Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I don't think a Halloween has gone by when I didn't dress up. Well, maybe in college (but why not??).

A couple of years ago I was a pirate and looked like Johnny Depp. Last year a plastic surgeon (surgeon's aqua costume, wrapped plastic wrap about my head, waist.....). This year a repeat of the silver siren with a black wig, silver makeup, black and silver big drapey costume with a high collar. (I'll post a pic tomorrow.)

When I was a kid, I'd start trick or treating three days before Halloween. My mother would drive me. We’d begin with the far reaches of the neighborhood. I had three costumes, one for each night.

People would open their front doors and look at their watches, look at each other and say, Is it Halloween??

Just about, I’d say.

They mostly gave me money and apples. I didn’t know that you should confine Halloween to just one night and apparently neither did my mother.

Who has Halloween anecdotes out there? Let's hear them!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Voice, and Maira Kalman

If you get the Los Angeles Times, then this morning you most likely read the book review and perhaps noticed the review of Maira Kalman's new book, The Principles of Uncertainty. I love Maira Kalman--her voice, her art. I discovered her way before Travis was born when I worked at Rizzoli bookstore at South Coast Plaza and saw Max Makes a Million about a dog who longs to be a poet and ends up getting a million dollar contract. (Uh-huh, right, you say.) The artwork was fabulous--Matisse/Chagall like--and the voice of the writing was singular.'s what impresses me, in the end, more than plotting, I must say (but this could be because plotting is not a virtue of mine).

So, for your Sunday entertainment, here's a little video from Kalman's site. It's so Kalman.

Friday, October 19, 2007

James Baldwin

I'm reading the Paris Review Interviews, Part II, the interview with James Baldwin and about the essay, he says, "....An essay is essentially an argument. The writer's point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or play you're trying to show them something..."

So true. When I'm compelled to write an essay, I need to convince the reader (and myself) of something.

Essayists, and those studying the form, what do you think? Why do you write essays? Any essayists you love?

And of talent, Baldwin says, "Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance."

I love the Paris Review Interviews.... All of the collections....

Friday, October 12, 2007

Arthur Plotnik Q&A

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Art Plotnik, his columns in The Writer and his book, Spunk & Bite.

So the other day I emailed him and asked him to be a guest blogger.

BDB: I'm known as someone who advises against using adverbs but now that I've read Spunk & Bite, the right adverb can make all the difference. Where did we get this idea that adverbs were bad?

AP: It’s the old story--a few rotten apples putting the reek on whole adverbial barrel. Among the rotten pomes are these: the tired and limp (really good); redundant (cleanly laundered), the cliché (greatly exaggerated), the hedgey (somewhat terrifying, differently abled) and the excessive (marvelously, gorgeously attired).

Such stinkers obscure the point of adverbs; for, you see, vee must haff vays to get more information out of adjectives and verbs. Adverbs are the best means of doing so. For example, in a story by Antonya Nelson, the teeth of a homeless girl are described as “flawless.” But here comes more information: They were “orthodontically flawless”--an important clue that the girl was from a high-society family.

BDB: Your writing is so liquid and lively and has such voice. Do the words pour out of you effortlessly?

AP: Excuse me while I slurp up that bubble drink of praise. Ahh. But word flow? About as effortless as breaking out of San Quentin. Writing! All those trite and tired habits of expression to escape, all that tunneling between too much and too little, all those police to circumvent--grammar police, PC police, thought police, trend police. Most people can gab effortlessly, but gab is the antithesis of writing. Writing is the gift you give of agonizingly crafted language in a thrillingly felicitous assemblage that somehow sounds effortless.

BDB: Have you always had a distinct voice or did you work to develop it?

AP: I’m not sure that, outside acting, you can work at voice. Okay, maybe I’ve always gone for the odd yok, and maybe I’ve habitually mixed my dictions. But what I’ve worked at is being liked (which I suppose can influence voice) and getting heard. I think that most writers, as they read, get a ton of stylish voices in their heads--the voices that say “literature” or “journalism” to them. Into this mix come the diction and locutions acquired from family, certain teachers and peers, pop culture, and assorted role models. This melange, if one is not too self-conscious about it, can give rise to a distinctive voice, a personality, even as one concentrates on the fundamentals of writing.

