Sunday, April 27, 2008

What the World Should do

I voted for Hilary Clinton in the California primary.

The reasons for this are likely similar to those of her other supporters. I won’t recite all of them here. I’m not mad that things aren’t working out for her—the way she’s been running her campaign of late, it’s not too surprising things are going a little south. And then there’s the success of the amazing, formidable, intelligent, and eloquent Barack Obama. I don’t blame her one bit for being mad about that, too . . .

. . . but I’m still not mad. In fact, barring any weird last-minute twist, after the final primary is over, she should gracefully hang it up and, along with Mr. Hilary, give everything she’s got for the fall campaign (Right. Should, but won’t.)

No, I’m not mad, but I’m still anxious. Barack Obama may need all the support he can get from here on out, especially if he takes the oath of office in January 2009. A guy can only skate so far on the charismatic ghost of JFK.

Whoever of these two we like, the real chore lies ahead: pushing the Republican Party in its currently dangerous and pathetic state, out of government into the woods for a nice long rainy camping trip. Yes, lots of rain!

Unfortunately, I don’t have the Big Mic to say “call it!” and make it stick. And if I were, say, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, CNN et al., I might not make that call. After all, this Three Stooges-minus-Larry act, though its abuse is mild by historical standards, would be my bread and butter. “We love it!” I’ve heard one pundit say (i.e., “What fate of our country? Fate shmate! This is fun!” But so is drug-dealing to the pathetic thugs in HBO’s The Wire.)

I’ve watched little actual network news since Cronkite signed off. One hour a day of punditry is all my nerves can stand. That hour I spend with Olbermann on MSNBC because he’s the closest thing to a traditional anchor; and he’s an excellent interviewer, a sharp wit and, importantly, knows when to admit he’s wrong and apologize.

I hate the horse race aspects of politics. Give me a day at a real race track. I’m not a political junkie-—though policy, especially environmental and foreign policy, does hold my concern and interest. I want to watch some governing! But when it comes to the process of getting there, like Al Gore, I’d rather punch a brick wall with my bare knuckles. (My new slogan: “Run away Al! Run away!”).

Politicking is the nasty pursuit and tedious smelly craft of power in human civilization. A purely saintless church. Politicians have to act friendly to strangers, get in fights with their friends and make the kind of allies a dog wouldn’t sniff. The lying and the pandering; the Orwellian obfuscations; the whoring and pimping for money; the pitifully few opportunities to command honorably without calculation or opportunism.Even in the careers of the most patriotic, successful politicians, the chance to make decisions based on honest patriotism, a genuine sense of justice, and concern for the nation don’t come often.

Example: my favorite U.S. President is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But as I dab away my tears thinking about FDR’s courage in the face of polio and his nimble-minded, pragmatic, clear-eyed governance of this country through the storms of the Great Depression and World War II, I’m obliged to recall his many failures—his disastrous try at forcing the Army to deliver the U.S. Mail; his attempts to pack the Supreme Court (as ruthless as the Cheney Administration’s manipulations, but less successful); his cut off of Depression-era aid to New York City in a petty personal feud with the city’s mayor; his surrender on legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime; and while I reject the paranoid-nihilist claim that FDR deliberately allowed the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was a tragic blunder that included the scapegoating of a two admirals who only shared a small part of the blame.

And then finally, of course, the rounding up and internment of Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps during the war. Inexcusable. On these issues, FDR has it coming.

Still, we were terribly lucky to have him. I really miss him now, wheels of clay and all.

Back to anxiety: I am a concerned citizen. I should decorate that noun with “scare quotes.” Not as a statement of wink-wink-I’m-only-kidding, post-modern abuse of irony, but out of a sense of detachment created to help me cope with deep anxiety.

Right now, I am anxious about Senator Obama. I hope he’s fooling just himself and he stops doing that soon. No candidate will ever come up with the alchemy that turns politics into backgammon. There’s no trail back to Eden in this world, nor a utopia in the future.

