark past. I finished a few days later, and was rereading the last page when I noticed it was written in past tense. Along with the 282 pages before it.
So much for “intrusive.” And now I was curious. I took a short story that I’d been percolating – a man who falls in love with a barista who makes perfect lattes – and gave it a shot. Though I often lapsed into past tense (a 20-year habit is hard to kick), I found the transition remarkably seamless. I also found that the new tense imbued my descriptive passages with a poetic, gem-like quality. Rather than trying to describe this quality in precise terms, I’ll give you a sample:

            That night, Andre crosses his front lawn, huffing steam into the cold air. He pauses and sets down his guitar case. A full moon is filtering the madrone, silvering its smooth limbs. Reminding Andre of Roxanne’s shoulders, bare and slender, turning away as the espresso bites into his tongue.

            I am now halfway through my first present-tense novel, and have become the most unbearable of evangelists (like your Uncle Ralph, who finally quit smoking after 30 years, and wants to make sure everybody else does the same). So find a comfy spot on the pew as I bear witness to the present tense and its several salvations.

Putting the Reader Into the Story

If you watch the History Channel, you’ll notice that most of its commentators speak in the present tense (“So there’s Napolean, stuck behind enemy lines, and he’s completely out of croissants!”). If you watch Comedy Central, you’ll notice that the classic joke style is present tense (“Two authors walk into a bar…”). In both cases, the object is the same: to draw the listener into the center of the action.
Not that past tense prevents this. We are programmed by centuries of storytelling to take a past event and convert it to a present image. But if present tense can increase the efficiency of this mental conversion even five percent, why not use it?

Narrator Knowledge

One of the best ways to create power within a narrative is to pique the reader’s interest by withholding information (for instance, a character who suffers extreme panic attacks but refuses to say what might be causing them). When you reveal these explanatory secrets later, you create a sense of resolution similar to the moment, in music, when a dissonant chord returns to its home key. In this way, all good books, no matter what their genre, are mysteries.
The past-tense narrative, however, implies that the events in a story have already occurred. It’s easy for a reader to feel, therefore, that the secrets of the story are being withheld – and that he is being toyed with. Using present tense, the author creates the illusion that these events are unrolling at precisely the moment the reader is reading them – and that the narrator himself has no idea what’s coming next. (All stories are manipulations, of course, but some are more subtle than others.)

Character Denotation

A few years ago, I wrote a novel featuring three first-person male narrators, and decided to give each of them a distinct manner of speaking. The shy artist used simple words and brief sentences. The cynical journalist used large words and complex sentences. The gregarious former jock spoke in present tense.
We all know this guy. He’s loud, street-smart, and he loves to tell stories: “So Charlie and me, we’re walkin’ in there like we know what we’re doin’, and all of a sudden the fire sprinklers go off!”
Another present-speaker is the American teenager: “And then Suzanne goes, ‘No way!’ And I’m all, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ Then Terry pulls up in his Nissan and we’re like, “Si-i-ck!’”
I make fun – and certainly no writer wants to work in stereotypes. But present-tense speaking contains a definite blue-collar undertone, and can come in handy for giving your character an immediate and recognizable style.

Killing the Pluperfect

For the geek grammarians and lovers of syntax, I save the best for last. I’m basically a musical writer, and I can’t be happy with a sentence or paragraph unless it slides into a certain rhythmic track. One villain that continually messes with my mojo is the verb form that we call pluperfect.
A pluperfect phrase is formed by the word had and the past participle form of a verb (swim swam swum, get got gotten, drink drank drunk). “Johnny had swum across the lake, where he had drunk too much and had gotten sick.” Put simply, pluperfect describes an event that happened before a past-tense event. (The equivalent form in adjectives would be the superlative: close, closer, closest.)
In a past-tense narrative, the author is operating on two primary levels. The main thrust of the story occurs in the past tense; flashbacks and recollections take place in pluperfect. Especially in tales where memory plays an important role, the author will spend a lot of time dealing with those clunky had gottens and had swums.
By using the present tense as his base, the author is able to handle past events in past tense (an enormously logical concept) and rid himself of pluperfect. Even better, he can keep pluperfect in his back pocket, in case he needs to describe an event that occurs before a flashback or recollection. He has just expanded his arsenal of tense from two to three (or, if you include future tense – will swim – from three to four).

To illustrate, I’ll take a passage from my novel and mess with it. First, its current form. Note how neatly the tense switches from past to present.

My memories of Tuesday are like figures viewed through marble glass, but a few odd tracks are clear. Nefertiti found an excuse for buying me a drink – then, arriving at a busy café, instructed me to save a table while she got the cappuccinos. She sprinkled hers with chocolate; she sprinkled mine with Ecstasy.

Now, I’ll convert the same passage to past and pluperfect.

My memories of Tuesday were like figures viewed through marbled glass, but a few odd tracks were clear. Nefertiti had found an excuse for buying me a drink – then, arriving at a busy café, had instructed me to save a table while she had gotten the cappuccinos. She had sprinkled hers with chocolate; she had sprinkled mine with Ecstasy.

Admittedly, the switch in no way destroys the passage. But you can feel the rhythmic dissonance. Extend this over a 300-page novel and the difference is enormous. (Worse yet, imagine an entire novel composed in pluperfect!)

