Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

NOTE: Spoilers follow.

Where to start with Birdman? It is brilliant to have Michael Keaton, who has always been first rate, carry as extraordinary a picture as this one. All those years since the Batman movies doing smaller, sincere pictures, cable work, and voiceovers, and now here he is in this exceptional, dark, very serious comedy by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

I was hesitant about seeing it, however, because the bare bones of the plot made it seem likely that Birdman would bump up against my own inner drama, and anticipating this made me nervous. I have this story that I carry around in my heart, the story of my own so-called career, the on-again, off-again periods when I write, when I go into a corner and challenge myself to do the best work I can. I do this in private because no one is really paying attention. I once tasted greater success, but that has been the extent of it. Riggan Thomson, Keaton’s character, has had billion-dollar worldwide success playing a superhero character—a Batman–type character, an in-joke—in a series of three pictures, a success he walked away from in 1992 as a matter of personal integrity. Twenty-plus years later, he’s mounting his own production on Broadway of Raymond Carver’s famous short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s put everything he has into it—his money, his talent and life experience—and during the two hours or more of Birdman in which we follow him and the people around him during previews and then opening night, we sympathize with this nettlesome, flawed human being as he reaches for something he might not attain. (But what is talent for if not to attempt exactly that?)

I’d like to think that the fact that “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the play that Riggan Thomson is mounting is itself also a kind of in-joke. Troubled-soul Thomson, a regular bloke with the spirit of artistic genius in him, is a reflection of troubled-soul Carver. Under the tutelage of or despite the interference of Gordon Lish, a darling of the New York literati and avatar of the institutional “new fiction” of the 1970s and 1980s, Carver came to be regarded as an essential talent, and the writer did, after all, praise Lish for that one’s guidance and strong hand in the editing of his stories. But for me, this episode in American letters has the odor of goofy Manhattan literary smugness and that city’s dreary, insulated view of the world, which is that of a flaneur strolling the boulevards and glancing down dirty alleys while remaining too precious actually to put his hands in that dirt. This sort of wrestling match—phony, momentary, artsy pretentiousness and troubled but sincere artistic integrity—fits neatly into the facile pomposity displayed by Tabitha Dickinson, the weary theater critic for the Times, a seen-it-all, done-it-all creature of the indoors and too much booze, who plans to base her review of Thomson’s play not on the play itself but on what she perceives it to be—a stunt mounted by a Hollywood celebrity arriviste, an interloper in the self-aware colony of Broadway theah-tuh folk. So Raymond Carver, a regular bloke adopted by anaerobic New York intellectuals, is being played on Broadway by another self-aware bloke, Riggan Thomson, in the actor’s attempt to gain respect and be real in the only way acceptable in modern America, by appealing to these anaerobes—and the whole gimmick opens a long corridor (figuratively and literally, backstage in the St. James Theater) in which we wonder what’s behind that door, or that one, or that one.

Each of the persons involved in the production of this play— Riggan Thomson, Jake, his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the actresses Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts), and even the contemporary artificialistes (a word I just made up), such as the theater critic—has part of the truth, and it clearly hurts them, being aware of whatever they have that is part of the truth. But nothing means anything, as Thomson’s daughter, Sam (superbly played by Emma Stone), makes clear to him in one of the many blood-on-the-floor, nonartificial, wholly aerobic confrontations in this picture. We don’t matter. Nothing matters. (Could this be made any clearer than in the scene in which Thomson passes an actor on the sidewalk thunderously orating Macbeth’s sound-and-fury speech?) This is the heart of it: we don’t matter. But what should then be a moment of spiritual liberation instead weighs these people down, traps them on a hamster wheel, suffocates them.

The joy of liberation, however, is communicated and emphasized in the magical realism exhibited by the Riggan Thomson character. When he meditates, he floats. When he is angry, he points a finger, and whatever he points at flies around the room and smashes into a wall. It is as though he has the powers of one of Professor Xavier’s X-Men.

In fact, he does, because he is creative. I hope to tell you that this is exactly, exactly, what it feels like to be a creative person. We bring things to life. We make something out of nothing. We push things together and watch them crash or light up or send out sparks. Once, during a suffocating lesson in a seventh-grade English class with Mrs. Fuller, I sat in my seat looking at the front the room, at the wall beside her desk, and I realized that at that moment, to avoid the boredom I was experiencing, I could have stood and gone down the aisle between the desks and walked through the wall. I didn’t. But I could have. I have written books and screenplays and drawn pictures and done many artistic things. This tells me that, although I didn’t walk through that wall in the seventh grade, I could have.

The characters in this story, whether they know it or not, and most of them don’t, are seeking redemption. Certainly Riggan Thomson understands this, and his quest for personal redemption imperils and threatens and enlightens and frightens those around him. He is being honest in every way possible (for example, as when he walks through Times Square in his tidy whities, a scene that occurs following an argument between Thomson and a backstage door that abruptly closes on his dressing gown—leaving him with nothing else to do than hurry out of the alley and quickly walk all the way around to the front of the theater in time for his entrance). His ex-wife is achingly present and honest, but whatever their relationship—and clearly they still love each other—it is clear that he remains alone in his personal desperation. He is like the soul of a dying man fighting in the immediate afterlife against the demons he has created while on earth so that he can move beyond the demons and gain enlightenment. Thomson does so, and as he moves through this journey of life-in-death throughout the course of the movie—his search for redemption, his hope for honesty and integrity—he pulls many others along with him.

