The Yellow Story: Prologue

Some stories are born, some stories are achieved, and some stories are thrust upon the author.

Stories that are Born are the kind writers live for. They appear apparently out of nowhere, bringing with them the highest, purest kind of joy a first draft can give. But inspiration being errant as it is, the Born story is the rarest of the three. “I rarely argue with inspiration because it’s hard enough to be inspired,” Vikram Seth said once. He has probably said it more than once, but the video didn’t come up in the first four searches for him on YouTube, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to keep searching. You’ll simply have to take my word that those are his words. I could pass them off as my own, but coming from me people will call it a cop-out. More to the point, I’m giving Vikram Seth credit to show you that if someone who wrote one of the longest English novels says that inspiration is hard to come by, you and I won’t find it easy to define “hard enough.”

Of the ten stories in Pioneer Boulevard, only one was Born. That is, it had its origins in sheer inspiration. One moment I was reclining on my bed in my dorm room in Keele, looking at the tree outside my window and thinking of nothing in particular (I particularly remember that), and the next moment I was taking the three-and-a-half steps to my desk and turning on my computer. The other nine stories were Achieved. That’s a whopping ninety percent, to put it in uninspired journalistic jargon. (I only refer to “whopping” as uninspired. Arithmetic cannot help itself, but journalism should know better.)

Stories that are Achieved are the result of what bright people like Edison would say is 99% more necessary than inspiration: perspiration. Much as I hate to admit it, there’s no substitute for hard work. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman. You might be allowed to “gently glow” from the sebaceous glands, but from the pen you must sweat it out just like the boys. Nine-tenths of Pioneer Boulevard was Achieved by the sweat of my brow, sometimes dripping all over me at the Keele gym.

All writers will shed toil, tears, and sweat to Achieve a story, often with ruthless publishers, editors, and tutors holding the metaphorical gun to their head (which is not unlike that weapon being held to a journalist’s head by terrorists). Ah, but when that first draft is completed (never mind how Anne Lamott describes first drafts), the Achieved story produces a sense of achievement that is hard to put into words. Yes, even for a writer.

And then there’s a class of stories that is simply thrust upon an author with the request or, more often, the demand: “Here, author, tell me this story.” The story that will follow this Prologue falls in this category.

You may have noticed – or will now notice – that I have used the word author when referring to the Thrust-Upon story whereas I had used writer when referring to the Born and Achieved. This is a conscious choice on my part as a writer, because Thrust-Upon stories are only thrust upon writers after they become authors. Since my attaining authorhood with the publication of Pioneer Boulevard, which memorable event occurred exactly seven months ago today, I have realized that people expect authors to have an endless supply of stories for their entertainment. (The pronoun refers to the first antecedent, since people do not expect authors to write for their own entertainment.)

I have realized many other things besides, some of which it will be pertinent for me to share over the course of this story. Others it will be pertinent for me to share over the course of other stories. Still others it will be pertinent for me never to share.

Here endeth the Prologue.

yellow brick road


An Indian Institution

On the occasion of India’s Republic Day and my sister Sheena’s birthday, I want to post a tribute to an Indian institution from which Sheena has graduated with flying colors: the School of Shopping. I have picked up a thing or two from her, but I will never be the expert she is and I don’t enjoy shopping like she does. This may come as a surprise to those who know me, which shows that you never know someone until they start blogging.

One reason I find the whole thing exhausting is because shopping trips are usually guilt trips for me. Not because I am unduly obsessed with the poor – where I live, I am the poor – but because I am constantly worried I might be engaging in retail therapy and that could turn into a full-blown addiction if I’m not careful (especially with money). This was a vague, niggling fear until I created Delia, the main character in “The Tiffany Lamp,” who has “a shopping addiction that no amount of professional help could cure her of.” Since then I’ve been plagued with visions of my life imitating my art, and in such prosaic ways.

Imitation aside, every artist knows that life informs art, and my (vast store of) shopping experience came to my aid while writing that passage on shopping in India in “The Favors,” the fifth story in Pioneer Boulevard. The passage wasn’t in the early drafts; it came to me one evening during the summer term at Keele, when a rumbustious youth camp stole my sleep. (Who says that inspiration must come in silence?) Joe Stretch later told me he had read the passage aloud twice, which I knew by then to be a very good sign.

During our last tutorial before I left England for a short trip to India, I asked Joe what he’d like me to bring back for him. “Get me something from the pavement,” he said at once, no doubt remembering that passage. I had meant a real gift, something he could use and keep and remember me by. Something that wouldn’t break as I gave it to him (if not before). I was planning to give him a pavement gift anyway – if nothing else, we’d get a story out of it (getting a story being the reason for my tutee-ship).