It’s no accident that poets – working in the most rhythmically demanding form of all – are particularly fond of present tense.

Why Not?

Unlike your Uncle Ralph and his cigarettes, I would never completely forsake the past tense (you’ll note that I used it for this article). But from now on, the present tense will hold a special place in my repertoire.

The truth is, if the author does his work, the average reader won’t even notice. So pick what’s best for you – what’s best for your story – and have at it.

In researching this article, I was ransacking another bookcase – belonging to my friend Anne – for present-tense novels.

Oh, wait a minute. Let’s do this in present tense.

So I’m pulling out Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season – a 2000 bestseller about spelling bees – and Anne says, “Oh, that’s really good – but it’s not in present tense.”

I scan a few random pages, take a quick survey of verbs, and say, “Wanna bet?”

Photo by MJV

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Poem: Gooroo (Chekhov)

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

“Do everything in your power and will to avoid sounding and writing like anyone else.”

--Mike McGee, performance poet

Gooroo (Chekhov)
On the night of my freedom
a Cherokee barnowl spins by
to snatch my breath
a single helium balloon wanders the parking lot
like a security guard
and the soccer field is framed by airline seats

The history of drama is such that
no sane person would dare attempt it

(“In her eyes, she is quiet, like a fish”)

Better to climb the mountains on Lake Michigan
ski slaloms across Death Valley
eat ice cream with no apology

than try to wrap up the human bloodflow
like a fifty-cent candy bar

(“You have created an elaborate romance for yourself”)

Go find your answers in a bookstore
where they are rolling in Hemingway
on a handtruck

But tonight I will toss my every essential
into a hatchback
and just leave

Because leaving is the only response

Photo by MJV

Saturday, June 28, 2014

San Francisco Opera’s Madama Butterfly

June 21, 2014

Blessed with two powerful home-grown leads and a provocative 2006 production design by artist Jun Kaneko, stage director Leslie Swackhamer led an emotionally forceful interpretation of Butterfly. Kaneko’s designs are immediately unsettling, his characters clothed in patchworks of primary colors and backed by large screens hosting vivid, stark visuals. The approach is especially helpful to the longtime aficionado, who has likely seen a dozen or more performances of Puccini’s classic.

By the second scene, one begins to realize there’s a bit of color-coding going on, based on national themes. Pinkerton appears in bold red, white and blue with notes of yellow and orange, reflecting the sunrise colors of his latest fascination, Japan. Butterfly is married in virginal white, but spends her honeymoon in a robe of wild red, white and blue polka dots (the colors fading once her husband disappears across the ocean). Sharpless begins with colors of both countries, then shifts to a neutral brown as his very belief in nationality takes a dive. The use of these colors in Etch-a-Sketch animations, projected on screens, adds a needed visual element to the Humming Chorus that represents Butterfly’s night-long wait for her returning sailor. (The colors of doom are black and white, evident in the costumes of the Bonze and Pinkerton’s American wife.)

Racette possesses the kind of power heard from dramatic sopranos, but draws a divine balance in Butterfly, a role she has performed many times. She applies a pure lyric to the first act, then, having kept her powder dry, grows bigger and bigger along Butterfly’s wrenching descent, beginning with “Un bel di,” in which she alternates between an intimate conversation with Suzuki and powerful outpourings of faith and optimism in Pinkerton’s return. From there, she’s free to pull out the stops, but still takes moments to sculpt her dynamic phrasings, like the instruction to Suzuki to fetch her bridal gown so that Pinkerton may see her “the way he saw me that first night,” spelling out the line on a lovely fade and grow. Taken as a whole, Racette’s vocal force, combined with her always-excellent acting, creates perhaps the most emotionally powerful Cio-Cio-San I’ve seen.

Brian Jagde offer the same frustration as his most recent SFO performance as Cavaradossi: a tenor who unleashes a gorgeous Domingoesque lirico spinto and then proceeds to disappear. (Did Puccini’s tenors have lunch breaks written into their contracts?) His wedding-night duet with Racette, “Viene la sera,” is a thing of beauty, and he projects just the right cocky charisma in Pinkerton’s “Yankee vagabond” song, “Docunque al mondo,” to rationalize Cio-Cio-San falling for his blarney.

The rest of the primary cast follows suit in the element of intensity. Baritone Brian Mulligan presents a Sharpless more authoritarian and righteous than the usual, and bass Morris Robinson, Voice-of-God-in-residence, adds heft and a good helping of intimidation to the Bonze. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong lends a powerful voice and dramatic seriousness to Suzuki, whose moments of servant sympathy are among the most heartbreaking in the opera (“She will cry so much!”). Her unison passages with Racette in the celebration of Pinkerton’s return, “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio,” are rapturous. Tenor Julius Ahn plays Goro in an even-handed fashion, although he gets thrown about the stage quite a bit!

The female chorus was much too subdued during Butterfly’s entrance, but the chorus did a lovely job with the backstage Humming Chorus, accompanied by star-like pizzicatos from the strings. Nicola Luisotti led his orchestra in a performance that took full advantage of Puccini’s manipulative moments: searing, ominous passages from the strings, the great upwellings of brass signalling the sighting of Pinkerton’s ship, the heart-stopping tam-tam gunshots as Butterfly comes to her final decision, and a final crescendo and cut-off that was like a punch to the sternum. This is not an opera for the faint of heart.

