by Stephen Dobyns, February 8, 2013 10:00 AM
I should confess that I have a fault or difficulty or issue that has always mildly complicated my life. I am, at the same time, quite shy and a showoff. It's like being a world-class figure skater living in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Over time the shyness has lessened as has, perhaps, the desire to show off, but they still exert their force. Unfortunately, showing off is an insistent stimulus and if it can't express itself in one direction, it will express itself in another. That said, I should add that writing novels, short stories, poems, and journalism provide wonderful chances to make a display.
Many writers will find within themselves both clown and philosopher, meaning not either/or but a range of behavior. A writer can be many things, but first of all he or she must be an entertainer. Once the reader has opened a book or read a title, the writer has to find ways to make him or her keep reading. Much of this is based on surprise: things happen that the reader hadn't expected. Sudden horror and sudden humor offer great opportunities for surprise. But horror and humor in such cases are not an ends but a means. I have a recent poem called "Turd," which, even though it contains an actual turd, is not about turds but about early adolescent embarrassment. I mentioned in an earlier installment that Rilke would see the apparent subject of his poem — the subject that is referred to in the title — as pretext to get to some other, sometimes abstract subject. My poem "Turd" functions in the same way; it's a method I've employed often: to use an apparent but false subject to get to a real subject. Consider Rilke's panther and my turd as loss leaders in a poet's marketing strategy
But while a poem has opportunities to show off, there is nothing to match the novel, and The Burn Palace offered many, many opportunities.
When I was in grade school, my favorite reading material — this is an awkward admission — was the Johnson Smith Catalog from a novelty company that started up in Chicago in 1914. The company has now moved to the Internet. But when I was 10 the catalog had all the excitement for me that Playboy magazine had for me at 15. Let me say right off that the x-ray glasses and the little doohickey to let you throw your voice across the room don't work. But the whoopee cushion has been a solid seller for over 100 years. These days, of course, it has various remote control options.
Such items as rubber turds, plastic vomit, soap that makes your hands turn black, and belching powder can drive one's parents nearly hysterical. As for my whoopee cushion, my parents snatched it away.
So it was a pleasure in The Burn Palace to introduce 10-year-old Baldo Bonaldo, for whom the Johnson Smith Co. was his Shangri-La, his Holy Grail, his personal Disneyland, his undoing; and who became my substitute for showing off. However, as I said in my first installment, a writer is all his or her characters, good and bad. Baldo is just a small part of me, hopefully a smidgen.
Stephen King has called his work "passionate trash," and one has to have a passion for whatever one writes. It's very difficult to create a story with cold-blooded calculation, or at least I can't do it. If something in one of my novels is frightening or funny, it has to do its work on me first. The opening of The Church of Dead Girls with three dead girls in an attic frightened me for weeks.
Writing is a matter of sifting through thousands of choices and then, like a computer — yes, no, yes, no, yes, no — the writer makes his or her selection. This choosing, for me, requires mega-warehouses of information: stuff that I know or I've done or I've heard about or I've read about. I like to think that the more information I acquire, the more choices I'll have and the better will be the end product: a book or poem or article. This perhaps is self-deception. But I'm curious. I'd much rather hear a person talk about his or her life than to talk about mine.
About 30 years ago I imagined a nurse discovering a snake in a crib in a hospital nursery. Actually, I first thought of a dozen snakes, but that seemed too complicated, so I cut it down to one six-foot corn snake. The son of a friend of mine in LA had had a corn snake, and I'd been impressed by its many swirling colors.
Then, at another time, I imagined satanic masses deep in the woods — I'd been reading quite a bit about witchcraft. And over my bed where we live, the ceiling is made up of pine boards with many knotholes, and not long ago I thought, "What if I began to see the knotholes move?" Then there was a Polish novel I read a decade ago where a man finds a hanged cat in the woods. And several years ago, for a story I was writing for a San Diego paper, I visited a few funeral homes and interviewed the men in charge. All of this wound up in The Burn Palace, and it's the sort of minutia with which I fill my mega-warehouses.