The performances in this movie test your heart. Everyone is exceptional. Perhaps because I’m a father now, the performance by Emma Stone of the disenchanted, recovering-from-drugs Sam hit me hard. It would break me if I failed in this way as a father. But did Thomson really fail her? Shiner puts Sam wise to herself, just as all of these characters, in a script that is perfectly, beautifully constructed, help one other through their rites of passage backstage and onstage. When are we being honest, and when are we acting, and can we ever tell the difference? Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the powerful theater critic, is such an anaerobe that she interprets Thomson’s failed suicide on opening night, his attempt at freeing his soul and being honest, as an advance in the art of stage acting. This is because she, like Shiner, of whom she has never written a poor review, are so hollow that, for them, performance is reality. Norton’s Mike Shiner is so far gone that he has become sexually impotent, able to get it up only when he is on stage; he is a real human being unable to be a real human being unless he is acting on stage pretending to be a real human being. Corridors full of doors waiting to be opened, and what part of us will we find on the other side when we open this door, or that one?

A word about the soundtrack, the music. It includes selections from the soaring symphonies of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Mahler—all late Romantic era composers—as well as Ravel’s beautiful, infinitely sad “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” I have seen Birdman only once, but if I recall correctly, these romantic aural vistas of the concert hall are pretty much allied with the Birdman character when he appears in the picture and when Thomson—insane, or perhaps merely self-aware—is talking to the cartoon character—that is, to himself. The vivid, immediate drum solos that make up the other half of the soundtrack serve as the chorus or commentary on the backstage shenanigans, ego-bruising emotional confrontations, and high-pressure stakes that Thomson deals with every waking moment.

So what about that subtitle—the parenthetical The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance? Thomson, in the ignorant, clear-eyed assuredness of his genius, enters with trusting, childlike certainty the wolf den of the commercial Broadway theater, a substitute for the world itself—for the world, as we know, is a messy agglomeration of everyone else’s compromised virtues, distorted imaginations, failed ambitions, and phony personas. In maintaining his belief in himself, in trusting to his genius, in mounting his play the way he wishes to against all odds—will Riggan Thomson’s artistic integrity even be comprehensible to the denizens of such a soiled world, or will the world disappoint him as it inevitably does all visionaries? What unexpected virtue— strength, courage, self-awareness, moral honesty—will Thomson gain by being true to himself but remaining ignorant of many things—ignorant of parts of himself, perhaps, and ignorant of certain aspects of those around him, and ignorant of the dangerous situation he has put himself in?

The answer is in the ending, which follows his failed suicide attempt. I wondered throughout the final act how the writers—Alejandro González Iñárritu himself in collaboration with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo—would complete Thomson’s quest for redemption. Have him kill himself? Too easy, I thought—but they gave this necessary conclusion a wonderful twist that perfectly fits Thomson’s character, his history, and his spiritual quest. Failing in his suicide attempt on stage and still largely misunderstood, we assume, by his opening-night audience, Thomson awakens in a hospital bed with a bandaged face. He goes to a mirror and undoes the wrappings to regard himself for the first time since passing out. He accidentally shot off his nose in his try at suicide; now, with the new schonzz his surgeons have provided him, his physiognomy is literally that of Birdman. His nose is a beaklike proboscis. The humor is not lost on our genius; indeed, the transformation is revelatory and completes his search for his soul. Sam is in the room with him; she has brought him flowers. The story opened with the two of them arguing via Skype over what kind of flowers Thomson wanted Sam to buy to celebrate his play on Broadway. Now that they have made their peace with each other, she has brought a lovely bouquet for him to have while he recuperates. But there is no vase. She leaves to fetch one. While she is gone, Thomson walks to the window of his hospital room and opens it, looks out at the birds in the sky, steps onto the ledge—

When Sam returns, we see that Thomson is no longer on the ledge. We hear ambulance sirens and shocked voices on the street. Sam goes to the window and looks down, then up at the birds, and she smiles. My hope at first was that, in another moment of magical realism, Thomson had joined the birds and was flying over the city as we saw him do in an earlier scene. But of course he is dead. Of course he achieved the only possible resolution available to a man of his gifts who has gained what he has and who has gone down the dark corridors and looked into the dark rooms and dealt with the crowd of demons that have tugged at him through the course of the story and throughout his life.

We are left, finally, with the words of Raymond Carver explaining, or illuminating, just what it has been that Riggan Thomson has been searching for in this hell of his own making, his life, and what it is that his earnest ignorance has gotten him. They are the lines inscribed, as we know, on Raymond Carver’s headstone:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

That’s what Carver wanted. It’s what Riggan Thomson wanted. It’s what all artists want. It’s what I want. It’s what everyone wants.

To be understood by others may be asking too much. But to be loved?

Can asking to be loved be too much to ask for?

Revising Oron

Oron, originally written in 1973-1974 and published by Zebra Books in 1978, is going to be reissued by Wildside Press/Borgo Press—next year, I hope, but relatively soon, in any event. I’ve scanned in the text—all 93,000 words of it—and am now revising the novel. I have several reasons for doing so.