Miles Sperske is an even more adorable Sorrow than the usual (it always astounds me that any child that young could stand still as some strange lady screams into his ear.). The inclusion of traditional Japanese kurogo – black-clad performers delivering props and changing sets – was an especially tasty addition. Racette’s flair for comedy was on full display in Butterfly’s disdain for her suitor Yamadori (Efrain Solis) and Suzuki’s prayers (“Your Japanese gods are fat and lazy.”)

Through July 9, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $24-$379, 415/864-3330,

Images: Patricia Racette as Butterfly. Brian Mulligan (Sharpless) andBrian Jagde (Pinkerton). The first-act set. Photos by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, FREE today on Amazon Kindle. His rock band, Exit Wonderland, recently released its first video, “Rise Up.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Exit Wonderland

The author's band, Exit Wonderland, just released its first video, "Rise Up," with audio from Grammy-winning sound man Bill Hare!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pedro and Angelina

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

“What’s interesting about acting
is playing characters you’re
not like.”

            --Molly Ringwald, actor

Pedro and Angelina

From the novel Frosted Glass (Dead End Street, LLC)

In the lovely orchard lands of Oregon’s Hood River Valley, in the shadow of the diamond white volcano, there lived a proud and prosperous grower of pear trees named Esteban Ochoas.  Esteban possessed a generous, joyous spirit, but one forever marked by the loss of his wife, Lucia, ten years before.  Lucia had perished in a car accident, forced off a snowy mountain road by an out-of-control big rig.  Ever since that morning when the sheriff had come to Esteban’s door, his soul had been touched by shadows.

Rather than seek the miracle of marital bliss a second time, Esteban chose to focus his attentions on his farm, and on his lovely daughter, Angelina.  The love between father and daughter was so strong that, after Angelina earned her business degree at a college in Portland, she passed up the big glass buildings of that city in order to return to the farm and keep her father’s books.  Doubly blessed by his daughter’s business sense and his ability to speak with his migrant workers in their native tongue, Esteban built the most successful family-owned orchard in the valley.  The old man’s happiness knew no bounds.

Intent on keeping their jobs with such an excellent and kind boss, the farmworkers took note of the bond between father and daughter and drew in any thoughts about Angelina.  There was one, however, who had more trouble with this task than most.

Pedro Poncilla had arrived at the farm ten years before – in fact, soon after the death of the boss’s wife.  He was an illegal immigrant from Guadalajara with a sharp mind and a great desire to prove himself as a worker.  He was profoundly moved by the grief he saw in the farmowner’s eyes, and resolved to care for the orchards as if they were his own.

Even through the fog of his loss, Esteban Ochoas knew a remarkable young man when he saw one.  He rewarded Pedro’s unfailing labor by helping him obtain a green card, and then his American citizenship, and, finally, by promoting him to the job of foreman.  Pedro thus became one of three workers who remained on the farm year-round, in a clean little cottage next to the south orchard.

From his front window, Pedro could look across the front lot of the farm and see the large window of Angelina’s office, where she sat late at night reviewing the farm’s paperwork.  This ready vantage of the prize he could not have – her pillowed lips, cave-dark eyes, hair that shone like blackbird’s wings – was not particularly good for Pedro’s health.

Five years into his torment, Pedro thought about leaving.  He could always hide his real reasons by making up some fib about an ailing grandmother in San Bernardino.  He was soon granted a reprieve, however, in the person of Gustavo, a bespectacled migrante who was always spending his breaks and lunches with his nose buried in a book.  Curious, Pedro asked Gustavo what was so compelling about these books.  Gustavo handed him the volume he was reading just then – a collection of poetry by a man named Miguel Hernandez – and said, “Why don’t you read this, and then you can tell me.”

Reading at his front window that night, the halo’d vision of Angelina across the yard, Pedro could not believe the things that he discovered in the pages of Gustavo’s book.  Why, these were not normal Spanish words at all – they were like tropical birds the colors of Christmas ornaments, scrambling around in his head and taking him to wild, impossible landscapes.  And all the next day, working in the orchards, the words of Miguel Hernandez continued to burn in his limbs, investing every small action with the goldenrod aura of new knowledge.

After consuming the dozen volumes in Gustavo’s collection, Pedro took off each Saturday morning to pedal his squeaky old bike to the biblioteca in Hood River and gather more: Cesar Vallejo, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Una Muno, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Soon enough, Pedro found that he, too, carried the poetic impulse, that he, too, could make his language fly like birds – though at lower altitudes, and with feathers much plainer.  Still, he found that he could use his rough new skills as a way to tap off his irresolvable feelings about Angelina.  He found a café near the biblioteca where he could spend hours reading his latest discovery and then translating that same sort of magic into his own writing, filling notebook after notebook with tributes to forbidden love.

Alas! Just about the time that Pedro had come to terms with his plight, he left the café one Saturday to discover Angelina’s red truck parked across the street in front of the grocery store.  The following week, he noticed the truck’s arrival, and all the next month he made a study of Angelina’s deeply entrenched routine.  She would park outside the grocery just before eleven, walk down the street to do various errands, and then return at about one o’clock to do her grocery shopping.

