My First Reading: A Minor Victory!

This Sunday I did my first reading—the first in a long time—at The Last Bookstore, an independent manuscript emporium downtown.  The Last Bookstore is located in the Bank District in a grand old neoclassical building that once housed the Crocker Bank.  Grecian columns, parquet floors, mouldings for miles—these are the architectural wonders you behold when you walk into what can only be described as an edifice.

It is a monument to all that is grand and lost—a monument to Ozymandias.



I did the reading with my friend Thomas who just finished writing his detective novel.  If you recall, Thomas was the guy I helped during a difficult time– moment in which he hit bottom and attempted to commit suicide, a moment that landed him in the loony bin and, later, a series of halfway houses.  I started writing my detective fiction as a fun thing to do with Thomas.  He’s a really smart guy—an Ivy League grad—but he never got it together to pursue his one ambition: writing.  So, I wrote a detective story about an Ivy League alcoholic (kind of as a joke) to egg him along in his writing process.

I didn’t know that it would go full distance.  I didn’t know he would go full distance either.  My idea of a success story was that he would not slit his wrists; my idea was that he would want to keep on keeping on; I was just hanging out with a friend.

But voila!  Thomas has written his book.  I’m only a few chapters away from finishing mine.  It is fitting that we did our first reading together.  The location is meaningful, too.  My narrative takes place in Downtown LA and, coincidentally, begins only a few blocks away.  And oh yeah, another coincidence:  my first bank account was with Crocker Bank—now defunct—but at one time a banking giant in Southern California.  They used to give out freebie plush Crocker Spaniels.  And yes, I did sleep with mine.


Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  Oh, how they have risen—risen from what once was but a shell of a shell.

Writing Exercise: Bradley Manning

This latest writing exercise is a controversial one—so controversial, I’ve been afraid to write it up, afraid to offend people.  So, it’s been sitting in the cul de sac of my head—a rusty, tin can–for well over six months.  Sometimes I’ll kick it, hear its echo, wonder if I might come down with a case of tetanus.

Of course, this is the kind of stuff (the forbidden stuff) that gets my juices flowing.  So finally, after six months of cowering I have come to this not-so-new realization:  controversy is what writing is all about.  Therefore, in the interest of our Craft:  Ladies and gentlemen, I present (drumroll) the Bradley Manning Writing Exercise.

Bradley Manning

For those of you who have been living in the wilds of Alaska in a Unabomber Cabin, Bradley Manning is a figure of some controversy in these here United States.  A computer geek, who leaked some rather damaging information about the U.S. war effort, the nerdy, clean cut private released videos of airstrikes the Pentagon would rather the public not see; he distributed 250,000 diplomatic cables; he downloaded and let loose roughly 500,000 army reports.  All of this stuff was classified.  Not only was this information embarrassing—perhaps even compromising—but it also cast the armed forces in a bad light.  After all, how did a private get hold of this material?

Wikileaks Logo

Bradley Manning, it appears, was not a nefarious person; he was just some little guy who was incensed by a feeling of moral outrage (justified or not) that compelled him to do something that might very well lead to years in the stockade.  I do not necessarily condone Private Manning’s actions.  Neither can I be sure that I would have compromised our country’s national security for whatever reason–good or bad–but I do know this:  every story, especially a thriller, could get some help from a Bradley Manning type—a figure who might not prove central but sits pretty in a position to move the narrative further:  a conscientious objector, a cog in the wheel that puts a wrench in the machinery.

Always, a narrative is made better when some minor figure arises to block its, inevitable, sacred and everlastingly important conclusion. Sure, you get pissed at that character.  But that’s exactly what makes the story compelling.

Here is the first question in this two part exercise:  Have you thought about installing your own Bradley Manning in the narrative?  What information does this person hold?  How does this frustrate the higher-ups?  How does this embarrass your protagonist?

The second question is pretty superficial:  What does your Bradley Manning look like?  The United States has recently attempted to release information that changes the look of Bradley Manning.  We recently have learned first that he is gay; later still, we have learned that he is a cross dresser, that he joined the army to rid himself of this tendency.  This has a lot to do with the spin that our great government wants to put upon this turn of events.  And this element of real life has all the feeling of a spy thriller.