Hey, look at the opposition! They not only don’t believe in his vision of the New Politics, they’re actively, passionately sincerely opposed to it. Rush Limbaugh, the psycho bullhorn for the 30% Dead-Enders who still love the Cheney Administration, is out inciting riots. Maybe we are all Americans . . . but the Dead-Enders scream to disagree. "American" means only them and their decadent elite.

Sooner or later, someone, if not Senator Obama, then his supporters, will have to throw hard dirt and the sharpest rocks they can find—preferably not at each other.

But will the Democrats take this sound advice from this tiny voice? O, how I fear not! A couple nights ago, I saw that great clip of Bill Clinton throwing Chris Wallace around the room on Fox News awhile back. Yo, Bill! Why aren’t you doing more of that to them instead of your own team? Whoa! Where the hell was the rest of his party? If I’m not mistaken, around that time, we were also treated to the spectacle of Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid folding like a lawn chair: “Ooooo! Don’t want to get the Republicans mad! Ooooooo! President Cheney might veto our bill! Filibuster!? Ooooooo! I might have to spend the night on a cot next to Trent Lott and he smells bad! Ooooooo!”

(Pssst! Harry? Harrr-rrry! Dude, it’s OK to lose some votes! Just lose big, loud and brave and then hang it on them! Even us pragmatists like it when you guys stand up and fight! What? You're afraid of a guy with a 30% approval rating?)

It’s never dirty politics to tell the facts and present them with hard-bitten tough-ass, moral fighting passion. And, after what this nation has been through the last eight years, it’s not like the Democrats have to lie or contrive anything. Repeated ads of McCain saying “100 more years”, hugging Cheney’s Chief Aide, and defending the Reverend Hagee are just the start of the Wikipedia of All-True-Facts they have to throw. Tie ‘em all up in a nice big bundle and drop ‘em in the lake.

You don’t even have to go near swift-boating McCain’s war record; that, the good and brave gentleman from Arizona can run on till he wears his feet out.

. . . though I wouldn’t be above sneaking in a clip or two of him snoozing in public . . . hey, somebody get me Democratic Headquarters!

Photos from Star-Pulse, Flickr & FDR Library

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Shop Talk#6: The Passion of the Bureaucracy

Novels are big clerical morasses.
--Richard Ford, author of Independence Day

Once upon a time, before becoming an editor, I was a legal clerk, then a government bureaucrat. Most of you probably know what that entails, unless I have readers in some remote Himalayan valley who have managed to achieve Internet access (good God, are you that bored? And do you have a spare room for a weary urban refugee and his wife?)

Whatever your ice-creamy ideas about the writer’s life and the sweeping glories of novel-writing, know this: I’m reliving my days as a bureaucrat now.

The reason can be distilled down to one simple word: detail. And lots of it.

Maybe more than most other art forms—and I’d like to hear from those who can cite where I might be wrong—writing novels is about capturing details. And listing them and keeping track of them. And staying painfully aware of them as I go through the last draft of my book, Dragon’s Ark, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, and chapter by chapter.

Any of you who write novels may know about this. But except for Richard Ford’s quote above (from The 2006 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market; Writer’s Digest Books), I’ve never read any accounts of this in interviews conducted by writers, nor in any of their autobiographical accounts. Even the late Norman Mailer, in one of my favorite books on the subject, The Spooky Art, seems never to have suffered from paper cuts or jabbed himself with a paper clip. (It was Mailer who kindly pointed out that it was perfectly OK to bungle three or four novels before writing one suitable for publishing. Too bad it took me thirty years to find that out.)

Office work . . . now I get it! That’s why I avoided writing a novel for so many years!

When I was professional paper-pusher, I never discussed the details of my labors to anyone. It was more than those promises of confidentiality, more than a pseudo-Bohemian’s shame that he wasn’t romantically starving to death in some nihilistic garret. Even in those circumstances where I played an essential role—say in medicine or law enforcement—the hundreds of dry little steps I took each day to make sure that the details were available in a comprehensive and comprehensible fashion for immediate access for my superiors, I spoke not a word about them. In fact, I could hardly conceive of a language to talk about it. “This bit of paper with that subset of that information over there, goes in this folder with this color tab, not that color tab”--

--no no don’t go to the Brittany Spears site just yet, stay with me, please.