This two-hour window was too much for Pedro to ignore, for here lay the opportunity to express his love directly, and yet maintain his anonymity.  He would arrive in town at ten o’clock and carefully lock his bicycle out of sight, next to a tree behind the café.  At noon, he would go next door to the florist shop, where a kindly old Anglo woman named Mabel would sell him a single blossom - a carnation one week, a rose the next, always changing.  Then, while Angelina was off doing her errands, he would walk as casually as possible across the street to clip the flower under the driver’s side windshield wiper on Angelina’s truck.

He was too afraid to observe Angelina’s return (the delivery itself made his strong workman’s hands shake with anxiety), but that night, Angelina would turn on the lights in her office to reveal a small yellow vase on her desk – and in the vase, Pedro’s flower!

This went on for a year, and still Pedro would feel a thrill when he spied his flowers on Angelina’s window, still his hands would shake like a teenage vandal’s when he made his deliveries.  Eventually, however, even this was not enough to quell Pedro’s longings, and once again he began to consider leaving the farm.  This time, he had a concrete offer, a cousin at an apple orchard across the river in Washington who said he could get him a job whenever he wanted.

Pedro awoke one Saturday morning in early March to find the sky over Mount Hood like a perfect oil painting of cerulean blue.  The orchards outside his bedroom window had just, in the previous eight hours, achieved the peak of their blossoming, a hazy field of snow-white flowers dripping here and there like the tears of angels.

Pedaling toward Hood River through this paradise, Pedro felt strangely overwhelmed.  When he arrived at the café he wrote a poem about a man who camped out in a pear orchard.  The man bedded down beneath a bower of blossoming pear branches, and in the morning a crew of workers discovered him dead, having literally asphyxiated himself in a pile of white petals.

At the florist’s shop, Mabel (who had long ago figured out the object of Pedro’s purchases) presented him with a white orchid, the most beautiful flower Pedro had ever seen.  She sold it to him at a price that was much lower, he was sure, than its real cost.  Still, even with the thought of the lovely orchid that would appear that evening in Angelina’s window, he returned to the café feeling like a condemned man.  He composed poem after poem about men killed by the terrorizing forces of beauty: a hunter clawed to death by an eagle with feathers of gold, an Alaskan explorer struck by a bolt of lightning from the heart of the Northern Lights, a teenaged boy so distracted by a passing bonita that he walks into the path of a speeding bus.

Two hours later, Pedro applied a final period to this gorgeous genocide, slapped his notebook shut and trudged from the café, too weighed down to even say goodbye to his pals Louis and Jake, hunched over their daily chess match.  At the very moment of dropping down that last dot of ink, in fact, Pedro had resolved never to write a poem again.  Once he escaped to the apple-fields of the north, he knew that the magic of words would conjure up Angelina’s face at every stanza.  His determination was so concrete, in fact, that he left behind a volume of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca atop his usual windowside table.

So it was that, with heart and feet turning steadily to iron, Pedro Poncilla rounded the back corner of the café to find a most unusual sight: his old bicycle, angled against the tree, covered from handlebar to rear fender in pear blossoms, whole branches of them, fixed to its metallic limbs with loops of white ribbon.  It looked like a kind of two-wheeled float, dressed up for an Easter parade.

Frozen in place in the alleyway, Pedro could feel the beauty that had always been outside of him, now asphyxiating him, filling his lungs and mouth and muscles, inflating him to a man three times his former size.  He knelt next to his bicycle, running his hands over its new tissue-paper skin, then untied the branches one by one, wrapping them in a sheet of butcher paper he got from Mabel.  He tied the bundle to the center rod of his bicycle, and carefully placed the ribbons in his pocket.  Then he rode home like a demon, questions flashing through his mind like the sparrows whipping past him in the wind.

He pulled into the farm to find father and daughter Ochoas standing next to the red truck, beaming in amusement and admiration, Angelina holding the white orchid in her hands.  As Pedro pulled to a stop in the loose gravel of the drive, he could feel the tug of one last anxiety: how in the world could he explain himself? His concerns were shattered by the booming laughter of his boss.

“Señor Poncilla!” he shouted.  “I see you have brought us more pear blossoms.  I am so relieved; I was afraid we were going to run out!”

Esteban Ochoas stepped to Pedro’s side and gave him a warm handshake.  “I was wondering, Señor Poncilla, if you would do us the honor of having dinner tonight with my daughter and myself.  I would like to discuss your apparently great interest in floral horticulture.”

Pedro smiled shyly, afraid to look at Angelina’s face lest it cause his heart to burst.He caught his breath and said, “Yes, by all means, Señor Ochoas.  I… I would be honored. Yes.”

Photo by MJV

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Beast Has Eight Beats

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

The Beast Has Eight Beats

In the novel The Monkey Tribe, life coach Benjamin Haas decides that the main thing plaguing his client, unemployed accountant Jack Teagarden, is an inability to see the full range of the possible lives he might pursue. In order to open up his mind, Ben takes Jack to a drum-circle party, where he orders him to smoke his first-ever dose of  marijuana.

