How to tell a story

How to tell a story

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Wonderful day

Good long breakfast chat with Mark ... lawn work with my classic Scotts, a real workhorse ... Baylor loses! ... nice Korean dinner ... free HBO weekend, finally saw Game Change, liked it, scared hell out of me.

Entire term break in one full day. Better than nothing. (There I go again.)

Two Martians for the price of one

Back from breakfast with my friend Mark and the most stimulating conversation I've had since my last breakfast with him. With my old friends Dick and Ger gone, Mark is the only one left with whom to share certain energies and discussions. Besides, he usually brings me the gift of a CD he assembles from his incredible jazz collection.

Now a little quiet and recovery time (haha) and then yard work.

Long gestation

When you write from whole cloth as I do, any odd occurrence in the
life can affect the work. This new work with CJ and Brinkley is taking an unusually long time to find its shape and voice. Fine by me! I'm not going anywhere - or rather, there's just one place left to go. Thus baseball, beginning now, may influence it, as well as my current reading about religion. Summer will be a time to decide a few things.

It's my time of life to appreciate Slowness.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

About perfection

I belong to the less is more school of aesthetics. I respond to under-statement, clean lines, phrasing, timing, more than to embellishments and histrionics. The Billie Holiday school of singing, not the Ella Fitzgerald scat-singing school. Hence my choices below of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Little Walter.

Less is more is the minority school. Most performers like to go for it in a big way. More is more. You can have it. I'll take the quiet intricate finger-picking of Mississippi John Hurt any day.

Perfect performances

Every sensibility cherishes a number of moments of perfection: artists delivering a song or performance that seems beyond improvement. Very high on my list are the two below.

I've had the good fortune to see him do this live several times at the Ash Grove, as well as one on one at the Earth Tavern on an afternoon when I helped him set up for an evening gig. The guitar work here is as well married to the vocals as possible, clean and subtle, flat picking at its best. There are several Elliott songs I call perfect, but perhaps this is number one on the list.

No one played harmonica like Little Walter before or since. The blues here is as good as it gets, and the harp playing, under-stated and clean, incredible timing, well, it blows me away.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Applause: The Weavers At Carnegie Hall

Before there was The Kingston Trio and the folk revival of the late 1950s, which became a protest song movement in the 60s, there was The Weavers, a folk group founded in Greenwich Village in 1948. All four members were seasoned lefties: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. Incredibly enough, they had some pop music hits before they became blacklisted in the early 50s. This 1955 reunion concert at Carnegie Hall instantly sold out and was recorded live. It's my all-time favorite live concert album.

There's a very good documentary about The Weavers, called Wasn't That A Time.

Salmon's Family

Here is what is wrong with us:

even after we realized
that salmon swim home
for regeneration and death;
even then, this great mystery
of Nature, repeated and
repeated, did not awe us
to the point of
wondrous celebration.
We sang no songs,
we danced no dances,
to acknowledge the gift
of what we saw,
of what we couldn't explain;
we did nothing to help
the salmon on their way.

Quite the contrary.

With dams and pollution,
with commercial over-fishing,
on river after river,
we built obstacles against which
the salmon's mysterious journey
became more difficult and
less successful, as if
something about it made us
uneasy, defensive, needing
to change Nature instead of
celebrating it, singing, dancing;
instead we celebrated what
we called progress, built on
the corpses of struggling,
failing salmon. After all,
a fish is just a fish --
but look, electric lights
are everywhere!

But Nature is one
big family, and salmon
have many relatives.
What we did to salmon,
salmon's cousins now do
to us: hurricane and tornado,
flood and drought,
storms beyond storms
as the salmon's cousins
make clear the central
theme of Family:

if you mess with one of us,
you mess with us all.

Backroads of Yamhill County

I don't venture into Oregon wine country more than once every year or two. The drive to Carlton for our anniversary dinner at an Italian restaurant we like was gorgeous once we headed out of Newberg and got off the main roads. Rolling hills, about which H likes to say, I didn't know there were so many shades of green, blue sign after blue sign giving directions to a winery: we must have passed 30 or 40 of them. In the 1980s, when I directed the first comprehensive profile of the local wine industry from an economic point of view, there were only a dozen, if that. Half a dozen you could choose from on the store shelves. A huge and successful growth industry.