Oron is the first novel-length manuscript I completed. I managed to achieve this goal at a young age—I was 21 years old—after having written many short stories over the course of three years and after abandoning several other attempts at novel-sized manuscripts, all of them historical stories (about pirates, or cave men, or Romans fighting barbarians, as well as other straightforward adventure fiction conceits influenced by Jack London, Robert E. Howard, and the many mid-century popular novelists I’d read). Why I decided that I should attempt so large a story—a sword-and-sorcery epic—I don’t remember, other than that I was ambitious, I wanted to be published by a conventional publisher, and sword-and-sorcery fiction (which I like) was still appearing on the paperback racks at that time. I do recall wanting to write an adventure that would echo the exploits of a Homeric figure from a lost age, a notion inspired by Howard’s Hyborean Age. So I set the bar high, and Oron went through three partial and three complete drafts before I decided that it was more or less completed.

The novel was thus very much a learning process for me. As I looked at the story while scanning in the pages to revise them, I was pleased to see how well it holds together structurally. My instincts in that regard were solid. What does not work so well for me any longer is the hyperemotional language, which was very much influenced by the pulp fiction being reprinted in the early 1970s. Because of that and my limited writing experience, the book reads “real young.” Also, even though I tried to invest the characters with emotional depth and personal psychology, they remain larger-than-life personages on a very large stage. They are the products of my interest in Elizabethan and Restoration theater. Oron plays it big; everything is twice the size it needs to be—language, action, characters, scope. It works because the novel is sincere and because I was trying to break new ground. Still, it has an old-school quality to it: it does not reach out to the reader; rather, it’s the kind of story that pulls the reader in. It is the work of a talented, ambitious, widely read but still unseasoned young man.

(Which is fine. Andy Offutt understood what I was doing; he wanted to nominate me as the John W. Campbell Best New Writer of the Year, although he felt that the science fiction community at the time would frown on allowing a fantasy writer to be up for that award. He also thought that Oron should have been nominated for a Balrog Award, but that did not occur, either.)

Oron was written long before novels, particularly fantasies, were designed to fulfill predetermined corporate agendas. The book is very much of its time, a period in popular fiction situated between the postwar, modern, masculine America (a sensibility that persisted well into the late 1970s) and the subsequent libertarian, postmodern, universal America that has been dominant for several decades now. In attitude, it is much more like the freelance fiction written today by authors online and published by small, independent presses. It grew out of the fanzine era, itself the last echo of the great pulp fiction of the mid-twentieth century, a generation before imaginative fiction became mainstreamed as a result of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas movies, role-play gaming, and the influence of Tolkein’s trilogy. In that sense, Oron is not at all a construction of postmodern conceit; for example, is not a world-building fantasy epic; such a concept was unknown in the 1970s. Neither is it influenced by role-play gaming, which I don’t think existed in 1973. There is a lot of Howard, obviously, in Oron, but I was also influenced by the adventure-story writers I’d read in the years leading up to the summer of 1973—Frank Yerby, for example, and Samuel Shellabarger. I had any number of titles by these authors, either in used paperbacks or in book club editions given to me by neighbors who were clearing out their attics or basements. These writers are largely forgotten now (no one has manufactured a video game of Captain from Castile or Prince of Foxes!), but in the 1940s and 1950s, they wrote polished, romantic adventure stories very much in the vein of Sabatini, whom I also read to excess back then. I feel now that the influence of these writers had much to do with the fact that Oron in the novel is not a purely barbaric figure, even though he should be. He has some of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Errol Flynn in him; he is Hector as well as Achilles, but he ought to be Achilles or, better, Alexander—a born fighter bred for war and personal combat, yet innately intelligent and intrigued by life as he finds it. Oron is a Nevgan—raised to survive anything, anywhere—but he has a bit of us in him, too, enough so that we understand him and even sympathize with him. (Nevga, I believe, was my alteration of the name of the River Neva in Russia, so perhaps my barbarian world-shaker has a bit of Aleksandr Nevski and Ilya Mourametz in him.)

In revising the novel, then, I have reworked Oron so that he reflects the character who subsequently appeared in two other novels and several short stories—prequels—all written in the early 1980s, when Oron had gone through its two printings and fallen out of print. I expect the tone and substance to be similar to that of “Dark of Heart,” a short story scheduled to appear in Weird Tales, or that of “Shadow-born, Shadow-taken,” my novelette recently released in the e-anthology Artifacts and Relics (http://heathenoracle.weebly.com/).

I also intend to do my best to improve the quality of my writing, including the dialogue. Morgan Holmes mentioned to me years ago that one of the things that set my sword-and-sorcery stories apart from those of other writers was my extensive use of dialogue. He’s right. I did not intentionally set out to write in such a way; it comes as an outgrowth of my strong interest in cinema and theater—that is, in developing characters defined as much by their speech and thoughts as by their actions. But the dialogue in Oron as it was originally published is in places almost formal, and there are several monologues in which characters might as well be on a stage under a spotlight reciting Gloucester’s speech at the opening of Richard III. I intend to do away with those monologues and present them as private, indirect discourse.