It seems to take forever for the pot to take hold, but just about the time that Jack is having this thought he realizes that he actually is stoned. It feels like he’s walking around underwater, without the need for oxygen – or maybe he has gills, how cool would that be? Every few minutes, he seems to punch back through to his normal consciousness, and each time he finds himself in a new physical location, as if he’s undergoing some kind of teletransportation. During one of these, he finds himself having an animated conversation with Constance over the idea of voluntary evolution, and he finds that his brain has separated into two discrete camps. One camp takes what Constance has said and spits back new ideas in complex, cogent combinations (“It could be that computerized intelligence is the ultimate tool that we have developed for intentionally advancing the mass intelligence”). The other camp appears in the form of a coffeehouse slacker, coolly smoking a clove cigarette and saying, “Dude! How are you even doing this? You are so stoned!”

“And then there’s this constant, individual search for identity. Are we really defined by our jobs, or the ways in which each of us cultivates our intelligence and, thereby, our spiritual selves?”

This is Constance. The tone of her voice is simultaneously soft and firm, a dichotomy that Jack finds intriguing. Did he just think the word dichotomy?

“I mean, look at your case. That is so fucked up that you have to go through all that stuff just because some cold-blooded corporation has to send another thousand jobs overseas.”

“Oh God! And the really screwed-up part is…” (This seems to be Jack’s own voice, which sounds oddly loose and vibrant, like a morning-radio DJ.) “…the fucking bastard who cost me my job got off scot-free. And now he’s letting me stay at his beach house while he’s off on vacation. But that’s only because I caught him cheating on his wife in Oregon. You ever hear of the Devil’s Horns? Or Multnomah Falls? In fact, this house has its own waterfall. Crazy, high-tech haunted mansion. Scares the hell out of me.”

“Dude!” says the slacker. He picks at the fresh rattlesnake tattoo on his arm. “Why the hell are you telling her all this? Was that a drum?”

Jack teletransports again, surfacing on an easy chair as a black cat purrs at his shoulder. The stereo is playing an African tribe before the big hunt, thin, coal-black men jumping around a fire in Picasso masks. To his left he finds the moon goddess Terra, one ear cocked to a round frame drum painted with an Irish knot. She holds a stick with bulbous tips on either end, shaking it back and forth across the skin to produce a rolling thunder. Above and behind her is Constance, wearing a focused expression as she works her hands over two standing drums – he believes these are congas.

Across the room, Ivan stands with a cylindrical drum tied around his waist, rolling his hands across the top. The rolls are incredibly rapid, creating high bursts of sound that ride the top of the rumble like a surfer at the peak of a wave. Sitting just behind Ivan is Ben, sipping calmly from a pint of Guinness. He sets it down, then picks up a dark, lacquered frog and runs a stick along its ridged back, producing a sound very much like a frog. (“Genius!” says the slacker.) Ben scans the room, one player at a time, mapping the sonic layout.

The front door opens, admitting a red flame with green cat’s-eyes. Willie jumps from behind his bongos to perform a greeting dance, gray goat’s hooves tied around his ankles. The red flame gives birth to a smile, and scarlet lips that kiss Willie on his plump cheek.

Jack looks down and realizes that he is holding a drum between his knees, a smaller version of Ivan’s. The drum carries a circle of dark fur around its rim, held tight by a fishnet of knots and strings. Jack follows the grain of the skin, swirls of butterscotch and chocolate against a field of sepia. The swirls are like words in a sentence; when he reaches the period, he thumps it with a finger. The drum gives out a hollow sound like black Peruvian coffee. The sound shakes all the way to his legbones, exiting out his toes, which are tapping to the beat of the tribe. He strikes the period with his palm and the sound nearly spills him from his chair. Jack smiles.

An hour later, they’re still at it. Jack’s hands begin to ache from the unaccustomed abuse. He scans the room to find his comrades intent on their work, their eyes settled on a middle space over their drumheads, driving the great rumbling beast forward. And yet, it’s the beast that’s truly in charge, like an enormous dog dragging its owner by a leash. Despite the physical distances between the drummers, they are closer in this conversation, this negotiation of rhythm, than if they were speaking face-to-face.

Jack’s hands are doing things that he really doesn’t understand; he has no idea where this ability might have come from. But on he goes, playing along the drumhead even as he finds the red flame directly across from him, seated on a low stool with a drum just like his. She flashes her green cat’s eyes, and appears to be sending him a message. It arrives in a single thump, and although Jack doesn’t get it, his hands do. He waits for the beast to circle back to that same place in time and sends the single thump right back. Flame girl grins, revealing a leftward quirk in her thick, pliable lips. She waits again on the beast and sends out two beats. (“It’s a djembe,” says the slacker. “You’re both playing djembes.”) Jack’s hands follow the circle and strike the same two. The two of them keep adding beats until they reach eight, and the beast can hold no more. The beast has eight beats! If you play two beats, you have to wait six more till the circle returns. If you play three, you wait five, four/four, one/seven. Numbers! No one told him there would be numbers. He sends the red flame a loopy grin, excuses himself from their tennis match and sets off into a roll, fractions too small to count, stirring up the blurred light with his fingers.