I keep the dozens of details that make up the narrative of Dragon’s Ark in lists and the lists are kept in files—oh-oh your eyelids are fluttering. WAKE UP! You’re learning something, dammit!—on my computer. I have a large folder, called “Ancillary Files.” This folder contains exactly 30 documents listed by type of information. There are notes transcribed from four beat-up inked-up notebooks; a file of deleted passages that may find their way back to the final draft (but not likely—in fact, I haven’t dumped much in there since the second draft). There are drafts of verbal pitches to agents and query letters; lists of readers and people I want to mention in the acknowledgments (yeah yeah, Hilary, don’t worry, you’re in there . . . sheesh, politicians . . . .); lists of contacts, and research questions.

Then there are the two most important files of all—what, you want more sweet dopey cat pictures? No, please, don’t go! It really gets exciting!

The two most important docs are “Character List” and “Event Calendar.” The first list also contains a list and description of important locations. The main purpose of these are to help me maintain consistency of characters and settings and make sure all the events in the book time out and dovetail correctly. I refer mostly to the events calendar (I used a 2006 calendar as my base, though the actual year of the novel’s events are left vague). As time goes on, I update each file with deletions and additions of details.

They’re sloppy lists now, but after I type “The End” I’m going to have to go back and finalize both of them so they match up with what’s in the finished novel. Why? Because somewhere down the line, either I or (hopefully) the publisher will have to hire a copy editor—a bean counter of words like me—to make a final pass to catch whatever I or my editor will have missed. And believe me, details will be missed, hopefully minor ones. Even the masters miss details. The Lighthouse an excellent mystery by P.D. James that I’m now reading, muffs a geographical detail. It’s small and perfectly forgivable, but still, we always strive for perfection, even as we know we can never reach it. Care must be taken.

In order to draw near to that perfection, the copy editor will need those two lists and they will have to cross reference the details of character, plot and setting; for example, to make sure that all the changes I made from draft one—say of a place name—have been completely worked into the final draft.

Oh my! Have I really completely murdered your desire to ever tackle writing a novel?

Swell! That’s less competition for me!

Now for that link to a video of hair falling out.


All Things Considered” on NPR broadcast an amusing piece on Friday on what kind of Hollywood movie could be produced based on the 2008 Presidential election and who would play whom (Meryl Streep as Hilary Clinton; Richard Dreyfuss as John McCain and Denzel Washington as Barack Obama, etc.).

Your correspondent’s evil nimble mind immediately leapt to one of his (and, allegedly, Nobel Prize-winner Jimmy Carter’s) favorite movies: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly with the following cast:

Clint Eastwood as Barack Obama . . . Lee Van Cleef as John McCain . . . and (drum roll) Eli Wallach in the role of Hilary!

Now, if we can just CG the candidates into clips from the movie . . . if you know anyone with those skills, send ‘em to me! We may have a YouTube hit on our hands! Let's get this meme rolling!

(The object on the left of the photo above is a walking stick I bought in the Lake Tahoe area; the one on the right is a Basque carving I picked up in Monterey; the photo in the middle was taken in Bill Arney's apartment in San Francisco; it was there that Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Shop Talk #5: Slow, Shaky Surgeon

I finished draft #3 of the formerly-titled The Vampire of Alpine Canyon (now called Dragon’s Ark )on February 28, 2001 and have finally grown the stones to—just kidding, it was 2008, like you remember. I didn’t shamefully hide it away like I did Mazola Party Platter that mega-hardcore porn video I produced in the 1990s—Oh! I never told that story!? Never mind!

I last discussed this book in “The Back Trails of Research” (9/16/07). This time, I have the following facts to report:

1) Draft #3 came in at 582 pages, down a pitiful 36 pages from draft #2 to around 161,000 words. Not even within cannonball distance of my goal. Am I a failure? Only if I quit.