I didn't have time to make use of my snake in the crib when I first thought of it, but a few years ago I began to think of it again: a baby stolen from a hospital nursery and replaced with a snake. Well, what would happen next? So followed a long chain of cause and effect with lots of wrong roads and cul-de-sacs, which later had to be cut, as did some favorite scenes that didn't contribute to the plot. But as I moved along, trying to answer my questions, I dipped into my mega-warehouses. If the plot is a tree, details are the tinsel.
As I said earlier, the very act of writing leads to information that wouldn't be reached otherwise. I didn't know I'd have a black detective until he suddenly appeared. I wouldn't have thought of mad Carl Krause until I imagined knotholes moving on my ceiling. It sounds easy, doesn't it? Yes, in retrospect, it seems easy if I forget about the scars on my forehead from where I kept banging my head against the wall. Having a story isn't as important as learning how to tell the story. A story to tell is like having a bag of wheat, but it means nothing if you can't bake the bread.
The purpose of my blog would seemingly be to write about The Burn Palace. That's what I've been doing, indirectly — discussing why I write and what is language, etc. But I like to think of myself not as a desk type, but an outdoor type. In the past 50 years, I've thought of riding a bike across the country or climbing a mountain or seeing if I could swim the English Channel (I like to swim). I calculate how I would do it and what I would need. I get excited and may even buy a bike or a good pair of hiking boots. I might work up a psychosomatic sweat. But then I turn away and go back to my desk, thinking that writing gives me what I imagine to be the real world. Fortunately, journalism has kept me from being too sedentary, while providing me with material to use in my writing, and I've also traveled to and wandered around quite a few countries, although I've avoided headhunters and
by Stephen Dobyns, February 7, 2013 10:00 AM
Writing is a unique way of thinking that allows a writer to come upon ideas that he or she wouldn't have otherwise discovered. Some writers sit quietly waiting for inspiration to appear; others don't wait but simply begin writing and eventually, they believe, inspiration will occur. They describe things or remember things or argue things, as they wait for the ideas to take off on their own. This is like pushing a car to get it started.
Rainer Maria Rilke, when he couldn't write, would go to the Paris zoo, take out his notebook, and describe an animal, like a panther or swan. This was around 1905 or 1906. As he wrote, his dominating idea gradually took over and the real poem began, which, in this case, was driven by his fear of being confined. The panther or swan existed only as pretext to get someplace else. They stopped being the ends and became the means. They became metaphors.
Any metaphor is an idea. The aphorism "hangs a padlock on his zipper; calls himself good" gives a simple picture about which we ask a question: Why does he call himself good? Then, perhaps unconsciously, we create a narrative about how the padlock may or may not keep him from certain actions. All this happens in an instant as we move from image to idea. Is the man really good if he requires a padlock on his zipper in order to behave properly? And so we arrive at idea.
Here is another: "Mouse grows proud; invites the cat to tea." And another: "He dips his words in honey; you still taste the salt." Both aphorisms express human characteristics, and we probably know people of whom they are true. Again, as we think about those characteristics, they become ideas, but the ideas are not described discursively, but nondiscursively.
A poem is not an aphorism, but it, too, uses nondiscursive language. The poem is itself a metaphor describing, perhaps, some emotional state, and that poem will also have metaphors within it. That mixture of nondiscursive and discursive language within the poem attempts to say something about the dominating idea; that is, the idea that led the poet to write in the first place. This use of the discursive and nondiscursive together can create a clarity of vision and understanding that will not be found in either of them separately. Even the elements of a poem's form communicate ideas nondiscursively, as they give emphasis and control pacing.
Language is inexact. We have an amazing idea, but when we put it into words, it is not quite as amazing as it was in the mind. It has been diminished. This is true in conversation, in an essay, in a poem, in a novel — anyplace where words are used. In speech, precision or nuance can be helped through hand gestures and facial expressions, but written language has always the danger of appearing lifeless.