BDB: If someone wants to strengthen their voice, what do you advise?

AP: A good start is to jettison all hackneyed expression, especially clichés, catch phrases, and trendy locutions that make writing sound like cellphone patois. When you replace generic expression with something inventive, your particular brand of inventiveness will help distinguish your voice. Consider how Michael Chabon invents a fresh way of saying “Landsman wakes up and smells the coffee” in his novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: "The coffeemaker begins its expectorations around seven. A few thousand molecules of coffee vapor tumble into the bedroom and worry the hairs inside Landsman’s beak." And there you have that personifying, comic-bookish- yet-literary Chabon voice.

BDB: How do you revise--or do you?

AP: All I do is revise. Write three words, revise two, and revise all three the next day. Why? Because, in writing (as opposed to speech) I can do so! Because opportunities are always out there for more concise, more evocative turns of phrase. Because when I’m finished with a piece of writing, I don’t always have to feel “I shoulda said this, or I should said that,” as I so often do after opening my mouth.

I revise as I go along, which may be a deadly method for anyone who hasn’t been a career editor. Editing--questioning how something will strike an audience--has made me the compulsive reviser I am. I revise e-mails, notes to my wife on who telephoned, everything I write. But an editing/writing career has enabled me to work right and left brains in tandem, like walking a pair of rambunctious terriers. The better way for most people, of course, is to write freely, tell their story; then, donning the merciless-editor’s hat, go back and revise.

BDB: Tell me, and everyone who visits this blog, one thing they shouldn't forget.

AP: To writers: Either tell your readers something they don’t know, or tell them something they know in a marrow-churningly inventive way.


I love this guy....

Monday, October 08, 2007


My friend and former student Jordan, who goes by many names here (don'tcha, J?), keeps bugging me for a new post. Seems a few days go by and he needs something new. When I tell him to start a blog, he says he has nothing to say electronically. But he has lots to say in the comments portion of my blog. Okay. Whatever.

So I'll talk about voice, because that's how I knew it was him, commenting, just under a new screen name. I always know when it's him. Because of his voice.

I've talked about voice before, but it seems you can never say too much about voice. Voice is the writer's fingerprint. Take away the name of the writer and if you still know who wrote the piece or the book, that writer has got a strong voice.

Ron Carlson has a strong voice. So does T. Jefferson Parker. And Hemingway. And Melissa Bank. And...and...and...

Who do you think has a strong voice? Names...we want names!

Friday, October 05, 2007

The leaf blowers....

...are making a racket next door. Can't the gardeners just use a broom? Are leaf blowers prevalent in other areas of the country, or just here in the O.C. where autumn leaves aren't seen as beautiful but seen as a mess on the sidewalk and yard? You won't find O.C. kids jumping off swings into piles of leaves because there are none!

I'm really not in a bad mood.

It's just that Jordan (I'm gonna out you, J., and tell everyone you're "Sweetness" in the comments section) just wrote to me accusing me of laziness for not blogging lately. But I've been working on an essay this last week, J.! That doesn't matter to J.; he's just sick of checking back here and seeing the post on the Helen Schulman podcast (he doesn't listen to podcasts but wants me to transcribe. Uh-huh, right....). I understand, though. When I check blogs and it's the same old stuff, I become frustrated and if I knew the blogger, I'd do just what Jordan did, and I'd write to him or her and say, Whassup?

Just so this blog post isn't complete nonsense, I have one discovery for you. As I said, I've been working on an essay the last week and when I started the essay, I didn't know what it was about. I just knew I'd been wanting to write about this thing that happened about 15 years ago. And I had a first line. But I didn't know where it was going.

The piece started out as a five page sketch, swelled to a 12 piece essay, and shrunk to eight pages, and in the meantime, I discovered what it was about and found my ending. So my tip for you is, regarding essays, don't wait until you know exactly what it's about to begin writing your piece. The discovery is in the writing. I love essays and I love discovering along the way what I mean to say.

Okay, Jordan, happy?