Jack hears an off-beat beneath the rumble and tracks the sound to the far side of the room, where Ivan sits behind a pair of white drums carved with Chinese calligraphy. He drives them forward with two padded mallets, stepping out of his pattern to hammer the two big beats. Jack’s hands are talking to him; they say, ‘It’s another message.’ The two beats begin to spread around the circle, making new converts, growing in volume, gathering silent space around themselves until they are sonic booms, shaking the walls. Ivan flairs the mallets over his head, a gesture that says, Get ready. The beast circles once more and down they come, followed by a hacked-off silence that sucks the air out of the room. The tribe answers with a thrilled chorus of laughter, shouting, Mexican gritos, a few stomps on the floor. Jack makes a sound like an overstimulated crow. The ruckus smooths out into a river of chatter: “That ending! What a I love that part where you Did you see Ivan dude! You were going off little clicking thing God! I’m so I mean awesome! I don’t believe we’ve met.”

A small white hand, palms red with use. He follows it up the arm to a porcelain face, cat’s eyes, red flame of hair.

“Hi,” says Jack.

“Yes you are. What’s your name, sailor?”


“No. That’s the dog.”

“No, no,” says Jack, then loses himself in a fit of giggling.

Ben’s face appears between them. “No, it really is Jack. Jack, this is Audrey, the bird lady of Monterey.”

“She’s fucking gorgeous,” says Jack, who is completely unaware that he has just spoken these words out loud.

“Ha!” Audrey laughs. “Smooth talker.”

“No, believe me, really,” says Jack. “Not talking smooth ever.”

“Okayee.” Audrey looks to Ben. “First-timer?”

Ben laughs huskily. “For everything: drumming, pot, hookah pipe…”

“Hookah pipe!” says Audrey. “Where?”

“Follow me,” says Ben. “You too, Jack.”

“Right,” says Jack – but Jack’s intentions are immediately derailed by the smell of egg rolls. He discovers an entire tray of them on the table, steaming with heat, and attacks them like a bear waking from hibernation. This causes a white flame of laughter from his left. It’s Terra, her face glistening with sweat from the drumming.

“I don’t know why the munchies are so funny,” she says. “They just are. After you’re done gorging yourself, young man, Ben says you should go back toward the car and you’ll spot him. And if you need some extra incentive, Audrey’ll be there, too.”

“Are those deviled eggs?” says Jack. “And sushi! Oh my God.”

After consuming an enormous quantity of food, Jack grabs a chocolate brownie and makes for the front door. The lawn is dark again, and two tall, gangly men are slashing at each other with light sabers, each of them holding a can of beer in his free hand. Jack spots the dull white ghost of Ben’s Miata and heads down the walk. Hearing hoarse laughter from the carport, he rounds the corner to find Willie and Constance roasting marshmallows over a trio of logs in a tiny barbecue grill. Beyond them is a shimmering blue light that smells like strawberries. It’s a hot tub, with three occupants: Ivan, Ben and Audrey. Ben calls out.

“Jack! Over here, lad. Have a dip and a smoke. Or a smoke and a dip.”

“Or a doke,” says Ivan.

“Or a smip,” says Audrey.

Ben inserts the tip of a long, thin hose into his mouth and releases a cloud of smoke. The hose trails back to a tall object on a nearby picnic table, looking like the kind of lamp that sometimes contains genies. The lamp wears a cap of aluminum foil, bearing two ash-gray bars with glowing orange hearts.

“Jack,” says Ben. “Is that chocolate on your teeth?”

“Yes!” says Jack.

“The brownies next to the deviled eggs?”

“I think so. Why?”

Ben taps a thoughtful finger against his cheek, then smiles. “I’ll… tell you later. So, are you coming in?”

“But…I don’t have a bathing suit.”

“Well that certainly didn’t stop us.”

It’s about this time that Jack notices Audrey’s breasts, small milk-white mounds with strawberry-colored nipples. He feels his face growing hot.

Ben takes another puff and hands the pipe to Audrey. He gives Jack a serious study. “I’m sorry, Jack. It could be I’m pushing you too hard. Lord knows, you have so far been a tremendously pleasant surprise. You were terrific on the drums.”

“Numbers,” says Jack. “It’s all numbers.”

“So it is! That’s marvelous, Jack. You are a certified public accountant of rhythm. However, I fear that you will miss out on this delicious feeling, of sitting naked in a hot tub with nothing but your friends and the stars! Let’s see, where is that switch.” He finds a dial on the side of the tub and turns off the underwater lamps. All that remains is a flickering light from the barbecue.

“Now’s your chance, Jack!” says Audrey. “Take it off, baby!”

Something about a gorgeous female commanding him to strip makes Jack laugh out loud; he decides to further the gag by pretending he’s actually going to do it.

“Okay. But only if everyone closes their eyes.”

“Fine,” says Ben. “But you only get ten seconds. Ten… nine…”

It’s a part of Jack’s corporate nature that he simply cannot resist a deadline. He tears off his jeans, shirt and underwear, then vaults over the side of the tub with such haste that he almost slips and falls. He settles into a space between Ivan and Audrey, submerging his private parts just before Ben calls out zero and switches on the lights. His tubmates open their eyes, snickering.

Audrey smiles in a most adorable fashion. “Where do you find these babes in the wood, Ben?”

“Coffeehouses. This one was eavesdropping on one of my sessions and found me simply irresistible. Now, my student prince. You’ve come this far, you may as well try the hookah. Are you sure it was the brownies next to the deviled eggs?”