The first thing I saw, in the first uncle-and-aunty shop I visited the first time I went to Main Street, was a finely carved stone pen stand, the carving depicting an elephant leaning against a palm tree. At least that’s how I interpreted thOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe carving. Joe might interpret it differently, and we’re all entitled to our interpretations of stone carvings, even if they’re contrary to what the carver had in mind (making stone carvings no different from short stories). But the pen stand would make a good gift for a writer, so I bought it immediately, surprising myself by my decisiveness – and perhaps disappointing the uncle-or-aunty shopkeeper, who was probably hoping for a little more conversation from a customer who had dropped in on this slow Wednesday morning. But it was too early in the day for me, so I simply said thanks and left.

The pavement gift, which I sensed would delight Joe more, would elude me for the next two weeks. It’s not like I didn’t scour the pavements – I have numerous scarves and trinkets and drawstrings purses to prove how diligently I did – but I’d never seen Joe with any of these articles so I kept them and kept on looking. Shopping in India, as I’ve said in “The Favors,” is hit-or-miss, and I kept missing. I felt tempted to buy something from a shop and pass if off as a pavement gift, but my heart wouldn’t let me cheat Joe out of the cheap gift he wanted.

Happily for my heart, the last time I was on Main Street, the day before I returned to England, I ran into my sister’s godmother, the shopping muse, who pointed out the pavement gift to me. It was dangling on a rickety pole with hundreds of other key chains, most of them sporting logos of sports teams. Now I was faced with two questions, the first being Which team?

Joe lives in Manchester and has studied at Manchester University, but I didn’t know whether he was a Man U fan. What if he liked West Ham or Arsenal? His agent and publisher are in London, after all… I’d have stood dithering by the rickety pole had a smart young woman not made up my mind for me. “Manchester United-walla hai?” she asked, and at once it hit me that I too must get the same. Even if he didn’t like Manchester United, Joe would like the story of how I’d got him a Manchester souvenir from a pavement in India. I returned West Ham and Arsenal, and asked the pavement-walla for a Manchester United-walla.

The second question was Which piece? Anyone who has shopped on an Indian pavement (or read “PavementwallaThe Favors”) will know that this is no mean task. But since I’m not mean, I will spare you the blow-by-blow account of how I looked through the Manchester United-walla section to find a decent piece, how I haggled with the pavement-walla, how I didn’t miss the gleam in his eye when I handed him the fifty-rupee note, how he kissed it and made it vanish before my very eyes, in case I changed my mind and asked for change.

Back in England, during that emotional last tutorial, the day before I submitted my final portfolio and returned to LA, I gave Joe his gifts. He opened the bubble-wrapped pen stand first, and his face lit up. “It’s beautiful!” he said. “I’m going to keep it forever.” It’s a good thing the pen stand wasn’t from the pavement, or “forever” might have been a matter of days (if not hours). Next he unwrapped the key chain, and we both began to laugh. It was my last laugh in his office: moments later I had to say goodbye, and I wasn’t laughing then.

Joe held the key chain in his right hand – the hand by which he’d given me the keys to fiction writing as he marked up draft after messy draft over the past year. “Did you know that Manchester United is my favorite team?” he asked. “It was a no-brainer,” I replied – or lied, as he now knows.

Joe Stretch

Searching for Roots

I never thought my second blog would also be about Timon of Athens. The fact that it’s a problem play is not the problem. I actually like that it has scholars tearing their hair out and scratching their shiny pates; they deserve it for scholaring upon what was intended for more humane purposes (namely, education by entertainment). No, the second appearance of Timon catches me by surprise because the play was never on my radar in the first place. It’s one of the last I read of the Thirty-Eight and will never be in my Top Ten, even though it has some great lines.

Long before I became aware of Nabokov’s theft of “pale fire,” I had come across what remains among my favorite instances of the use of a literary quotation as an epigraph. It isn’t a theft because the reference (Timon of Athens, I, i, 48) is cited below, so the unsuspecting reader needn’t stumble upon it while brushing up their Shakespeare years down the road. The epigraph I’m referring to is found in The King’s English by H.W. and F.G. Fowler, and the quotation, as befits a grammar, is this:

                            No levell’d malice
Infects one comma in the course I hold

I believe that big brother Henry Watson was the genius behind this choice, and also the rest of the book. Naturally, some of the rules are now obsolete (I have the 3rd ed., 1931), but all of the writing is enjoyable. Someday I’ll share my favorite howlers told by the Fowlers, but for now I must return to the course I am holding on Timon of Athens.