One more thought: I am dismayed whenever I hear people express surprise that Howard’s volatile fiction could be taken seriously. “He really believed this stuff,” these people say. In fact, the world that Howard portrays is closer to the existence most human beings have lived for the past ten thousand years than is the simulacrum most of us now inhabit. We have put our trust in a fashionable but errant world that teeters every minute on a pinpoint, and this cannot last. I would remind those who find Howard’s worldview to be an affront to our finer sensibilities that his world is real; ours is not. The world of Howard’s sword-and-sorcery, and that of Oron, is not a world of irony and camp; it is not a world of degrading reliance on global technology, as necessary as we have made that. The world that Howard describes in his stories echoes with myths, legends, and tales that go back to the beginning of human settlements, and we ought not to discount this rawness; it is in us still. That noted, I rather like the world I was born into—the world of Western sensibilities, that is; it makes immediately available a great deal that mankind has inherited, and having gotten an education, I am at home in it, although we can do much better, especially in America, in terms of civil rights and economic fairness, and we may.

Nevertheless, we remain a Neolithic species, and the pretense that we are rational, sensible, just, or honorable is not to be trusted. Man is a wolf to man, as the Romans said. The best of us have much to teach us, and we are wise to listen, but few of us as yet are equal to what the best among us ask of us. The haunted world of elemental terrors and human cruelty and desperation is the world we have known the longest; we come from that world, and we dismiss our memory of it at our peril. Stories of men and women armed with swords and strong hearts, facing whatever may confront them on whatever red field they find themselves, encourage us to remember where we have come from and who we have been.

Building a Story: Walt Disney’s Cinderella

If I were ever to teach a class in basic storytelling, especially one in which the class and I discussed popular imaginative fiction, I might very well start off with this book as a perfect example of how to structure a story.

The edition of the Walt Disney Cinderella story I mean is one that I found in the children’s section of Top Shelf Books, our wonderful used-book store on Northwest Highway here in Palatine, Illinois. The book is copyrighted 1995 and on the title page is identified as a Grolier Book Club Edition: “Originally published in Denmark by Egmont Gruppen, Copenhagen, in 1995.” Probably I bought it when Lily, our daughter, was around three years old. I’ve read it to her countless times. She’s read it to herself numerous times, as well. (She’s now seven.) It is a slender hardcover volume of about 44 pages, although it doesn’t even have folios. It does have four-color illustrations taken directly from the Walt Disney cartoon version of Cinderella, the one all of us are familiar with.

Here’s the thing that I noticed the very first time I read it to Lily. Getting into the story, I’d read the large-type text on facing pages, and the events described would be good news for Cinderella. Turn the page, and the next you know, we have dialogue or action that pushes things backward. Trouble for Cinderella. Classic reversal. Next page or two, we’re on the upswing. Next two pages, reversal. This goes on regularly until we get to the happy ending. It isn’t mechanical, although I may make it sound that way here. But the succinctness of telling the story this way builds into it a real sense of dramatic tension and personal investment. It’s the x-y graph we all learned when we were introduced to the classic structure of Freytag’s pyramid or the up-and-down sine wave of how to structure a movie script or a mystery story. Peak, trough, peak, trough, gradually climbing in intensity, until we get to the final act and then everything comes together except for those last few curve balls that leave you breathless until, ta da, climax, happy ending, resolution, denouement, redemption, happily ever after.

On the very first page of this edition we get an illustration of Cinderella awake in bed, fooling with her hair, with bright sunshine coming through the window and her little bird friends chirping her awake. No surprises here. We know that the use of animals in fables and tales pretty much goes back to the very beginning of storytelling. The Jatakas of early Buddhist literature and Aesop’s fables for all practical purposes reach back to the beginning of the human oral tradition. Generally, animals are regarded as being better than human beings in almost all ways; they are clever, wise, powerful, sexy, vital. (We may debate whether anything’s being superior to human beings is really much of a challenge, given how woefully we have disported on this earth in our time, but that would be a topic for another blog.) Animals represent the gods or the supernatural, introduce change in the protagonist’s life or bring wisdom to the afflicted or afflict those who think themselves very wise or clever in order to teach them a lesson. So here is Cinderella, very much an Ur-protagonist, one with Nature, beloved of Nature —

— and very clearly in trouble, as we notice immediately on the facing page, in a deep trough, because here we see Cinderella on hands and knees, scrubbing the floor, with the evil stepmother hovering over her, and the text makes clear that the stepmother is cruel and that she and the two stepsisters treat her like a servant and make her do all of the work. That’s all we get. Not much in the way of nuance. We are in a world of wholes, not of halves or fractions, of gray areas or ambivalence. We go from the natural world of Nature and happy birds to this false, indoor world of cruel people who aren’t even actually part of Cinderella’s life because they’re not related by blood. They’re artificial. We’ve already been notified that Cinderella has more in common with the innocent creatures of the natural world than she does with these creeps who command the household.

And so it goes. The royal messenger arrives saying that the king is going to have a ball that night for the prince. Peak! Turn the page. Cinderella is permitted to go…if she gets all of her work done in time. Trough! Cinderella excitedly pulls out her mother’s old gown from the trunk in the attic in anticipation of a wonderful evening. Forward! Then the stepmother comes in: “Cinderella, wash the floors!” “But I washed them yesterday!” “Well, wash them again!” Reversal! The animal friends help Cinderella, but even that assistance fails against the will power of the evil stepmother and the machinations of the wicked stepsisters.