A poem, however, in its potential joining of discursive and nondiscursive thought, can do a far better job of expressing nuance than can prose, and so it is able to come closer to precision in expressing that internal idea than other forms of writing. But there becomes a limit to the poem's length unless it's a long narrative, epic, or meditative poem. The poem that I speak of, if it goes on page after page, becomes too compact. It loses energy and we lose interest. After all, you can't make a meal out of chewing a dozen bouillon cubes.
I don't mean to sound pedantic. I'm trying to say how I deal with the problem of not believing the world exists. If I'm in the business of definition, then I want a utilization of language that potentially is more exact and closer to the original idea than any other. That seems simple enough, and it is one of the reasons I write poetry, along with the goal of creating something of beauty, of reaching out to another person, and so on. And in that writing of the poem, I come upon ideas that I wouldn't have found in any other way, like Rilke and his panther. I don't tell something to someone; I work to make myself potentially understood, even though I write in a form that can be far more difficult to understand than prose. But a poem is meant to communicate, although many poets reject this, and one of my goals in writing is to make the poem communicate.
Well, what happens if I don't do this, if I just accept the appearance of reality and make no attempt to find what I imagine to be the invisible reality? Then the uncertainty takes over, the doubt and confusion. It's like I'm high on reefer or LSD. Is what I'm feeling and seeing really what I'm feeling or seeing, or is it an illusion? I don't find that a comfortable place to live. Therefore, I keep writing and defining and try to make the writing better. You say you don't like the writing? Hey, it's not your life I'm trying to save.
A novel or short story may do it differently. Where did these stories come from? In my case, a little comes from experience, but only a little. You know that period just before sleep when there are conversations and unfolding scenarios in your head? That's where the stories come from, not literally but in essence. This particularly happens to someone with an energetic imagination, and for a writer the imagination is his or her primary tool. For years on most of the nights of the week, I have dreamed of a nonexistent city, a dream city. I know buildings and neighborhoods, railroads and river, hills and valleys, and the people I interact with in that city often don't exist in real life, although some may.
I don't mean to say more about this or explain it or claim that it is in any way special. It's just where I hang out at night. But this is also where my stories come from, again not literally but in essence. And just as the stories are made up of metaphors, so are the dreams. Actually, I remember only bits and pieces of my dreams, but those pieces usually take place in that city. I'm not going to write about this place or interpret it. It's just there. As I said elsewhere, I am superstitious about dismantling the machinery of my writing. Did you ever take apart a watch as a kid and then find it impossible to put back together? It's like that. I study and think about the how of writing all the time: How do I make it better, how do I see how it works? That knowledge, if it's knowledge, makes up the essays in two of my books: Best Words, Best Order and Next Word, Better Word. But the questions of what poetry is and where it comes from, I stay away from. I don't want to mess with the machinery.
These dominating ideas that direct the writing, some have been with me since early childhood; others arise from where I am now — the weakening body and approach of death. I'm aware of them, but I don't want to pick them apart. Where the writing and stories come from is a mystery. It seems like a gift. And every writer has the fear that the gift will suddenly vanish. Then
by Stephen Dobyns, February 6, 2013 10:00 AM
You see, I don't believe the world exists, as silly as that seems. I'm not convinced that my warehouse of definitions actually explains or identifies anything. It's like the old question: Is the blue I see the same blue that you see? I have my plans and expectations for the next hour, but who knows what will happen? Way back in 11th grade, I read a novel in which the narrator says that it takes 8 minutes for the light of the sun to reach the earth. So we might be basking on the beach for 7 minutes and 59 seconds, then in the next second turn into ice cubes.