Dinner was great, and the drive back pretty as well, until we again hit Newberg and the main drag home. There are only main drags home. H immediately took pain pills and iced up, even this little trip a bit much for her.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Today I sit very far from
the war-filled, rape-filled, torture-filled
landscape of ordinary days
and watch Sketch nap on the divan
while listening to Glenn Gould
play Bach.

All emotions exist
somewhere at the same time.
Choose carefully.

Applause: Al Strobel

Played the one-armed man in Twin Peaks. We were in grad school at the U of O at the same time and some of my best drama memories of Eugene include performances by Strobel. I was particularly blown away by his performance as the father in Pinter's The Homecoming. Ran into him often in the bars around town in those days. It was a small community.

Applause: Twin Peaks

Revisiting on the Fire...this darkly comic soap filled with eccentric and weird characters, improbable events, bizarre humor, haunting music, gorgeous Northwest backdrops - great entertainment.

The World According To Sketch

Since I know nothing
about almost everything
I take great pleasure in
understanding the significance
of Sketch's dance at the door
and the dire consequences
if I ignore it.

Letting him out
to do his business
is the closest I come
to finding purpose
in the universe.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Lack of Understanding

Of course I don't understand
 serial killers and pedophiles.

I don't even  understand
politicians and pop culture.

And I haven't a clue why
five million citizens haven't
stormed the White House

"Fix our planet now!"

The Dow was up fifty 
points today and gun sales
continue their brisk acceleration

under spacious skies
and somber waves of gain.


Context is everything.

I can give you a context
(but won't) in which I
come off as the greatest
buffoon in the western world.

I can give you a context
(but won't) in which my
tsunami of failures suggests
a new standard for
bullheaded repetition.

I can give you a context
(but won't) in which my
arrogance delivers more
prizes and praise than all
the failures imagined before.

Here's what I'll give you.

In the context that's my life
I worked hard to tell stories
that shared small truths
of our common human 

I was serious and focused,
writing from whole cloth.

Say this about me:
he wrote; and
then he died.

Say no more.
Give no context.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Looking ahead

This summer I have to go face-to-face with CJ and Brinkley, two characters in my head, the first the protagonist of my last novel, and decide what to do about them. I very much like the potential dialogue they can have, and partly already have had in my head. I like the premise of Brinkley bringing CJ's ashes home to Portland. I like the working title The Reluctant Suicide, which captures my theme perfectly. I've even written some opening chapters.

But the notion of this as a novel is not wearing well. At least as conceived. It's almost as if I need to invent a new literary form to do this right. Maybe a digital form, maybe even multi-media, a "novel" with embedded video. Or maybe it's a novel in verse. Or maybe it's a battle of monologues on stage. Brooding, brooding. But I love these guys, and I think what they have to say about the end of life is damn important. So the project is not dead. It just hasn't quite found its natural language yet.

I want to write this over the summer, but without obsession, because we have many house chores to do this summer.

What if this is the opera I've been wanting to do? Hmm.

Well, all options are open. I don't particularly like what I have. It's good -- but it's too ordinary. ORDINARY. I hate that word in the arts. At the same time, "form" can't draw attention to itself. It has to be so rooted to content that you can't tell the difference.

Between now and summer, I'll teach, I'll continue brooding, and I'll transcribe whatever poems pop into my head, now that this eccentric form of creation has returned. Fascinating.


I don't want to spend
the end of my journey
as a sleepless poet
with language dancing
in my head.

I'd rather be
a dedicated consumer
burning out in retail
on a pillow of bills.

I'd rather be
an exhausted gardener
digging in the earth
with dirty fingernails.

I'd rather be
a brave new Christian
leaving the church
sleepy with prayer
to follow Jesus.

I'd rather be
a mindless Republican
even this, if
it brought me sleep.