Until! Halfway through the story, we get the fairy godmother. For me, this brings to mind Robert Bly’s famous leaps of association, which he describes in “Looking for Dragon Smoke,” the first part of Leaping Poetry (1975): “In ancient times…the poet flew from one world to another, ‘riding on dragons,’ as the Chinese said…. [Poets] dragged behind them long tails of dragon smoke…. The dragon smoke means that a leap has taken place in the poem. In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap at the center of the work. That leap can be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” Bly cites examples of such leaps in Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. “In all art derived from Great Mother mysteries, the leap to the unknown part of the mind lies in the very center of the work. The strength of ‘classical art’ has much more to do with this leap than with the order that the poets developed to contain, and, partially, to disguise it.”

So we are dealing with deeply resonant human material in Cinderella, a story that Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, reminds us goes back at least a thousand years. Warner discusses at length an ancient Chinese version of the story, details the sexual symbolism of the slipper, and makes clear that the fairy godmother in modern variations was an animal helper in more ancient versions but that, fairy or animal, this figure is indeed the dead mother returned: “The animal helper, who embodies the dead mother in providing for her orphaned child, constitutes a structural node in the Cinderella story, but the creature changes in later European versions until she takes the form of the fairy godmother familiar today.” Structural node, indeed: that’s Bly’s long floating leap, isn’t it? It’s the dragon smoke. Cinderella, Warner reminds us, is a “much-loved story of female wish fulfillment.” “Cinderella is a child in mourning for her mother, as her name tells us; her penitential garb is ash, dirty and low as a donkey skin or a coat of grasses, but more particularly the sign of loss, the symbol of mortality….”

Right here we have the beginnings of the Harry Potter epic or an Ender’s Game in the making, or another of any number of such characters and plot set-ups. This is rich, deep stuff, and when we use the story in its stripped-down form in this Grolier Book Club Edition that I would provide for my class, we have very clear architecture that we can use to build any sort of story we like.

So the fairy godmother appears and the impossible occurs: Cinderella, or her dead mother, or the girl’s subconscious, or animal spirits assist her in achieving her original goal, of attending the ball so that she might, of course, meet the prince and thereby achieve the happy ending, the fulfillment, the enlightenment, the resolution that all true suffering protagonists must attain. The last half of the story is pretty much the first half in reverse: the prince searches for the beautiful girl whom he wishes to wed, and no matter what the evil stepmother and the wicked stepsisters do to interfere with this fated reunion, things backfire on them. The animal friends actively help Cinderella in the first half of the story; in the second half, they assist by actively interfering with the stepmother and the sisters. The stepsisters, proactive but arrogant and remote in the first half, now react with selfish tears and moans when they are unable to fit the glass slipper onto their own toes. The stepmother was able to control all circumstances when it was just she and the girls inside their old castle in the first half of the story; now that outsiders, life, fresh air, and freedom have intruded in the persons of the duke and the footman, the envoys of the prince (that is, envoys of the world that Cinderella’s fairy godmother has opened for her and introduced her to.) the stepmother’s actions take the form of bungling slapstick. Whereas previously she could do nothing wrong, now she can do nothing right. The story reversals now work in Cinderella’s favor.

This Disney version undoes a lot of what, over the centuries, were critical elements in the Cinderella story, but in terms of sheer basic storytelling power, this really works. So I’d introduce my class to all of this material and draw the graph and the sine wave on the chalkboard or whiteboard or easel, and then suggest that we all collaborate on building the outline of a story based precisely on this architecture.

You can see where this could go. A teenage vampire story? A space opera adventure? A Western? The opening has to provide an introduction for our protagonist that gives us fundamentally everything we need to know. Look at the opening of, for example, John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, right? And the dragon smoke or structural node in that movie? Conan dies on the Tree of Woe and is brought back to life from the land of spirits. Wouldn’t have worked to have it be Conan’s fairy godmother, but we get the idea, be it strength deep within ourselves or the symbolism of dragon smoke (or demonic spirits), a trip through a time portal, a perilous sea voyage or space voyage —  we could use whatever we like, but that’s what makes the protagonist the protagonist. For Gilgamesh, it was battling Enkidu, his spiritual brother, his animal-like wilder self, before journeying to the end of the world, losing what he had come for, but returning all the wiser for that and becoming, finally, a decent man and a decent king.

That would be the first day of my class, and this concise little hardcover of Disney’s 1950 cartoon would be my introductory text. It makes use of very resonant, and gratifying, subconscious elements while using a story framework  patterned on the Greek tragic model we’re all familiar with, that of incident piled on incident until we have a final denouement, like Greek warriors rushing into battle to settle things once and for all — the shootout on the streets of Dodge City, or the attack on Darth Vader’s battle star, or John Walton’s finally making it back down the mountain in time for Christmas morning, despite all odds that his life is in very real danger. (Or maybe it was coming back up the mountain. I forget which.) I’ll bet my class and I could spend the rest of the semester crafting story after story built on this architecture, creating good popular fiction with compelling plots, and – – if we were to do it right — with characters that halfway through look into a mirror, die and are reborn, defeat a shadow, or take a long journey that brings her or him back to where she or he started in order to complete a very powerful story journey. That journey would feel as satisfactory for whoever were to read it as it would to those of us who wrote it. Whether we did it as an outer space Western or a Victorian mystery story or a sword-and-sorcery adventure, I’ll bet that few people would recognize it literally. Subconsciously, though, they might very well understand that they are experiencing a good strong tale…one that, in its essence, has been around for a thousand years or more.