Yes, I realize this is unlikely, but it's not one hundred percent impossible. There is still a nano-fraction of possibility that the sun might in the next moment blink out. When I was 17, this was a revelation. It meant that certainty couldn't exist until the event or object or whatever in question was past. Even as I write it's possible that the sun might have flared out four minutes ago, and I have only four minutes more to spend on my blog.
Foolish, you say. But one of the main reasons that I write is to map the world, to give palpability to the frighteningly impalpable. Language is the brush I use to give color to the shadows. I would hate to think how many words I've written, but surely it's around five million. Trees shake when they see me coming. And with these words I've created an illusory world that is more real to me than the so-called real world; that is, if the so-called real world actually exists, which I doubt.
I once cooked some friends a dinner that included chunks of macerated eggplant. It was very tasty and when my friends left they all thanked me for the fabulous meal. There then followed a dozen hours of dreadful diarrhea. It happened to me; it happened to my wife; it happened to my friends. This took place maybe 30 years ago and I've steered clear of eggplant ever since. No way will I be tricked again.
But the point is that ever since my eggplant fiasco, when friends have thanked me for cooking them a wonderful meal, I say, "Don't be too hasty." I beg them to wait at least a dozen hours before thanking me for anything. It makes sense, right? Of course, the possibility of giving my friends a dose of food poisoning is small, but so is the possibility of the sun flaring out at any given moment.
This isn't just me. The act of knocking on wood to avoid calamities big and little goes back to tapping on a tree to entreat the protection of Pan, god of the forest. He was not always goatlike and fuzzy; from his name came the words pandemonium and panic.
Alchemists during the Renaissance got into serious trouble by thinking they could compete with God by taking the laws of nature and turning them on their heads, as it were. Changing lead into gold was only one of their smaller projects.
Writers have at times gotten into similar trouble — that to create a world, even if fictional, is to challenge God. Consider the Muslim prohibition against duplicating the human figure in paint, stone, whatever. It's seen as a challenge and thus an insult to Allah.
As I said, one of the reasons I write is to prove to myself that the world exists. I change sense data into language, and I fuss with the language until my duplicated world seems to make sense. We in the United States live in a good luck corner. Things may be bad for many people, but they are worse elsewhere. Looking at Timbuktu on Google Earth, I see no Internet cafes, dance clubs, or singles bars. And I doubt that anyone in Timbuktu receives packages from Omaha Steaks.
So in The Burn Palace the dominating metaphor has to do with safety versus nonsafety, which may be danger or just uncertainty. I take the good luck corner of my fictitious town of Brewster, Rhode Island, and introduce an increasing amount of ill fortune and bad luck, an increasing amount of stress. Any thriller does this. It introduces a new and dangerous reality that challenges the old reality that existed at the beginning of the book. Then, through the efforts of the protagonist, the old world returns and seems to triumph, but — and this is often the point — a new knowledge is introduced. If an awful thing can happen once in such a nice place, then it can happen again. We are never safe. And we, as readers, love it. We have read this story a million times. We've seen it on TV and we've seen the movies. The realization that we are never entirely safe is what we call wisdom. It makes us feel safe.
This dominating metaphor first appeared in my poetry. I realized some time ago that a subject that appeared in many forms in my poems is the moment when a child comes to understand that the world he or she had seen as benign and wondrous is in fact dispassionate and uncertain. Maybe this understanding wouldn't come all at once; maybe it's a growing comprehension. What had appeared safe comes to be seen as unreliable, even perilous. I expect every child experiences this to a degree, experiences a moment of change when the world seems to refashion itself into something unreliable. Some children learn it as babies; others may hang on until adolescence.
I didn't decide to write about this subject. As I said, one writes to discover why one is writing, and what I sometimes write about is that moment of change when the world becomes different: safe vs. unsafe, benign vs. uncertain. This is why I say I write to prove the world exists; I write to try to define the nature of that world, and I do it again and again. I expect most writers have a dominating metaphor, a dominating idea; and they write in order to make sense of it, perhaps without even knowing it.
