Note from Paul JJ Payack: I am making the ideas contained within this Idea Mine, or master oeuvre, Metafiction, available to any artist, writer, musician, composer, poet, or otherwise creative person, worldwide with the only requirement being the following statement. “This creative work acknowledges the Idea Mine of Paul JJ Payack as its creative inspiration, in whole or in part.”
The Idea Mine
What I present to you here is an Idea Mine.
Actually, this is a sampling of my oeuvre, Metafiction, which I have been creating since 1971. The complete Idea Mine is taking some time to digitize since it consists of more than one thousand creative works.
Currently, about 6.8% of my oeuvre has been uploaded here.
In this Idea Mine are dozens, even, scores of hidden ideas that are ready for you to discover — and ready to assume their proper place in the world of ideas (today rather unceremoniously referred to as ‘content’).
You can use this Idea Mine to extract all manner of ideas, allowing them to incubate, and, if you so choose, watch them bloom into full scale works in their own right.
Many of the works collected in this Idea Mine have been published in such places as The Paris Review, Creative Computing, and the Gnosis Anthology (English and Russian), while the collages have appeared in such varied outlets as New Letters, Boulevard, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. (For a brief bibliography, go here.)
I’m now the author of some eighteen collections (seven currently in print), including A Million Words and Counting, Kensington (New York).
Sojourn in the Post-Modern Marketplace
I consider my career to have followed what I call an ‘existential career path’. One that has been long, interesting, and varied, yet nevertheless surprising. I’ve served as a senior executive of three Fortune 500 high technology companies (Unisys, Dun & Bradstreet, and StorageTek), and three Silicon Valley technology companies (Apollo Computer, Intelliguard Software, Legato Systems) that were acquired by three other Silicon Valley giants, as well as numerous start-ups and re-starts.
(When I entered high tech there were only 138 ‘end-points’ on the ARPANET; now what is called the Internet has billions.) (Access Linkedin bio here.)
Currently, I’m the President and Chief Word Analyst of the Global Language Monitor, and also was the founding president of yourDictionary.com in 1999. These two language sites attract millions of page views a year. I founded GLM in Silicon Valley in 2003 and moved it to Austin, Texas in 2008. (For more about GLM go here.)
I’ve taught scientific and technological communications at the University of Massachusetts, the University of Texas-Arlington and Babson College, the Federal Reserve Bank (NY), GM/Hughes Aircraft, and many others. and am a frequent guest on the media circuit including CNN, the BBC, NPR, the CBS, Australia Broadcasting Company and Chinese Radio and Television.
When I first entered the High Tech realm back in the late ‘70s, my wife Millie and I would wonder what would happen if my employers actually unearthed my secret!? Not to worry. The two realms are separated evidently by a chasm that is crossed infrequently, if at all.
Anyway, here’s an early metafiction that encapsulates many of the elements of the genre’s characteristic elements. It’s called Star-Splitter, Robert Frost’s allusion to the Orion constellation.
What is metafiction you might ask? First, I can tell you what it isn’t. It most definitely is not some new de-constructionist academic ideology. I view this as particularly positive statement since I believe in both reason and logic, though you’d probably suspect otherwise if you actually read my work.
The Cambridge (Mass.) Chronicle suggested that my work “tends toward the metaphysical,” but the metaphysical is not the primary concern of metafiction, though
° things eternal,
° things that last, and
° things universal
are of immense concern. So you hear a lot about things like metaphysics when people write about metafiction. For example, the editor of the first volume of the Star-tales Cycle noted that “Payack brings both physics and metaphysics into our serious contemplation”. Don’t let this overly concern you. Easy for me to say.
Thorpe Mann compared my work to Amy Lowell’s prose paragraphs. Mann also used my creative technique to reflect “the widespread blooming of polyphonic prose” that is in great evidence, he surmised, as the twentieth century draws to a close. Mann went on to say that my Memory, Forgetfulness, and Being in then-current Paris Review exemplified this trend.