2) My writing skills are now at the level of Harold Robbins’ Late Period (say, The Betsy). Don’t break out those ABAs yet. I keep clearing away webs of plot, story and awful writing. For example, the “vampire hunter,” still lacks forward momentum and takes too long wandering in and out of too many box canyons and dead-end trails. Until recently, I mushed around about the name of a significant geographical feature, but I think it’s settled now.

As with draft #2, once finished, I immediately set #3 aside to simmer and to fantasize about my guaranteed great success: I saw numbers so high that, to steal one from David Mamet, “dogs can’t hear it.”

But, before floating into my fantasy of how you’re all gonna buy this book or be struck blind, I made seven copies (with the assistance of my Wife’s Sister and Brother-in-Law) and gave each copy to seven selected readers (including Wife and Wife’s Sister). Some of them know each other, but others are mutual strangers. Some readers are also writers, while some are readers only: These minds are open to sheer pleasure, free from the technical worries that clutter the heads of all writers. The only thing the readers all have in common for sure is that they—I hope—read these postings.

I gave them three weeks to pound through it—no agonizing over every line and page—and asked them to focus on the book’s entertainment value: What bored them? What confused them? We like praise, yes—in fact, we need it--but learning what’s wrong is the path to keeping this one out of Border’s pulping pile.

Sometimes, “This part bored me to diarrhea, this part nearly gave me a heart attack and why don’t your characters stop changing clothes in the middle of every scene?” is all I need. Sometimes I’m only looking for confirmation of my sense that something isn’t working and maybe I’ll stumble on the reason why and—most important—how to fix it! For these issues, non-writing readers work best.

Best of all, non-writers don’t try to righteously rewrite your book the way they’d write it, a painful experience, especially when dealing with someone who’s prone to bellowing: “Fuck Shakespeare! I’m a Dean Koontz man!”

So, why aren’t I in a writer’s group?

For years, I was. In fact, I joined too many.

Once, I briefly joined a writer’s group who claimed that they read the fiction they produced solely from the point of view of “real everyday readers.”

“But that, of course, is bullshit,” as Charles Willeford so eloquently puts it.

Readers do not read like writers do, as noted above and no way can writers read like non-writers. For example, I study Elmore Leonard as closely as I read Cervantes, though I read each book in a very different manner, as I’ve lectured elsewhere. Whether it’s Ulysses or Butcher’s Moon, I’m always a writer reading. We writers process our reading in very different ways. We study the nails, the glue, the wood, and how it's cut, rather than pouring it into our heads, letting the words gush through ours souls. For us, even the most pleasurable reading is still work.

The writing group I speak of looked at my admittedly not-good-yet hit man yarn and then fell into bitter rage, as though I’d murdered their children before their eyes and then ate them in bite-sized uncooked pieces with an olive fork like Oscar Wilde, my pinkie waving arrogantly in the air.

Some of their critique may have been useful, but they yelled so loud, I couldn’t hear them . . . and I can’t hear you when you yell.

Look, Al Gore can scream at me about climate change. This here’s a fucking vampire novel fer chrissakes! Yeah, I’m striving to create the best darn one since Dracula, but trying to make me feel dumb as Dick Cheney’s gofer has never improved my work. Maybe the lazy and the deluded blossom under abuse, but my back pain and CRT-stung eyes put Yours Truly in a different class. Abuse only makes me want to quit and become a thought-starved bureaucrat again.

Another point: At best, I find writer’s groups are overrated; at worst they produce nothing but workshoppy writing that tastes like old gravy. Regarding the ones I’ve joined, I plead guilty to often trying to rewrite the other guy’s book. Most often, I got insecure and nervously wrote to avoid punishment. (“Put more of that literary stuff in. They love it! Cut that literary bullshit out. They hate it! I know! I’ll write the phone book! Nobody’ll get mad then!”) Then I’d stop writing period.

One more thing: I also found myself in trouble for liking—or not liking—another writer’s work. One group hinted that I wasn’t contributing enough to the discussion. When I started speaking up more, they hinted I should leave. Maybe I do lack guts and conviction. Maybe I was playing to the wrong crowd.