Most likely that same idea could have led me to become a doctor or lawyer, policeman or bum, but because I loved stories and loved writing and because my writing was praised by teachers and family — I'm talking about in early grade school — I continued to do it until I dedicated my life to it. This is an oversimplification but it's also true, and it goes back to what I was saying the other day about our choices being determined. I had no idea that I had a dominating idea — I expect a person has more than one — that was determining or at least affecting what I wrote, and I didn't discover this until late middle age. There didn't seem to be much I could do about it, and it made no sense to try to get rid of it, since it carried the emotion that fueled and energized the poem or novel. All I could do, I thought, was to guide it and try not to be repetitive, or too repetitive.
These dominating ideas determine how the writer sees and tries to understand the world. Some writers see the world as unfair and that belief colors all their writing. They express that idea through writing because that is what they think they are best at. This is why so many writers write without the promise of one red cent. They write for the writing itself; they write to define their particular world. The satisfaction that the writer feels when he or she has finished something that seems successful comes from several quarters, one being a new, but temporary, sense of
by Stephen Dobyns, February 5, 2013 10:00 AM
So what is a blog? Isn't it the place where a writer tries to convince a reader that the writer's two cents are actually worth a buck and a half, a place where the writer can sprinkle his or her minutiae with glitter, a place to say things that one wouldn't dare say to a person face to face? Although I've never, until now, written a blog, I am sure I would be no different. Should I relate the incredible narrative about how I brush my teeth? Left, right, up, down — surely it mimics how the moon affects the movement of tides. Is this where I tell the story of how 60 years of hitting a space bar with my thumb — both on a typewriter and a computer — has led to arthritis, which is only one more example of how I suffer for my art?
It seems that human progress has advanced only to provide Coleridge's sailor with one more venue to tell the wedding guest about that damn albatross. Fire wasn't discovered to provide warmth and cooked meals to flea-scratching savages but to give them the opportunity to sit in a circle and complain. The wheel came about in order to widen one's audience for grievance. The greatest invention of the early 19th century was the telegraph, which could spread one's grousing over the world like margarine over a slice of toast. Other means of scattering complaint quickly followed: hence the blog.
But I was writing yesterday about metaphor, which enables a person to say one boring thing in a hundred different ways. We are indeed fortunate to have two separate brains — left and right — to increase our manufacture of minutiae. The left brain is one hundred percent literal. It cannot hypothesize; it has no sense of possibility; it can neither tell nor understand jokes. (A horse enters a bar and the bartender says, "Why the long face?" Left brain response: Phooey, they don't let horses into bars.) The left brain's reasoning process is confined to the syllogism: 1. All men have beards. 2. Socrates is a man. 3. Socrates has a beard. Can you imagine being trapped in an elevator with such a humorist? The left brain is, however, a master of syntax and structure — useful tools for any writer.
The right brain says what the left brain says but it says it with metaphors, similes, images, symbols. Left brain: Preparation before action. Right brain: Strike when the iron is hot. Left brain: Don't spend your money until it's in the bank. Right brain: Don't count your chickens until they're hatched. The left and right brain working together allow one to triangulate the precision of one's thought just as the large and asymmetrical ears of the great gray owl enable it to triangulate the position of a mouse running beneath the snow, as I've recently learned. Of course, many proverbs eventually become clichés, but W. S. Merwin's Asian Figure "Don't curse your wife / at bedtime" still offers up a volume of advice about marital relationships, as do such Asian Figures as "Wait till he's falling / then push"; "Cheeks slapped downtown / good and angry / uptown"; "Sardine threatens / who knows it?"; "The hissing starts / in the free seats."
Such sayings present a bookcase full of information in a nanosecond. One moment we don't understand, the next moment we do: "Life / candle flame / wind coming." This is nondiscursive thought as opposed to the discursive thought of the syllogism. It is the province of the right brain, which is also the province of the imagination, the possible, and the hypothetical. Nondiscursive thought is immediate; discursive thought is sequential: if this and this and this, then that.