Memory, Forgetfullness, and Being
They sought to erect a universe upon self-evident truths and decided that if the divine light showed through their handiwork they would neither help nor hinder it. What was created was a more complex sense of awareness in which epistemological doubt gave way to tailwinds of laughter, the strangeness of things to the consolations of philosophy, the bottom lines to butterflies chasing little dragons.
I like that term, polyphonic prose, but understand that it doesn’t necessarily shed any particular light on the nature of my work unless you are a student of Pachabel or Bach. Mann went on to say that prose was beginning to incorporate many of the poetic, stylistic, and visual aspects of verse, as Edmund Wilson predicted in his seminal essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” that was collected in The Triple Thinkers (1938). Cool.
Here’s another early metafiction. It reflects, I believe, several of the stylistic elements mentioned above.
The Face of His Father
A dream commands a young and arrogant man to seek his fate in a far-distant land. He departs at once, yet it takes many years for him to reach his destination. (Many, varied & horrid were the tales he would, one day, tell.) When he finally arrives he happens to glance into the cool waters of a shallow well. There he perceives not his reflection but the face of his father. Only then does he realize his loss and his folly, for what he had journeyed so long to find was what he had long-ago left behind.
Apparently, this is one of my more accessible works, at least that’s what I’m told. It was first published in New Letters, formerly The University Review, some time ago.
Metafiction, as I define it, adheres to a strict set of rules, governing style, structure, and syntax. More on these rules, a bit later. These ’tales’ can take the form of the short short story, essay, novella, epigram, dramatic work (‘polyplay’), college, ‘collage narrative,’ or ‘mellange’.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, I am ever aware of the fact that few actually define themselves as ‘epigrammists,’ and author of ‘polyplays,’ fewer still. Here, in rapid succession are two epigrams and an ‘extended’ epigram.
It flows not but drops as does the dew one drip at a time.
I repeat myself endlessly. This is because I have something to say.
(Of course, I understand that, by definition, the very nature of pi is that it is non-repeating. But that’s beside the point of this metafiction.)
And here’s the ‘extended’ epigram:
He peered into the dust of a dragon’s bones, upon which the shadow of an eclipsed star fell, this a billion light-years distant, as an unknown whisperer whispered thus to his heart: “No thing things like nothing nothings”.
Opus and Oeuvre
I’ve always arranged my work into temporal, and sometimes thematic, groupings called opuses. The individual opuses are, in turn, arranged into a series of volumes that comprise my, if you will forgive the term, oeuvre. This I call Metafiction. Ultimately, I envision all my works collected into a series of volumes, arranged encyclopedia-style — alphabetically — to provide any number of pseudo-random entry points for the reader.
I see this compendium as an idea mine for those who follow, if any of those are interested in the ideas to be mined therein. There’s enough of a realist in me to see this as a stretch, but well worth the shot.
Individual thematic collections can, and often do, cross opuses. And my publications can fall into neither category, such as the Star-tales Series, which is comprised of Solstice I, Solstice II, and Solstice III. These were published, so to speak, by Samisdat Press out of Berkeley in the mid-to-late ‘70s.
Each metafiction is labeled by with what I now see as an extremely odd numbering scheme.
So you might find
4.28-5.5 (I) (32:1) #547
at the bottom of the tale. (I use ‘tale’ as the shorthand for metafiction.)
Deciphered this means that I started this particular tale on April 28th and completed it on May 5th. Also, the “(I)” indicates that it was the first work that I had completed on May 5th, so there must be another and possibly several more completed, or at least begun, on that date. That much is sure. But you’ll have to determine the year from the Opus Number, in this case, #32, which places it in, say, 1986. Also the tale is the twenty-first in that particular opus, and overall the 547th in the oeuvre.
I devised this scheme during the final days of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so you will have to forgive me. At the time it seemed key to my career as a writer. I completed Opus One in 1971. Over the last few years, I’ve actually lost track of my numbering scheme; however, I do know that I’m approaching Opus Fifty Something. (For more information on the above, feel free to talk to Millie, who is both witness to and a willing co-conspirator to the crime.)