The scene in which the “pale fire” quotation is found (IV, iii) is the longest and most philosophically complex of the play. It could have worked as a one-act play, had Elizabethan dramatists not been paid by the act. Once the city’s genial philanthropist, Timon has lost all his worldly goods and is now dwelling in the woods, misanthropic and stark raving mad. He emerges from his cave, rails against the sun and everything under it (rather poetically, in the manner of all Shakespearean heroes who go mad), and retires to his cave.

Well, that’s not all that happens. Otherwise this scene would be a one-act play belonging to the Theatre of the Absurd, and if there is one thing Shakespeare was keenly aware of it is that life has meaning. It is what makes his works universal, what will make them endure long after the Absurd has lost its meaning. Timon also finds gold while digging for food, which is not as unbelievable as it sounds. In fact, it happened quite recently in England, and the reason I know this scene was not on the minds of those who discovered the Staffordshire Hoard is because, unlike our hungry hero, they were looking for gold.

The fame of Timon’s gold spreads, and fast. Let us not be arrogant and think that technology alone can disseminate information; the ancients had their ways and means. People come knocking on the woods, pretending to be friends but really seeking the fool’s gold. Timon, being the play’s titular and dramatic hero (unlike Julius Caesar, who was titular to Brutus’s dramatic), outwits those in possession of their wits, and gives the gold to his servant Flavius – perhaps appropriately, for he had earlier called it a “yellow slave” – with advice to corrupt that singly honest man.

This scene’s interesting dialogue features include a madman’s views on venereal disease (addressed to a squeamish prostitute), and some fast-paced volleys between protagonist and deuteragonist that foreshadow a Wimbledon match between the two top seeds. If his name is a pun (and if indeed there is no before the m), then Apemantus, always a foil to Timon, bears in his very name what Timon has become: an ape man to us. And in his hearing Timon will say what might be the most savage lines spoken by a Shakespearean hero who knows that death is imminent:

Then, Timon, presently prepare thy grave;
Lie where the light foam the sea may beat
Thy grave-stone daily: make thine epitaph,
That death in me at others’ lives may laugh

Of the many apostrophes Timon utters in this scene, the one that resonates most deeply with me is in the opening speech: “Earth, yield me roots!” He is digging for food, but at a metaphorical level it’s the cry of a man who wants a home – a physical shelter as well as a place where he will feel loved and secure, whether or not he has money. Everyone wants this kind of unconditional acceptance, even those who appear not to (as Timon does, making this play one of the Tragedies). It’s a basic need, as deeply rooted in the human psyche as the roots Timon is digging for to sustain his body.

But there is a kind of yearning for roots only an immigrant will know. Anyone who has left the land of their birth and moved to another country has longed for home in a way that no one else can. Years ago, someone told me that when he moved to LA from the East Coast he thought he had “died and gone to heaven.” I asked whether it was the same LA I’d moved to – and in a sense it wasn’t. Apart from his natural love for Southern California’s climate and topography (I prefer rivers and rain and rolling meadows myself), he was seeing his new home through essentially American eyes. The adjustments, though perhaps major for him, were minor compared to mine. (But my eyes are becoming more American as time goes by. I can literally see it happening.)

I have tried to explore the redefining of home in Pioneer Boulevard, and I would like to believe that all my immigrant characters have had to struggle for roots, even if that struggle does not surface during the course of the story in which they appear. And even though my favorite character in my book, Lady Hamlet, was born in America, her moving to a new house is a metaphor for immigration. I could say more about that, but since I am writing this in the apartment where I live I had better not tempt fate by talking about anyone moving to a new house. As it is my landlord just raised the rent. I don’t want to end up homeless like Timon.

The Fire Thieves

I was heading home after my walk one evening last week, thinking about my first blog. I’d already told three people it was going to be about my favorite character and the launch date was in sight but I was still groping in the dark.

On the previous leg of my walk I’d had the thought that the first blog might not be about my favorite character after all, and now I was walking back with that sickening sensation I get whenever I realize I have to give something up. The nausea is always in proportion to my desire, and this time I had to deal with something else that makes me sick to my stomach: the thought of having to eat my words.