Poetry is the greatest fund of the nondiscursive. In fact, all art, since art functions as metaphor, is nondiscursive, though some forms are more effective than others. Nondiscursive thought is the white cane that lets us tap our way through the dark; discursive thought is the pair of shoes that supports our steps. One is not better than the other; both are necessary.
English public schools made their young victims learn Latin and Greek not so they could converse in Latin and Greek, but because the structure of those languages were great tools to teach students how to think. This was also the point of making students memorize large amounts of poetry: discursive, nondiscursive. It is now believed that if Latin, Greek, and the arts are removed from the curriculum, they will create more room for math and the sciences, which are thought to be more important. But inventiveness derives from the right brain. Cut out the arts and those young mathematicians can memorize, but they can't hypothesize. I am not presenting some arcane view. Many volumes of neurological, psychological, and linguistic evidence support this. They show why schools that throw out the arts as frills produce such high percentages of ignorant, not to say stupid, students.
I'm sorry. I've let my blog spin out of control. But the subject fills me with concern. Remove nondiscursive areas of study that exercise the imagination and you decrease a person's ability to empathize, which is the art of feeling what another person feels and which is a huge act of imagination. The philosopher Susanne Langer argued that the ability of art to increase one's ability to imagine and so feel what another person feels allows us to live in a society. It socializes us. Sociopaths are not poetry readers.
Mystery novels, thrillers, straight novels all work to create suspense, to make us worry about the future and lead us to imagine fearsome possibilities. Suspense depends on nondiscursive thought. With only discursive thought, the mind must amuse itself with the here and now. The mind satisfies itself with causes and doesn't concern itself with effects. How dull. We need history and the arts in schools just to become good readers and thinkers.
So I should confess that no matter how much I love writing fiction — and I love it mightily — I love writing poetry more. I can easily work on a poem for several years, though much of the end-work is fiddling. But I have poems that I wrote 50 years ago in which I am still trying to fix a problematic line or find a more exact word.
It must seem foolish to spend thousands of hours on something that brings in little money and that, for the most part, remains unread and is quick to vanish. There are also, I think, more poets than fiction writers, and most divide themselves into schools, groups, cadres, coffee klatches, disciplines, coteries, congregations, and factions whose purpose first of all is to attack the work of other schools, groups, etc. Sometimes this is done in essays and reviews; sometimes it's done in experimental verse designed to show that my non sequiturs are better than your non sequiturs. And what happens to the non-poet reader during these spats? Not much, I'm afraid, and that's the problem.
Now I've spent quite a few paragraphs trying to convince you that my two cents are worth substantially more than two and a half bucks. They're
by Stephen Dobyns, February 4, 2013 10:17 AM
The Burn Palace
is my 21st published novel. There are also six novels that remain unpublished and, I expect, will continue to be unpublished. Three were the first novels I wrote and three are from the past 15 years. I say this not to brag but to attempt to articulate the words "how strange" because now, at 72, those novels constitute a life. They are elaborate postcards from the past.
I also have other books published over that life: stories, essays, and 13 books of poems. In addition, my collected journalism would fill another six good-sized volumes. Again, I think, how strange. Ninety-five percent of this work has been done alone in a room. Monks, I expect, spend less time in isolation than do writers. No matter how much a writer might protest, the circumstances of his or her life tend to make them outsiders — stubborn outsiders. My first dozen years of hard writing contained little more than drivel, but I had to forgive myself for writing it before I could move forward.
Historically, many writers, when they've finished a book, have hurriedly traveled to interesting places. And what do they do with what they see? They write about it. Anthony Trollope was particularly good at this, as was his author mother and brother. Contemporary writers do it all the time. I did it by writing over 30 very long feature articles for the San Diego Reader over the course of a dozen years, writing on subjects as diverse as tugboats and drag queens, art restoration and lunch wagons.