Maybe I should learn
how to yodel.


I used to think that writing
is the best thing that I do

until I decided that teaching
is the best thing that I do

but lately I've been thinking
the best thing that I do is

feeding the dog.

What else suggests such
order in the universe?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Applause: Jessica Lange

Watched Lange's performance as Frances Farmer in Frances today. At one level this 1982 film is, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a story of the creative and eccentric individual battling conformity, made personal here as Frances battles her career-controlling mother. These films, with their 1950s treatment of mental health (shock treatment, lobotomies), can be hard to watch today, they seem so barbaric -- but let's not forget that these methods were called progressive and humane in their day. What similar treatment today will be called barbaric in half a century!?

This is Lange in her prime, here playing opposite Sam Shepard, who I believe was also her romantic interest at the time. They were the power couple in the acting world. But all things change.

Legacy, or Reality Bites

After her death, an exchange of email.

Her sister writes, "Listen, you
created a fantasy. The woman
in your mind never existed."

Then it hits me! How come
it took me this long?

I reply, "No, she created me.
She had to, to distract herself
from looking in the mirror.
And I bought into it."

A long silence, then this:
"My God, you're right."

In this way her sister and I
agree on the circumstances of those years
and who hallucinated whom

and who was the gullible sap
in the wrong place
at the wrong time

with the wrong woman.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Love and hate

Ask any cop. If a woman is beaten or raped or murdered, they first look at the men in her life -- friends, lovers, husbands -- for the perp. How can this be so? How can what one moment looks like intimacy turn around and become violent aggression? Questions on my mind as I fiddled with a new poem.


Long before dismemberment
he held her with such lust
and something they called love
that grunting was the only voice
left to them, tongue and touch
and sweat, exchanges
of the flesh, such cries
of pleasure and desire
and not a little unspoken
befuddlement, in the dark
unsilent night on which
his darkest secrets slipped out
the unshared truth that
he was vulnerable
he was weak

It was months before he reached
for the knife to stab her
many times before finding
this tool insufficient
to his needs
and so took up the ax
until it too failed, finally
cranking up the chain saw
to finish the job

He had revealed himself
to her, an accident in lust
and she had betrayed
him (he thought) by moving on
beyond him, to another
taking with her the secrets
of their unsilent night
which he could not allow
lest others come to know
what mistakenly had been
shown to her
he was vulnerable
he was weak

and so he did what all
animals do when they
are cornered, he struck
back and gave her
deeper secrets than even
he was aware of.

So lust becomes hate
in dark unsilent nights
all across the land
by men who refuse
to be vulnerable
to be weak

and by the gods
they can prove it.

The New Verse News

The New Verse News:

"The New Verse News presents politically progressive poetry on current events and topical issues."

Thanks, Tricia, for alerting me to this. And for your contribution, Four Hundred Years Ago In Oregon.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

More on finishing projects

In an earlier post I mentioned some projects I never finished. Let me clarify something. I believe that perspiration trumps inspiration. If one project isn't working, work on something else. I've been so prolific because I work on several projects  at once, on front and back burners. The bottom line is, No excuses! Write something, anything.


What an incredible idea and  resource for creative projects. If had existed 15 or 20 years ago, I would have tried to fund my design for a high tech hyperdrama theater space. Someone else should.


Last night's one-hour version of The Magic Flute, primarily for children, was first rate and a terrific way to introduce opera to the uninitiated. Indeed this is not a bad way to give a "first take" of any opera to an adult audience. It provides the dramatic and musical basics, so that a full viewing has a foundation from which to appreciate the details. It also gives younger singers roles not often available to them. First rate work by Portland Opera!

A poem in my head

I woke up this morning with the first stanza of a poem in my head. This hasn't happened in a long time. How does it get there?

Half-awake, I wrote another stanza in my head, then changed the rhyme scheme and rewrote both, then got up and finished it with my first glass of iced coffee. Here it is, untitled.
I thought old age would turn my life
to simple living without strife.
This is not how life turned out.