 

The Years That Pass That Are Not Past

When I was a kid—10, 12 years old and later—I used to stay up late at night on Fridays and Saturdays and watch old movies. Monster movies hosted by Ghoulardi on channel 8 in Cleveland, for a while there, in the early sixties, but later, just about anything—film noir from the 1940s and 1950s, Shane and other Westerns, old adventure movies, and particularly pictures from the very early talkie era, which for some reason fascinated me. Carole Lombard and George Raft dancing in some movie whose name I forget. Bruce Cabot in a Western whose name escapes me. A film noir from the 1950s which haunts me still; I have to track this one down. A guy crosses the mob, runs off to Mexico, and then for some reason is able to come back to the city of darkness. He makes amends or the guy who double-crossed him gets fingered and pays his dues, and the protagonist—I keep thinking it is Richard Conte—at the end is able to start a new life. He goes outside. His girl, a woman he met in Mexico or something, is waiting for him across the street. They smile at each other. She starts to cross the street to greet him when, bam, a car comes out of nowhere, skids into her and kills her, and any chance Richard Conte or whoever it was had for building a new life and actually being able to make something of himself, that is now gone, too.

I have to find out which movie that was. It kind of haunts me. Everything that film noir was about, for me, is in that scene. Guys who’ve never had a break, who have always been kept down no matter how much they fought back, guys who understood completely that life is unfair and basically meaningless, finally get a chance at something, and then it gets taken from them, or they get smashed down one last time, in some impersonal way that would be cruel if the universe or anybody gave a shit about these poor slobs, if anything meant anything. It’s Greek tragedy. These were Greek tragedies, these film noir pictures. Hubris doesn’t mean that your character was your fate or that you had to be noble to suffer; hubris means that stuff happens randomly, there is no way to prevent it, and you get knocked down just because. In fact, there is no because. You get knocked down, The End. Character is, Yeah, shit happens, but I just keep going. These grandparents and parents of ours who made it through the Great Depression and World War II—that’s character. They developed character. That’s tragedy, and that’s the character that comes from tragedy.

(I wondered, as a kid, why my parents would spend their early adulthood in the late fifties and early sixties, sitting on the couch or relaxing in an easy chair at the end of the day, watching boring Andy Griffith Christmas specials or predictable variety shows or mediocre sitcoms until I realized, much later, that they had earned that right to do that by living through so much crap, the Great Depression and World War II and every deprivation, material and spiritual, that went with those events.)

I ramble in this way because, as my seven-year-old daughter tells me, “Dad, you have too many words.” Also, I ramble in this way because watching those old movies late at night, sometimes every night during summer vacation when I was 14, 15, 16, ties in with how I appreciate time. This is odd, but here it is: the old TV Guide, the digest size that anyone over 30 or 40 grew up with, always listed the movie title, I think, with Movie in bold caps (Futura? Helvetica?) and then, if I recall correctly, a dash, followed by the movie’s genre: Western. Melodrama. Comedy. Adventure. Romance. Maybe they used Romance; I’m not sure. Monster movies, I remember, were always labeled Melodrama, a term I recall looking up when I was I don’t know how young. Then you’d get the release date in parentheses, and then the famous TV Guide capsule summary which was nothing more or less than the logline for the movie. These descriptions were gems of precision.

The release dates in parentheses put these things in perspective for me. I was born in 1952. Here was a Western that was released in 1952, so I have something in common with that movie in terms of time. A war picture—I wasn’t really drawn to those the way many of my peers were—but a war picture would be from the 40s. My old man had been in the war, and that was (I would count) so many years before I was born. I’d heard about the Depression from people in the neighborhood and my grandparents—that put movies from the Depression in perspective. (My dad’s mom loved the old Universal monster pictures from the early 30s and also had a special fondness, I recall, for White Zombie, which, as ancient and slow as it no doubt seems to viewers today, still for me has a creepiness lacking even in the Universal movies. It may be the very lack of artfulness that makes White Zombie seem airless, vacant, hollow, allows it to fulfill its sense of stasis, slow-moving death, emptiness, doom.)

From those parenthetical release dates for movies, I pulled together a sense of America in the twentieth century, so that, when I learned some historical fact or other, I fit it into the period familiar to me from the movies. The Progressive era and the Jazz Age were silent movies, and the more of those I saw, the more I understood how electrifying these movies must have been to their audiences, sound or no sound. Movies (originally the term was used to slander the newcomers in Los Angeles who made pictures—the people, not the product) moved. They were about speed, energy, youth; they were about what was becoming the American Century.

Oddly, then, I carry around this weird sense of feeling in many ways very familiar with stretches of history I did not live through. The Great Depression is not remote; it was when George Raft danced with Carole Lombard and Paul Muni was on a chain gang and Humphrey Bogart met his Dead End at the hands of Joel McCrae, at the same time that my dad’s father worked for the railroad and kept his family together that way. It was when Mr. Jones across the street worked for the Girard Coal Company, I think its name was, and did okay, and it was when Mr. Grinnalds next door hit the road as a young man and looked for work, traveling from Virginia to Pittsburgh to Youngstown, and that was “back when I was smoking Luckies,” as he said to me once, as though a way to tell time is by which brand of cigarettes you smoked or which car you drove or which girl you were dating.