“I think so.”

“Okay, now this smokes just like a cigarette, and it won’t make you cough like the pot.”

Jack accepts the pipe-end from Audrey, trying hard to keep his eyes on her face. He holds the end in his teeth and breathes in. It’s a sweet smoke, vapor chewing gum, and he realizes it tastes like strawberries.

“It’s a flavored tobacco,” says Ben. “Very smooth.”

“Dude! Check that out.” Ivan gestures over the back fence. A sliver of moon is creeping past the ridgeline, a silver cap on the dark east hills. Audrey leans toward Jack to say something, which makes him that much more conscious of his nakedness. But he has to admit, the nakedness feels good. It’s not so much a sexual thing as a sense that he has crossed a line and now is dangling off the edge of the world, utterly unfettered, in a terrified sort of way. He also can’t believe he’s just had all of these thoughts in the time that it takes Audrey to lean his way.

“I hate to admit that I peeked,” she says. “But I couldn’t help noticing that you forgot to take off your socks.”

In such close quarters, her whisper may as well be an aria. Ivan and Ben burst into laughter. Jack practices a rough yoga attempting to remove said socks without revealing his privates. He lifts them like a pair of used condoms and tosses them to the cement with a dull splop.

The laughter dies down; Ivan manages to ignite a joint and send it around the tub. Jack smokes it without coughing, and feels sophisticated. The talking dies down in the dance of fireflame, stars sprinkled like grains of sugar on a pitch-black table. Jack feels that his synapses have been lain open to the night, and a thought enters the stream like the taste of a strawberry: This must be something like what they mean when they say “happiness.” He feels Audrey’s fingers folding around his.

Photo by MJV

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Poem: Mustang Sally

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

Mustang Sally

Call her a red-haired Jewish soul eyed brick wall Los Angeles blues belter wide stance evil eye coffee espresso stare melt you into the sidewalk. You needn’t say more unless you feel like it.

Big Irish lug nut sits on the ride cymbal, too lost in his two four fills to hear
the singer, nothing more than a shoulder blade on his middle tom.

Still, two days later he draws the picture in full fashion: shafts of sun piping the next door brickpile; longneck Buds, a shower of smoke, guitar case coffins; stage stack of Clapton drivers, one China rip and roll sax.

Mustang Sally holds up a strong pale hand, cantering the tempo. The band stays rutstuck lagging, but not me, me and my high hat frills. I follow her fingers all the way down with the cue of my sticks: twelve bars, twelve bars and home.      

Photo by MJV

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What's My Line?

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity 

“All drama is about dissonance.
All comedy is about dissonance. Where would we be without the
sword and the banana peel?”

        --Bruce Adolphe, composer

 What’s My Line?

The right profession for your characters will open up a wealth of possibilities in your story. Do your research and create an authentic feel for a protagonist’s vocation.

First published in Writer’s Digest

Here’s the situation: You’re at a party. You’ve just met someone. Names are exchanged – and then you face the daunting task of beginning a conversation. What are the next words out of your mouth?

“So – what do you do?”

Why is this? Simple – because a person’s job provides a readily accessible, non-invasive point of inquiry that is rife with conversational possibilities. That one tidbit can inspire common ground, follow-up questions, insights on character, avenues to humor – possibly even free advice.

“Action is character,” wrote Fitzgerald – and few actions speak louder than what we choose to do for a living.

Employ your characters! Even when career factors are far from the main thrust of your narrative, carefully choosing and researching occupations for your fictional heroes opens up a wealth of possibilities for enriching your story. Let’s look at how some of today’s best authors have done just that:

Framing the Point-of-View

In David Guterson’s 1999 novel, East of the Mountains, elderly widower Ben Givens discovers that he’s dying of colon cancer. His reaction to this news is largely determined by one important fact: Givens is a retired heart surgeon.

Like all physicians, he knew the truth of such a verdict; he knew full well the force of cancer and how inexorably it operated. He grasped that nothing could stop his death, no matter how hopeful he allowed himself to feel, no matter how deluded… Better to end his life swiftly, cleanly, and to accept that there would be no thwarting the onslaught of the disease.

By making his protagonist a doctor, Guterson sets up the philosophical framework for his hero’s quest: finding the best way to die. He also provides the opportunity for Givens to keep the disease a secret, and, thereby, to make his suicide look like an accident.

Making Work the Story (Making the Story Work)

In his 1993 collection, Working Men, Michael Dorris uses work not just as a point of reference, but often as the central conflict. In the story “Jeopardy,” drug salesman Don Banta’s main task – obtaining physician signatures acknowledging their conversations – means that he spends most of his waking hours chit-chatting medical receptionists. His first target is Dee Dee, whose son suffers from allergies.

“Lots of pollen around, huh? Hey, maybe your little boy… That’s not him in the frame on your desk? I can’t believe how he’s grown. No… Maybe he could try this new inhaler. It’s a miracle worker. Just remember, you don’t know where you got it, right, because I could get in major trouble and it’s just because we’re friends, you know, and I had allergies myself as a kid.”

All in all, a pathetic existence, brought to a devastating nadir when Banta learns that his father has died. Stuck in a motel room with no one to talk to, he calls Dee Dee – and learns that the inhaler he used to bribe his way into her office has saved her son from a near-fatal allergy attack.