Bradley Manning Cross Dressing

So, here is the task:  start with a short verbal sketch of your Bradley Manning—the public face; then finish with a vision of the private face:  demonic or angelic, stodgy or sultry, feeble or strong—these all will form the basis for a nuanced portrait of a figure that you will revile and love.  I think that if you do this, your story will begin to develop the kind of complication that will make for some good reading.  Let this dual portrait function as the compass for the meandering path that is your narrative!

How do YOU balance work and writing?

It’s been a while since I last posted.  Why?  Because I started teaching one of my favorite classes at my absolute favorite school:  UCLA.  The class—Freshman Summer Program—is a bridge program that targets students from underrepresented groups.  These young minds will matriculate Fall term but cut their vacation short in order to pick up some of the essentials—skills, credits, friends—that will give them a leg-up in the hurly-burly, the chaos, the crazy that is the perfect storm on the horizon of their mindscape.


UCLA got rid of Affirmative Action long ago.  So this program represents one of the few opportunities for the university to maintain a healthy level of diversity; the strategy centers upon retention, not recruitment.  My kids have been accepted because of their own merits but, quite often through no fault of their own, many arrive with gaps.  This is because they may have received their educations from schools that are underfunded, from teachers that are simply putting out fires, from parents who are not as savvy as the kind of suburbanite student body that comprises the major part of the incoming class at UCLA.  These young whipper-snappers, they’re smart and eager to learn, so they pick things up quite quickly.  And I love that they are so grateful, so appreciative.  But the teaching is intensive; the interaction, taxing.

I love it.  I hate it.  I come home tired every evening.  Unlike any normal teaching gig, this one has me waking up at 5 and not getting home until 7.  Even though I often feel punch drunk, I would not give up this teaching experience for a hill of glittering, gleaming diamonds!

So this has made me meditate about a pressing question that all writers must face:  how do you balance the life of a scribbler with the demands of a steady job?  This is a mystery I’ve been trying to solve for years.  Here’s a case in point:  the woman who hired me to teach Creative Writing in the English Department at Grinnell College hardly ever published a thing.  And this allowed her to ascend to one of the uppermost ranks of academia:  she became a Dean, second-in-charge, the wingman to El Senor Presidente of the College.  This is not to diminish her quite substantial achievement in administration.  Rather, this is to observe that she did spend many years getting an advanced degree at a prestigious Creative Writing program, only to find herself derailed.  I could see her visibly wince when she would host dinners for big-wig visiting writers whom we would pay thousands of dollars to grace us with their presence.  “Forgive me…I haven’t come across your work…what have you written?” This is a question that would cause her to wince.

My senior colleague’s office was one of those places that reflect the anal retentive cleanliness of someone who might possibly have danced a tango with certain obsessive tendencies:  clean, hard surfaces; ponderous, proprietary order; every tchotchke and knick-knack virtually dustless.  I was sure that there was a system to the organization of her books.  “Gosh, it’s so hard to get writing done during the regular term,” she once remarked after a meeting in which I sat in the visitor’s chair quietly wondering how much time it took to clean such a relentlessly orderly space.  “How do YOU get things done?”  What a question to ask a newbie—a telling one at that.

Organized Office

She clearly channeled her energy into matters that commanded her immediate attention; shortly after my arrival at the department, it was announced that she would assume the Deanship; that uber-clean office would become a loaner to a series of visiting faculty members who lived their lives by stringing temporary gig after temporary gig together, like beads on a motley bracelet.  Those people, they actually published—successfully so–but none of them had a steady job.  You could see it in their eyes, in the anxious way they cozied up to me—a person who would eventually vote about the extension of their short-term contracts.

I’m an honest person.  I don’t lie.  I told her that it was my first semester and, frankly, I hadn’t found the time to get much done in that department—academic, creative or otherwise.  I still don’t have an answer to my colleague’s question but I wonder if you do.  How do YOU balance work and writing?