I’ve heard back from most of the readers by now. Comments are mostly positive, but, even better, some are pointed and incisive, while delivered in a thoughtful tone, as if I were a real grownup serious about making his humble piece something that readers will really enjoy. Most all agree that the early chapters are mostly a dreary info dump of too many characters, plot elements and story lines at once that eats up too many pages. One excellent point: I treated too many minor characters like major characters and that will trip up readers. An essential chapter was revealed as a major frustration that will take hours of frowning, pacing and rewriting to get right. One reader found entertaining a chapter I thought dull as C-Span. All of you said something helpful. I know you can't wait to read the acknowledgments.

Happily no one has screamed yet . . . exCEPT IN TERROR BWA-HA-HA . . . !

The comments continue to trickle in, but the three weeks are up. I’ve tossed the last gold coin into the treasure box of dreams and I’m back at it. I rework each chapter: hack, cut, carve, slice, trim, chop. A little razor work here, a roaring chainsaw there. I sit down with Patient Wife and read it out loud, search for errors and gauge her reaction. Then polish, trim cut. One reader recommended going through every page and cutting two sentences. Not as easy as it sounds, but it makes you look.

Before too long, I will type THE END. Then Dragon’s Ark will sail alone into the stormy seas of the marketplace. I'll shed a tear . . . and then start the next one.

Re-edited 6/8/11

Copyright 2008 by Thomas Burchfield

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Them Thar Hills!#4: Chemical Desert

When I wake up in Emeryville, I stay under the blankets as long as I can. In the mountains, I rise with dawn’s first light.

On the morning after we arrived in Lone Pine, California, I spent a couple of hours trying to capture the special light on the Canon before awaking Elizabeth. The town’s back streets seemed populated by wary dogs and horses that grazed in rough little ranchettes on the outskirts.

Around ten, we drove south down 395 for a mile, then turned east on 190, the northwest road into Death Valley National Park. I took photos all along the way, but was too slow on the draw to nail a wandering coyote (canis latrans).(Would this be a post-modern vacation, experienced entirely through a camera lens?)

We drove down the northeast shore of Owens Lake, a body of water once sixty feet deep that nourished Owens Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in California a hundred years ago, before Los Angeles—via visionary William Mulholland—pronounced it theirs. Even now, though, pools of water remain along its impoverished bottom, glistening like forgotten tailings of silver.

The sun rose, the air grew hotter. In the distance, down parched slopes of brush, scattered forest of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia)
grew widely spaced to keep a frail pact over sparse water supplies, a defiant miracle in a world that looks too impoverished to support anything but scrub. Desert tree still sounds like an oxymoron.

We entered the park and reached Crowley Point around noon, at the top of the first of two long descents to reach Death Valley. Ravens greeted us, seeking handouts, but you don’t ever feed the wild animals, not on purpose. The salt flats of the Saline Valley spread out below looking like sterile ice. The great distances below were unnerving.

Hold out your hand, please, thank you . . . .

Crowley Point was named after Father John Crowley. A plaque christens him “The Padre of the Desert.” Further research tells the story of a Catholic priest who devoted his ministry (and finally sacrificed his life) to raising Owens Valley and Inyo County from the dead after L.A. had sucked its lifeblood away. He helped turn the area into a major tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Maybe he liked the ravens, too.

Stark beauty all around, enough to make me dizzy. But what about the pioneers who first struggled through here in 1849--1850? There’s what we see now and there’s what they saw then. Sure, they were astounded all right: maybe astounded by despair. To them, this land was just one great wall to struggle over after another, rising from hell hot to hell freezing and back down again, almost like Prometheus, but for them the stone rolled down the other side instead. Even after making it through Death Valley to the south, cruel Mojave Desert lay in wait up ahead. Who among them would see beauty in this arid vastness? Who of us now wouldn’t shrink from the car-less journey they made?