All around me come the shouts
of broken dreams, come cries of woe
by neighbors whom I do not know.

It's hard to find simplicity
in all this noise. I think that we
have lost the art of simple things:

the stillness that the morning brings,
the way a dog will wag its tail,
the rhythm of the morning mail.

I'm no better than the rest.
Though I say I do my best,
I don't live life to the bone.

I leave well enough alone,
my mantra this eternal curse:
well, I guess life could be worse.

Friday, March 22, 2013


I'll never forget the day years ago when I discovered the online Project Gutenberg. Free classical and public domain literature, tens of thousands of free ebooks. I felt overwhelmed. I felt illiterate. How could I drink even a drop in this great lake of literature?

Literacy had been a theme of mine in my early short stories.
  But so ambitious as a young man! I want to learn everything. I want to read everything. I read Confucius, Lao Tzu, Plato, Aristotle, saints, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hume, Nietzsche. I read Shakespeare, literature. Marx and Freud. The Old and New Testaments! My eyes go bad, I can't keep a job for reading. And all I find out from so many books is this--that nothing changes. Then I stop reading. Better to drink. What is new? (From "Death Is A Paper Tiger," The Mississippi Review,, 1974)
Through my long career I spent more hours on my own work than reading the work of others. Since slowing down, I've tried without much success to make up for lost reading time.

In My Old Age

in my old age
I read constantly
a gesture toward
some semblance of

it can't be done
there are too many books
too many poets, novelists
too many, too many
(and this counting only those
worth considering)

in this zero-sum universe
no wonder there's such
horror and atrocity
to stand against such
accomplishments of the spirit

now and again
i add my own work to the pile
and the next day remove it
in a fit of despair

I go back to reading
in my feeble attempt
at literacy

and wait for more horror
from the daily news

Listen to it.

Fog & Beauty

The fog of politics and pop culture, where everything is for sale, hides a great spectrum of beauty. In the natural world (still), in the arts, breath-taking, heart-breaking beauty abounds. What a tragic irony the human
experiment has become! So much sadness, so much beauty.


I feel like I'm in a room
wired with bombs about
to go off and most know
this, yet everyone carries
on as if there were no
danger, as if there's nothing
to be done about it.
No one, however, has announced
that we're having a wake.

I feel like I'm on an alien
planet where one plus one is
three and gravity is random
and all roads circle back on
themselves and the best among
us strive in school to earn
a Doctor of Stupidity and
everyone is waiting for Jesus
but not like in the play
because no one has a sense
of humor.

I feel like I'm under water
at the moment just before
I give up, unable to hold
my breath a second longer,
my lungs ready to explode.
The thing is, the fish,
the reefs, the light in
the water, everything is
so goddamn beautiful.

Everything is so
goddamn beautiful.

Listen to it

The sweet little old lady who stopped voting

The quotation by Lew Welch under my title, which is from "Chicago Poem," reminds me of an old woman that Dick Crooks met. She was in her 90s and bragged that she hadn't voted in 20 years. When Dick asked her why not, she said, "I don't want to encourage them." A great reason!

Voting at the national level is a joke because the voters have nothing to say about the candidates because, in fact, only those with considerable means, or a way to raise it, have a realistic opportunity. Campaign finance reform needs to happen, this for decades, but nothing meaningful gets done about it. Power does not give up power. We need a dozen political parties, not two. We need healthy chaos instead of corporate-controlled order.

This is why Joyce called history a nightmare. How do we wake up? Norman Brown said, Doing nothing, if properly understood, is the supreme action. Timothy Leary said, Turn on, tune in, drop out.

I say, I ache, therefore I am.

My Harvard connection

Through high school I was an active member of AAVSO - the American Association of Variable Star Observers, run by Harvard Observatory. You had to pass a test of observation skills and own a good enough telescope to be admitted. There were only a few teenaged members in the country. I was assigned several stars to follow and did so with great fervor.

All this made Harvard's victory even sweeter last night. Almost felt like an alumnus.

Two great frauds

Apparently many, perhaps most, Americans embrace two belief systems that now are seen to be frauds.