Establishing Character

In Anne Tyler’s 1985 novel, Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary is suffering from his son’s murder, his subsequent divorce, and his dog Edward’s growing inclination for biting people. Although dog trainer Muriel Pritchett appears in the story-space usually reserved for a love interest, her loony verbal flights hardly seem a match for a fragile, phobic intellectual. But Muriel trains Edward with a fierce competence, and tells some amazing stories – like the day she was knocked down by a Doberman Pinscher:

“Come to find him standing over me, showing all his teeth. Well, I thought of what they said at Doggie, Do: Only one of you can be boss. So I tell him, ‘Absolutely not.’ …and my right arm is broken so I hold out my left, hold out my palm and stare into his eyes – they can’t stand for you to meet their eyes – and get to my feet real slow. And durned if that dog doesn’t settle right back on his haunches.”

“Good Lord,” Macon said.

Painting a Canvas

In Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel, The Shipping News, Quoyle returns to his ancestral home in Newfoundland, and gets a job at the local paper, covering the boats coming in to harbor. Giving Quoyle this particular assignment allows Proulx to tap into the town’s raison d’etre, as well as the delicious patois of the seagoing trade, like this passage from a local boatbuilder:

“There’s the backbone of your boat, She’s scarfed now. You glance at that, somebody who knows boats, you can see the whole thing right there. But there’s nobody can tell ‘ow she’ll fit the water, handle in the swells and lops until you try ‘er out. Except poor old Uncle Les, Les Budgel. Dead now… Built beautiful skiffs and dories, butter on a ‘ot stove.”

Proulx adds to this canvas by heading her chapters with diagrams and descriptions of sailor’s knots.

The secret to all of these is that they feel authentic – as if the author himself has performed this line of work. It’s possible to capture some of this by reading – but reading is only a start. What you really need is first-hand experience, and real-life sources. Following are some strategies that have worked for me:

Use Ur Own

Sad to say, if you’re writing fiction, you’ve probably got a day job. Why not use it? And don’t discount the non-glamorous. A lot of your readers will have much more in common with a shipping clerk than a shipping magnate.

Squeezed into a grimy crawl space, soldering copper pipes for my contractor brother-in-law, I began to notice the small, poetic details: the horizontal ballet of positioning the torch, the way the lead solder flashed around the joint as it melted, the pleasing hiss when I ran a damp rag over the hot pipe. I decided to give this same assignment to the poet-protagonist of my novel, Rhyming Pittsburgh, hoping to complicate the effete-intellectual stereotype with a healthy dose of blue-collar grit.

Upgrade a Hobby

Lots of hobbies are simply professions performed on an amateur level. Easy enough, then, to take the knowledge attained as a hobbyist and “crank it up” to the level of a fictional pro.

In the nineties, I played drums for several rock and blues bands. Although I never got to the pro level, I met a lot of pros, played a few clubs, and got a good, all-around feel for the musician’s life. I’ve since had two drummer-protagonists (one in a play, one in a novel), made plentiful use of backstage stories, and even filled out the details with specific musical passages from my playing days.

Be a Journalist

Ask questions. Be a buttinsky. People love to talk about their jobs – especially if you tell them you’re working on a novel.

But hey – why not get paid to be a buttinsky? Local papers are always on the lookout for stories on interesting residents and their vocations. And being “on assignment” gives you that much more license to snoop.

For my opera novel, Gabriella’s Voice, I set up an extensive research program. I got an assignment reviewing the San Francisco Opera. I took a soprano friend out to dinner, parked a tape recorder next to her silverware and asked her three hours’ worth of questions. Then I spent a full season with her company, hanging out at auditions, rehearsals and cast parties, picking up backstage stories.

The reviews I most enjoy from Gabriella come from singers, who spend half the book laughing at all the inside jokes, and inevitably come back to me with that priceless question, “How did you know all that?”

The “Life-Line” Strategy

Another thing I learned from Gabriella – this from the editing process – is that it’s easy to carry your research too far, and bury your story in technical details (as if to say, Hey! Look at all the research I did!”). An effective way to fight this off is to establish a correspondence with a real-life expert, and get your information on an “as-needed” basis (similar to the “Life Line” option on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”).

For my novel, Double Blind, I wanted the particular world-view of a scientist – and just happened to have a friend, Rob, who works as a geneticist.

One typical transaction went like this: I wrote, “My character is doing one last thing before leaving work at the end of the day. What is it?” Rob wrote back, “Running his gels,” and described a process for preserving tumor samples. In this case, however, the details were unnecessary. I was simply moving my character from one setting to the next, and needed only that simple three-word phrase, “running his gels,” to add a note of authenticity.

You can also use your Life Line later, to proofread your manuscript for technical errors.

The Prescient Literary/Vocational Advantages of Anticipatory Experiential Ventures

I once had a playwright friend – inveterate spewer of writerly slogans – who used to say, “You gotta live before you can write.” This is the final thought I’d like to leave you with. Though it’s great to use your character’s occupation as an excuse to dig up first-hand experiences, the reverse is also true: You ought to pursue these kinds of adventures at all times, with the idea that, someday later, you’ll use them in your writing.

It’s not just a good way to approach fiction. It’s a good way to approach life.

Photo by MJV