So this history is relevant and recent for me, and my appreciation of it did indeed start with watching Shane and The Bride of Frankenstein and Prince of Players on Friday and Saturday nights when I was a kid. How, then, does anyone else for whom bygone history is recent history measure that span that keeps things alive, recent, almost within living memory? Do scientists carry around a time map such as this with dates or places in which Nils Bohr and Michael Faraday are plugged in, so that time for a scientist who is alive now is squashed into stepping stones of relevant years, so that the years that have passed are not past? Artists must feel that way. Musicians must. The past is never past for musicians because they seem always to be building on what has gone before them, in the same way that scientists do. Painters. Some writers, some novelists. For many people it is, no doubt, the history of their families or their neighborhood that provides the path of stepping stones, their church, the local business or businesses. How empty those of us must be who try to live new and fresh at every moment as though there were no moments before, only this one, so that they must constantly catch up, compete, be rewarded, be recognized, be paid attention to. For what? For a moment? These restless people are beads from a broken necklace rolling all over the place, no longer connected, no longer sensible or part of something recognizable, less than alone. Sadness. Madness, a kind of madness, such a life.

I have too many words, as Lily says, but when I start putting them down, the past is not past, as Faulkner said, and I begin to feel a connection with anyone else who runs a race with his or her own moving mind, trying to get the words down as precisely and as soon as possible so that whatever is inside becomes outside, becomes expressed—words, music, even science, maybe.

For the life of me, though, I still cannot recall the name of that Richard Conte movie, and when I checked his filmography on IMDB, I didn’t find it. I don’t think it is a Richard Conte movie. I have misremembered a stepping stone.

Attracting an Agent Is Like Going for a Job Interview

For the past 10 years, going back to 2003, at least, I’ve pitched ideas to agents, hoping to interest one of them in the commercial potential of one or another of my ideas, and the effort has come to nothing. I had literary representation decades ago, and what I wrote seemed to be accepted well enough in the commercial fiction market of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But that was then. Today, what I’m interested in writing, and how I’m interested in writing it, is of no use to literary reps or to publishers. I’ve debated why, and most of my answers are the same ones you’ve no doubt confronted many times. If I read one more blog or article that echoes how (1) the competition has never been fiercer, (2) the agent really has to fall in love with your pitch or your manuscript, or (3) you as the writer must never give up because the writers who get published are those who persist the longest, I’ll  — Well, I don’t know what I’ll do. Nothing, is what I’ll do.

No, I honestly think that where we are now in terms of writers and their agents is a reflection of the corporate ideology that has been taking over all aspects of American life for the past 30 or 40 years. It is this corporate emphasis that killed the midlist, for example. It is this corporate mentality —  driven by the bottom line, needful of regularity in the marketplace by which to base growth projections, and suspicious of novelty and creativity — that will give you the best clue to attracting an agent.

Attracting a literary agent is now exactly the same as applying for a job interview.

This doesn’t negate anything mentioned in the first couple of paragraphs. For instance, when I’ve gone on job interviews, I’ve made it a point to say to the person interviewing me, “Here’s my skill set and work history. How can I use these to help you? What can I do to help you with your business?” What I’m saying to whoever is interviewing me is that that person, as a potential employer, has a need to be filled, and if I’m the person with precisely the right skill set and experience to fill that need, then we shake hands and I show up next Monday to begin filling out the paperwork.

So along with all of the talk about writers needing passion and never giving up and believing in themselves and writing what they love and learning how to write crackerjack two-sentence pitches and how luck and whom you know play as big a part as having a mechanically perfect and grammatically correct manuscript, what’s really going on is that you, in your pitch to an agent, are applying for a job. You’re the potential employee. The agent is your potential employer.

Think this way and you’ll cut through a lot of folderol about writers and agents needing to work together for a vision, or agents needing to fall in love with characters or become enthusiastic about a manuscript and its passion or whatever.

These things are true, but exactly the same thing occurs during a job interview. Everyone in the room is working toward a profit-centered or growth-centered horizon. Everyone needs to feel that she or he is, if not falling in love, at least talking the same language and becoming enthusiastic about the possibilities each offers the other. These are the words and terms we use when we describe opportunities to express ourselves, to move forward, to make something of ourselves, to gain fulfillment — and those things are as true for a trucking company, a pancake restaurant, or an insurance agency as they are for someone promoting any other kind of product, such as commercial fiction.

I don’t think it used to be this way, not entirely. Publishing used to be much, much smaller, although even back in the early 70s, when I was trying to interest people in my adventure-fantasy novels, it was obvious that, even though you can’t make a living as a writer in America, you can make a fortune. All that’s changed is that the odds have increased and the fortunes have gotten larger.

But especially with agents such as Donald Maass, who may have been the first to promote this career-novelist approach to the talent he’s attracted, the idea of books as products and writers as product-producing profit-centers has become the norm in the commercial popular fiction arena.

It never used to be that formulaic, is perhaps what I’m getting at. It was not a formal algorithm, as far as I know, and the metrics involved were more generous for those writers-turned-authors who needed to get several paperbacks under their belts before settling into a profitable groove.