Orthodox Christianity, as Elaine Pagels and others have shown, distorts the actual teachings of the historic Christ in important ways. This distortion is being called Christianism to distinguish it from those who follow the actual teachings.

A great patriotic mythology has risen in place of an accurate American history, as documented by Howard Zinn, Morris Berman and others. This fraud has brainwashed citizens for as long as our history has been taught. But how do you teach the history of a country based on genocide, greed and other behaviors we prefer to ignore, especially when most nations are worse? Is this the best there is? How pathetic.

It takes a lot of independent study, and some good college courses, to get through the fog of these frauds. And then you feel like a stranger in your own country.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Two projects I never finished -- and two more important ones I did

Writers, it seems to me, are serial monogamists. I certainly am. I am passionately in love with the project I'm working on -- until it's done, when my affection immediately transfers to something new. And sometimes a new project woos me away from what I'm working on before I finish it. Twice important projects got interrupted this way, one more than once, and they never did get finished.

The Quantum Quartet. In the early 1980s, I conceived of four plays that would follow the relationship of two genius physicists from teen years to old men. In the middle, between plays two and three, one would get a sex change operation. I called the project The Quantum Quartet, I outlined it, and I talked about it with Bob Hicks in a profile he published about me at the time. And I finished the first of these plays, called The Sadness of Einstein. Then several conflicting energies converged at once, leading me to abandon the project.

To start with good news, Sadness found support in Seattle, where it was scheduled to showcase a prestigious new play festival. A feather in my cap! But suddenly the festival lost its funding and crashed. Just as well, it turns out, because in the meantime I received the commission that introduced me to hyperdrama and completely changed my interests as a dramatist. I never marketed Sadness further, and I never finished the quartet. I published it in a collection of non-produced plays, including The Death Cycle (of one acts), which I still regard highly. There waiting for a director to discover them. Hint, hint.

An original opera with libretto and melody lines. Ever since writing the libretto to Dark Mission for composer John Nugent, I've had the fantasy of writing my own opera. I don't have the musical craft to do this, other than to note melody lines I hear in my head. So this was the plan. A starter kit for a genuine composer. And I actually started such a project four or five times over the years, always abandoning it when something came along that I was more qualified to do. No loss, missing this one, even though I was preoccupied with it for decades.

The two monkeys. There were two great monkeys on my back for decades, material I knew I had to write about, great material from my personal life, but which somehow never could find expression. (I've written about this before, here and here). These were my Cold War experiences and my experience with the late Polly Stewart, a presumed soul mate who became a lesbian right before my blinder-covered eyes. The former led to Baumholder 1961 and the latter to several things, most importantly The Half-Life Conspiracy, Kerouac's Scroll and my short film Deconstructing Sally. It's much more important that these projects got done than that others did not get done.

In the long run, the work gets done that needs to get done, I suppose. I try to encourage young writers not to be too hard on themselves when a project stalls or fails. Bumps in the road, even periods of abandonment, are part of the process. If you are writing inside-out, which is to say, writing as an act of exploration and self-discovery, your unconscious will deliver the goods when it's time -- and no sooner. Find your process and learn to trust it. I did, many times over.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

1957, a conversation with my high school teacher

I still have a vivid memory of this conversation. PF was a teacher who was too good and creative for the Pasadena school system. They didn't renew his contract, tired of his challenges to "the system." In one class he directed our successful and extraordinary efforts to elect a fictitious student to student body office!

At any rate, after he knew he wasn't coming back, he grew a beard. He started wearing sandals instead of shoes. A beatnik! I ran into him after school one day near the end of the term. I told him what a great teacher he was. I asked him if he had another job lined up. He said he was taking some time off. He was going to stay in a cabin in the mountains. He was going "to do some basic thinking." This is what I remember: to do some basic thinking.

I understand that today more than I did then. In fact, that's one of the reasons I'm here in a new blog. To do some basic thinking.