All of these writings — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — form metaphors, and first of all they form metaphors for aspects of my life. For journalism this would seem less so, but the choice of subjects and the manner of their telling reflect something about me. Who I am, how I have lived, and my mountain of opinions determine the choices I make in terms of form and content. This is true of any writer.
I will try to avoid the issue of free will, though I think it's extremely limited, but I'd hate to go so far as to think it doesn't exist. I would like to think that my mistakes are my own rather than having been determined by my history, etc. My mistakes are my responsibility rather than my burden, and, with effort, I may be able to make some repairs. At times, I find that foolishly idealistic, but I stick to it nonetheless. Each creature requires its own particular life belt. Mine is often a foolish idealism.
The metaphors for my life in my journalism are unimportant. Sometimes I may notice them, sometimes not. They are worth about one head-scratch, unless by understanding them I might make the writing better. Every writer has favorite words, which, I think, are most often intensifiers like quite, still, even, yet, very, partly, often and many others. In revision, I do word searches for quite, still, even, etc., and I am appalled by how many I've made use of. They don't reflect my wish to be precise; they reflect insecurity and uncertainty, which have psychological beginnings. I cut most of them out.
The metaphors of self that I find in my fiction are more important, but they don't require a lot of attention. I need to spot them in order to avoid repetitions from book to book, to avoid being drawn to similar plots and characters. A reader of one of my Saratoga mysteries once told me that I must be a nice guy because my main character was a nice guy. I politely told him that I'm all my characters; all are drawn from who I am. And, yes, some are nice guys, but some are thoroughly nasty. Any human being has an interior range from light to dark, and a writer takes his characters from the folks populating that range. Mine are almost never based on "real" people, although I might use some particular person's nose or way of walking. Usually I decide that I need a character that fulfills such and such a roll, but the character's personality, psychology, and appearance remain unknown to me until he or she opens the door.
So fiction can be made up of metaphors of the self. My novel Saratoga Haunting requires the detective protagonist to go way back through police files, which he had written as a policeman, to learn about a case and bad guy who have apparently resurfaced. Reading these files, the detective is struck by how foolishly confident he had been 20 years earlier, how immature and self-deceived, how quick to reach false conclusions. And so, to resolve this present case, he must critique who he was 20 years earlier and to revise, emend, and enter into the mind of that earlier self who now seems so foreign.
At the time that I was writing Saratoga Haunting, I was putting together a collection of new and selected poems, Velocities, which included work from the previous 30 years. Then, I realized, I was doing in Velocities exactly what the detective was doing in Saratoga Haunting — looking back at a past self and being struck by his incompletions, immaturities, and faults. It can be unpleasant to look back at a past self, who one thinks has been nicely tucked away in a box in the attic, and to confront him as he was 30 years earlier. There's nothing like the discovery of past shortcomings to educate today's humility. And then I thought about these new poems: How would I see them in 30 years? How would I see the person who had written them? Would I find him forgivable, praiseworthy, or perhaps only dull?
So much of Saratoga Haunting was in fact a metaphor for the assembling and writing of Velocities. I was struck that I'd been unaware of this, struck that my concerns about the book of poems were being worked out in the writing of a mystery novel. And I realized I probably did this often, that images, ideas, and conflicts that I had thought had been calculated intellectually had been calculated emotionally and psychologically.
But, as I say, in fiction, such metaphors aren't terribly important, especially since much of my fiction is genre fiction. What drives the fiction is narrative and in writing that takes most of my allegiance. I have a strong sense of the beginning of the book and its crucial events, a generalized idea of the narrative arc of the whole, and a sense of the end, although at times I've changed all of this in midstream. But to a large extent, I am writing the book to see why I am writing the book, and I hold the reins rather loosely; that is, I don't want to think there is anything I can't change. I don't want the clay to harden when I am only halfway through.
So the concern in fiction is narrative, or more simply: I like telling stories. I tell them first for myself and second for an audience. I did this as a