Publishing is now moviemaking is now the music industry is now finance is now social media-ing. Just as certain writers flourished in the past because their talents were perfect for their times, be it writing for pulps or paperbacks, radio or television, so certain writers today are perfect for our times. We can discuss matters of taste or talent or vision or any of those things for the rest of the week, but what really matters — consistently producing a product that meets the demands of the marketplace in a predictable, growth-oriented manner — is why you, as a potentially successful author, should approach agents as though you are applying for a job.

How to engineer two-sentence pitches to reflect that I’m not sure of yet. And a few other things, as well. I’ll try to come up with some ideas if this is useful to anyone out there. Maybe it’s simply a matter of working with the agent once you’ve gotten past the I-love-your-pitch stage. Then again, I am the guy who hasn’t successfully engaged any agent for more than 10 years, so do keep that in mind. I wouldn’t trust me too far on this.

When I talked with Don Maas over supper a long time ago, the day after Columbus Day 1989, I told him that I saw myself as a novelist fulfilling a role similar to that of a movie director. Movie directors are free to undertake a variety of pictures. The best of them, at least, historically have done comedies as well as dramas, flat-out genre pictures such as Westerns or thrillers as well as anything else that intrigued their intelligence or creativity. That’s what I wanted to do: a couple of thrillers, then some horror, then maybe try my hand at a mystery, as well as writing some historical fiction. (I’d still love to dramatize the attempt to create the state of Franklin out of territory that eventually became part of Tennessee.) Maas told me that I had it wrong: novelists aren’t movie directors; they’re actors. They become typecast. Audiences want to see the actor do more or less the same thing in successive pictures throughout their careers. Same with writers of certain kinds of stories.

Maas was right, of course. True movie stars with undeniable talent — a Tom Hanks, for example — eventually can earn enough clout to be allowed to stretch as far as his or her talents will go. But given how the entertainment industry is structured, this situation is the rare exception. And given how the popular commercial fiction industry is structured, it’s unusual for authors, as well. Stephen King writes a lot of horror and then says that he wants to be a more or less serious fictioneer and write more substantial fiction; that’s fine, but he’s still basically a very successful hairdresser moving to a new salon and taking his clientele with him. Same with James Patterson, whose success has been incredible. He started out in advertising, which may be the best possible start for someone to develop the mindset of anticipating and then feeding audience expectations. And when Patterson got caught behind the curve — say, with the boom in YA fantasy fiction or the Diary-of-a-Young-Doofus clones, he moved smoothly into line to take his place in racking up sales. That’s how it’s done.

These agents who represent your manuscripts also now guide your career, so they are basically managers. It’s job security for them and assists you, as well, in staying on top of things in an environment that has changed so dramatically. We’ve gone through so many corporate buyouts, and so many editors and other industry specialists lost out when publishing hemorrhaged talent after the 2008 crash, that it makes sense for agents to reinvent themselves as literary reps-cum-managers and whatever else they can do to keep things moving forward.

I believe these agents, in that regard, when they say that what would have sold 5 or 10 years ago has no chance in the publishing environment today. Those ideas that I pitched over the past several years? Seasons of the Moon was one of them; I still think that the concept of a rural, pagan, matriarchal community embodying in its own fashion the most ancient of social constructs, that of justice, makes for a great novel. But the commercial appeal? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Crickets chirping. Call of Shadows? Too adult, maybe. It’s my old David Trevisan novels reinterpreted as more mature material. I’m still annoyed that Maas dropped the ball and never talked to Doubleday, in the fall of 1988, after I’d pitched Doubleday with the concept of the first Trevisan novel, eventually published (and mismanaged) by Avon in 1989, titled as The Fair Rules of Evil. But the idea worked once; why not use that concept of an ageless sorcerer, make him a grown-up, give him a lot of baggage, and set him in situations that would really resonate with contemporary events as well as historical themes? Many pitch letters later — nada. Zilch. Crickets. I really thought it would make a great series.

Maybe it’s as simple as my not knowing how to write temptation-filled pitch letters. That’s entirely possible. But it’s also entirely possible that, whatever else I’m doing, I’m approaching this in the wrong way. I’m looking for someone to represent my novel about the psychopathic writer and the young book editor caught under his spell, someone to champion my reincarnation story or my novel about the mysterious disappearance of a movie star. Wrong approach. What I need to do (despite all of the advice about writing what you love and bringing your passion to what you write) is to think in terms of fulfilling a need in the marketplace by approaching a potential agent as a possible employer. Do the research, identify a potential money-making idea, and go for it. Hire me! After all, that agent would not only rep my story but sell me as a product and manage my career, and we would build this as we would a trucking company or a chain of pancake restaurants.

As I said, I think that this is the proper mindset to have in pitching agents, and if it is of assistance to any of you out there swimming upriver or fighting the good fight in the trenches against impossible odds — well, you’re welcome to it. I’m not sure how exactly to go about it — I don’t have an algorithm or game plan — but there you go.

Although, again, I’m the guy who couldn’t interest any of dozens of agents with the adult-sorcerer or pagan-women ideas.

As for me, I’m at 41,000 words with my literary sword-and-sorcery novel, which really is something new and different, as far as I know, but I doubt that there are many editors or agents out there who’d be interested in an oddball experiment such as Sometime Lofty Towers.

Anyone? Any takers? Anyone?

Ah, as I thought. Crickets.

No problem. I’m coming up on 43,000 words any day now, though, and I’ll keep it going because I do feel passionate about this story!   : )