Applause: Sharon Olds

A poet's husband leaves her. The pain stirs inside her for years. A book of poems, Stag's Leap, comes from this pain years later. It wins the T. S. Eliot prize -- and deservedly so.

This book is extraordinary. The clear pain is controlled, hammered into art, watered with irony and complexity. I don't remember reading a book of poems that moved me in its entirety as much as this one does. At times it was difficult to continue reading, and I'd set it aside for a few days. The accomplishment here is wondrous. Here's an example:

Not Going to Him

Minute by minute, I do not get up and just
go to him –
by day, twenty blocks away;
by night, due across the city's
woods, where night-crowned heron sleep.
It is what I do now: not go, not
see or touch. And after eleven
million six hundred sixty-four thousand
minutes of not, I am a stunned knower
of not. Then I let myself picture him
a moment: the bone that seemed to surface in his
wrist after I had held my father's
hand in coma; then up, over
his arm, with its fold, from which for a friend
he gave his blood. Then a sense of his presence
returns, his flesh which seemed, to me,
made as if before the Christian
God existed, a north-island baby's
body become a man's, with that pent
spirit, its heels dug in, those time-worn
heels, those elegant flat feet;
and then, in a sweep, calf shin knee thigh pelvis
waist, and I run my irises
over his feathered chest, and on his neck,
the scar, dollhouse saucer of tarnish
set in time's throat, and up to the nape and then
dive again, as the swallows fly
at speed – cliff and barn and bank
and tree – at twilight, just over the surface
of a sloping terrain. He is alive, he breathes
and moves! My body may never learn
not to yearn for that one, or this could be
a first farewell to him, a life-do-us-part.
Sharon Olds
She has called this the book of her career. In other words, it's all material (the last line of a William Goldman novel).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Applause: Kirby Dick

How we treat our veterans is disgraceful -- and our female vets, most disgraceful of all. The Invisible War is Kirby Dick's documentary on rape and sexual harassment in the military, a shocking, disgusting and horrendous condemnation of our military, including brass who cover up crimes.
"The Defense Department estimates that 22,800 violent sex crimes were committed in the military last year alone, and the filmmakers calculate that 1 in 5 women in military service has been the victim of sexual assault. “The Invisible War” presents other numbers, mostly from the military’s own records, that make the picture of pervasive abuse even more alarming. Many crimes are never reported — this is true of rape in civilian life as well as in the military — but among those that are, only a tiny fraction are dealt with in any meaningful way. A culture of impunity has flourished, and the film suggests that the military has mostly responded with pathetic attempts at prevention (through posters and public service announcements) and bureaucratic rituals of self-protection." -- A.O. Scott in New York Times

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The old writer at the Daniel Boone Hotel

I forget his name but he made a lasting impression on me. I was staying at the hotel because my first one act play had been one of three winners in the Tennessee Williams competition. I was flown to Columbia and treated like a big shot, a reason why I changed my MFA studies from fiction to drama.

Staying/living in the hotel was a retired writer of regional reputation. He came down each day into the bar for happy hour, where a group of young writers, from several to a dozen, was waiting to rap and drink with him. This, I decided on the spot, is my model for a writerly retirement.

I'm left with this instead. Hopefully I can capture a little flavor of the other.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


The design of this new blog was done with great care. Some decisions I made:

  • The background. My fantasy has been to retire in a small desert town in the American Southwest. This ain't gonna happen. So I put a desert scene here as compromised comfort.
  • The right hand column. In the boisterous spirit of Norman Mailer, this might be titled "Advertisements For Myself." It's an overview of my career and its important moments and turning points. It includes testimony so that I can remind myself that, yes, this actually did happen, as long ago and far away as it seems today; perhaps I am not yet totally delusional. Despite frequent worries to the contrary, I seem actually to have made some worthwhile contributions to literary culture. Which really is all I've wanted to do.
  • The photo of myself and Sketch is, well, another emblem of comfort.
So far, so good, if I say so myself.

Under construction

So here I am, building a new blog to replace The Writing Life. About time, I think, since the rhythms of my life have changed so much in the past year or two. Almost feels like a new adventure.