After Panamint Springs (a brief white flash of RVs, huddling behind desert trees), we crossed the Saline Valley. On the steep climb up the Panamint Range on other side, we made encouraging noises to the struggling Toyota—if it were a horse or mule, it would’ve stared at us like we were loco before collapsing. We crossed over Towne Pass then down the barren slopes on the other side and stopped at Stovepipe Wells. Death Valley finally sprawled before our eyes. Spring tourists wandered everywhere, but this world is so radical, no one–not me in cowboy khaki, either--looked like they belong here.

The name “Death Valley” sticks for good reason: to this day, tenderfoots, city- and suburb-bred, still occasionally go a-wandering and don’t make it back. Maybe this happens from lack of attention, education or maybe they’d become inured from seeing deserts only on TV sets or movies in air-conditioned rooms (Maybe all desert-set movies should be watched in temperatures of plus-100ºF, no concession stand, either). Their fates hover around my mind. I did learn one useful thing from
watching those westerns, A and B, alike: Don’t screw around out here. In this world, water is the only gold, so carry plenty and keep help close by.

Still, once our awe had simmered a little, it was time to steer the car onto a few shoulders and down some side-roads. Seems we were a bit late for the wild flowers: Only scattered yellow patches of desert sunflowers (Geraea canescens) remained. Outside Stovepipe, past the sand dunes, we wandered apiece through the Devil’s Cornfield, a bleak garden of Arrowweed (Pluchea sericea) plants that struggled up through crusty sand that crumbled under our shoes (apparently this indicates a
shallow water table of about 5 feet).

Some miles on, we turned onto a washboard road. A shuddering couple-mile drive ended at a low little canyon they call Salt Creek. Salt Creek runs year-round through the Death Valley’s furnace heart and so brings life to a rich marsh oasis.

The most visible animal in this narrow-gauge environment is the endangered Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus salinus), a tiny Piscean about half the size of my pinkie. There seemed to be hundreds of them swimming in the clear shallow stream along the mile walkway. I put the Canon to work, taking dozens of photos. (Stop by the house some time. I’ll force you to sit through a slide show of all of them.)

Fascinated, we closely watched the creatures battle through their mating rituals. A thin skin of life in an edgy environment like this is bound to focus you—there’s sure no tin-ass neon around to distract. It’s miraculous how these rare tiny fish are both vulnerable and profoundly tough enough to thrive in this hellscape.

Elizabeth figured out that if she drove a little up on the shoulder, the car wouldn’t shake so much on the way out. Some miles on, riding above the white salt pans stretching below, we made another right into the Harmony Borax Works. Some of you may remember Death Valley Days, a 558-episode TV western once hosted by Ronald Reagan (among others) and sponsored by The Pacific Borax Company. This was one of the mining sites for borax. Though not mined in the valley for years, it’s still a common component in many products. (The orange cliffs in the photo are borax sources.)

The Harmony Borax Works only stayed business for five years in the 1880s. The remote location required them to process the borax for use onsite. The workers were Chinese laborers, exploited for a pittance. Most of them lived onsite, too—like in many “company towns,” the money they earned, they spent at the company store. On that score at least, the company likely wound up losing nothing, which was what the workers got when the works closed down. The huge wagons of borax, dragging a 1,500 gallon water tank, really did require a 20-animal team to ship the finished
product to market (actually 18 mules and two horses). Again, it looks like a grim life, lived by people likely unmoved by nature’s beauty.

A mile on, we came to our last stop: tamed and overbuilt Furnace Creek, Death Valley’s urban center, pop. 31. We checked out the Death Valley Visitor’s Center and learned this: Life only takes hold in areas where sodium makes up no more than 6% of the soil and water. Past 6%, nothing lives. It becomes a true lifeless desert, a chemical desert. Take away Earth’s egg-shell of atmosphere, the whole world would be the Death Valley salt flats.

Badwater, the lowest point in the U.S., lay ahead, but our shadows were long and gas was low. We needed another day we didn’t have. We drove out of the Valley, back to Lone Pine, emerging from the park right at the golden hour: long shadows and clear soft light burnished the land, while up ahead, the blue wall of the Sierras beckoned us yonder.

If it sounds like I didn’t love Death Valley, believe me I did. But it’s the kind of love seen through narrow, wary eyes.