The sun had long since set and the side street I take on my walks is poorly lit, which proves that the city fathers are not fathers. If they cared about the city’s daughters, they’d make sure that lonelier streets had more light. Here was I, walking alone in the dark on such a street, when I discerned the shape of two men sitting on a wall. I was spared from having to take any unnecessary steps – and walking through the next block involves many unnecessary steps – when a passing headlight revealed it to be Them: the two men I often see sitting in the same spot.

Those guys are harmless though perhaps homeless, if the bags on their bicycles and the odor that hangs about their person are anything to go by. They even look alike, and I’m sure they share other things, but only one of them is a reader. If I happen to see him in daylight, he is never without a book. I have often wondered where he gets his books because they don’t look like library books to me. (But to be fair, I don’t know what every library book looks like.)

He knows my step – or perhaps the smell of curry heralds my arrival – and always looks up from his book and nods. I respond in the same manner, except that I don’t have a book to look up from. (I did try reading while walking and I do not recommend it.) Since it was too dark to see nods, and since I’m not on nodding terms with the other guy, I was hoping to sneak past unobtrusively. I hadn’t counted on the cover-blowing power of curry. As I passed them the reader called, “Look at the moon!”

Until then I’d been so consumed with my first blog that I was only vaguely aware of a golden orb hanging between two streetlights in the distance, and I felt slightly foolish for mistaking it for a third streetlight. It glowed with a celestial light that said it had not been made by human hands. The churning inside me subsided at once (which happens only once in a blue moon), and my first blog was upstaged by a line from Timon of Athens:

                   The moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun

Because of the strange way thoughts are collected, the phrase “her pale fire” always reminds me of Brush Up Your Shakespeare! In the section where he lists the literary titles taken from Shakespeare, Michael Macrone says that some writers try to do their lifting in a stealthier fashion, by using lesser-known quotes. Thus, unlike The Sound and the Fury or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Brave New World, Nabokov’s title Pale Fire isn’t as instantly recognizable as Shakespearean. (It wasn’t instantly recognizable as anything to me when I first read Brush Up. I hadn’t read Timon of Athens, and the only Nabokov novel I’d heard of wasn’t called Pale Fire.)

I had reached the street where I live. I have often walked down this street before. The sidewalk usually stays beneath my feet but today I was several stories high. If people stopped and stared, they didn’t bother me. I wasn’t aware of them, and I was only vaguely aware of traffic. Someone must have been watching over me, or I’d have ended up at my heavenly abode instead. As it is my heart, like Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s, was on a journey to the moon.

Had my thoughts been as collected as I can make them appear in writing, I’d have remembered that other famous fire thief, Prometheus, who got burnt for playing with fire, but I didn’t think of Prometheus, bound or unbound. I didn’t think of Shelley either – but then I rarely think of Shelley. Keats is my man. Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold with him. Still, I wasn’t thinking of Keats. I was trying to remember the other titles Macrone mentions in his book – whose title, barring the exclamation mark, is that of a song in the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

I didn’t get all the names on Macrone’s list; it was simply too long. As I was entering my apartment, which filled with light at the flick of a switch, it struck me that of all the fire thieves in the book (and out of it), Nabokov is the most arrant thief of all, for he literally took “pale fire” from Shakespeare.

Nabokov is said to have said that fire in his novel represents creativity and inspiration. I say “said to have said” because I haven’t read the interview in which he said it. I get the information from Wikipedia and I’m trying to appease my conscience with a confession. And while I’m at it, let me confess that I haven’t read the novel either. But that’s not a guilty confession. Hamlet only said the play’s the thing, and in that respect my conscience is clear. Had he said the novel’s the thing, of course I would have read Pale Fire.

See? It helps to brush up your Shakespeare! It will save you some needless reading. And a lot of needless guilt.

Brush Up Your Shak.

Blog Improper: Why Today?

At college a friend told me a story I thought was too clever to be true, which I’m sure says all sorts of things about me, my education, and probably also my friend. As for the story, they’re now calling it an urban legend and I’d feel vindicated if I didn’t dislike the term quite so much. I cannot understand how two nouns that carry a positive meaning on their own could be combined to form a compound with negative connotations. I don’t mean to get into semantics; it’s simple mathematics: two pluses do not make a minus. Oh, but a plus and a minus make a minus and only one word has been corrupted – urban. Demoted to adjectival status, it is solely responsible for the negativity of urban legend (and other urban slang, see the Urban Dictionary).

Now that everything adds up (through the downgrading of urban), I can return to my friend’s story. You’ve heard it too, the one about the philosophy student who answers the exam question “Why?” with a “Why not?” and gets an A. Like that legendary student, I could end this blog with a simple “Why not today?” but why? Anyone who has read the first blog improper (“What’s in the Name?”) knows that I’ll never use three words when twice as many paragraphs will do! And if someone were to ask, “If you were a philosophy student sitting for an exam and brevity would get you an A, would you be brief?” I’d say “If.”

Apart from the fact that there’s no time like the present (although at times it’s best to not do today what you can put off until tomorrow), today is the ninth birthday of my younger nephew Nihal who, like his cousins and sisters, has given me some of my favorite stories. It’s appropriate to celebrate his birthday by publishing Collected Thoughts because, of all my sisters’ children, he’s the one who writes and sends me stories, as I once did to my aunt.

I recorded the first story I heard Nihal read, “The Flower and the Girl,” while visiting India after my course at Keele, and I showed the video to my tutor, novelist Joe Stretch, when I returned to England to submit my final portfolio. The story, reprinted with the author’s permission, was this:

A very long time ago, in a magical home, there was a girl with her favorite flower, which, that flower was a magical flower, and then it died.

I had thought it adorable, as adoring aunts will do, but Joe was visibly moved. “That’s such a sad story,” he said when the video ended. “It’s Richard Yates in a sentence.”

Nihal has progressed to multiple-part sagas, mostly action-packed mysteries revolving around a superhero with magical powers. No doubt they express his own dreams, and perhaps some are drawn from life (e.g., “The Finding Out of Jake Robbin By His Dad”). I try to coach him as I can, but I recently made a mistake with “The Mistirious Case of Him part 1.” He’d told me it was going to be a four-part story but instead of biding my time I emailed him some questions, hoping that would coax him to write part 2. He promptly answered my questions, even revealing that Him is a Her, and I eventually had to accept that there wasn’t going to be a part 2. I was kicking myself for nipping a literary career in the bud, but something he said when I called to wish him suggests that a literary career is about to bloom . . .

Today also marks the fifth anniversary of the “blessing in disguise” that set in motion the chain of events that led to the MA in Creative Writing, which led to Pioneer Boulevard and Consonant Books and now this blog. I’ll post my collected thoughts on life and art (from art and life) between three and five times a week. This is the last blog improper – even though, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of English, the first blog improper could also be referred to as the last blog improper. As in: “If you read the last blog improper, you will know what the hippie said to the hermit in response to what the hermit had said to the hippie.” I hope you will return for the blog proper, in pro per.

Blog Improper: What’s in the Name?

Before I write my blog proper, as I’d have called my first official blog had I still been using British English, a word or two about why I picked this name. (And a word to those who might be tempted to take “a word or two” literally: Don’t.)

As one who has started blogging so long after blog became a word and WordPress the world’s most populous blogging site, I could come up with only three domain names that hadn’t been taken. I’m glad was available, but obviously the blog couldn’t be called Consonant Books. Like everyone else, I wanted a unique title (making me like everyone else and everyone else like me and therefore none of us unique), but I couldn’t find a single title that I liked that hadn’t been taken. The plot was thickening, and my patience was wearing thin.

I settled for Collected Thoughts because of the layers of meaning and because it works well with the subtitle I’d already come up with (and was not going to change). I’m sure there are other “Collected Thoughts” floating about in blogosphere, but I hope my thoughts will be sufficiently original, and sufficiently interesting, to make my readers return. “Collected” has a double meaning, of course. My thoughts will be collected in the sense of being gathered in this blog and hopefully also in the sense of being composed. And yes, “composed” has a double meaning too. Now if I could only think of another meaning for “thoughts,” there would be three double meanings . . .

I’m glad WordPress lets us use our own header because nothing they have comes close to my favorite painting. I could find a better quality image on the internet, but I like this one because it’s a photo I took myself at the Getty some years ago. It seems to me that the gorgeous blues in this masterpiece redeem what Van Gogh called “the blues” in childhood, which were to plague him all his life. “The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get,” he wrote to his sister from Arles, “the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent.” He certainly did that with Irises, painted not long before his death in 1890.

I have thanked Van Gogh by mentioning him in my favorite story in Pioneer Boulevard: Los Angeles Stories. Though not an artist myself, I love art and art history and would live at the Getty if parking were free, but the “art” in this blog’s subtitle is more than visual art. As a reader, writer, and student of literature, most of what I blog about will be about the written word – and I can guarantee that, one way or the other, everything will be connected to life. I am not like the hermit to whom the hippie said, “I climbed 4,000 feet and you tell me that life is a noun?” No, dear reader, I am not so detached. Neither am I so brief.