Direct Line to the Soul
One of my dear mentors was Sylvia Leah Berkman, the author, whose work appeared in The New Yorker among many others and was collected into Blackberry Wilderness. She was also the definitive biographer of Katherine Mansfield, and professor (Wellesley College and Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute). She was a friend of Nabakov; yet notwithstanding this fact she was kind enough to write an introduction to one of my earlier ‘chapbooks,’ Mythomania (1982). In it she described what I had begun calling metafiction as: “the brief, almost bald, summation of crucial experience that attains its power through its very stark reductiveness”.
When I read these words I remember feeling as if she had a direct line to my soul, or at least the frontal lobes of my cerebellum. How many times in life have you ever had the sudden revelation that every thing that you had ever thought was absolutely, incontrovertibly true about a certain subject, or person, or personal belief system — was 100% incongruent with reality — or just plain wrong? Hopefully, not too many, though I suspect you need a few of these to round the rougher edges of your character.
As you can see, for better or worse, I’ve thought this through. By design and construction, the intended result of metafiction is to leave no unintended consequence between the mind of the reader and the particular thought or thoughts encapsulated in the word or words. This, paradoxically, opens the reader’s mind to a myriad of unintended consequences.Now, consider how many times have you experienced the complete and opposite effect where someone had actually encapsulated in words, everything you had thought, could possibly have thought, or could possibly think, about a subject? This was one of those times. Her insight was completely in sync with my own understanding.
Stay with me here. The central idea of writing is, of course, the idea. Ideas by their very nature are wispy sorts of things. This being so, you can’t grab an idea and do with it what you will. Rather the best one hope for is to encapsulate the idea and preserve it for time immemorial (or the fleeting moment, whichever comes first) in some ethereal amber. We call this amber, language; the basic building block of which is, of course, the word. As such, writers of English have the good fortune of having over 800,000 words from which to choose.
When you think of it, the English language writer always has at least three words for any idea, each rooted in Latin, the Germanic or Saxon tongues, and the Greek. Think of a word for human habitation: city, town, metropolis, and so on. And that’s just the start. In America we also owe a heavy debt to Algonquin, and Hebrew, and … well, you get the idea.
Out of all these words I have a personal favorite. To the Classical Greeks this one word carried all the following meanings.
- the whistling of an arrow
- the sound of a shepherd’s pipe
- the rustling of leaves
- the splashing of water
- the hissing of a serpent
- the scuffling of feet
Now, that’s what I call a word. I would have liked to have met the person or persons who first, if you’ll pardon the adspeak, ‘concepted’ the word. (That’s all I’ll say about it. You’ll have to look it up for yourself; let me know when, and if, you find it.) Hint: I found it in a five-volume, nineteenth century study of the Synoptic Gospels, called The Expositor’s Greek Testament. I knew that would help.
Now under the rules of Metafiction, the writing of the tale is only fifty per cent of the job; the rest is left to the reader. This can be a rather difficult concept to explain for the key here is to push the tale to its furthest logical consequence, and then proceed to the next step, and the next, if at all possible. You want to get to the point where you’ve unearthed a bit of ‘unrealized potential’ that the reader then imparts to the tale. This can place a heavy and, perhaps, unaccustomed burden upon the reader. This also means that you have to trust yourself, or your muse, way beyond the red line on the ‘normal bounds of trust’ meter. As for myself, I frequently leave a tale when my heart wants to push it further and farther. From experience, I now know what should remain unsaid and what should be left undone.
The temptation is strong because I can plainly see the ‘seams’ in the piece, where thoughts have been, perhaps, rather inelegantly hammered together. I also know that with the passage of time, these seams will gradually become less and less visible until one day they will all but disappear. In my mind it takes six months for a metafiction to ‘gel’ or ‘set’. There are few greater satisfactions than to look upon a metafiction, some six months after its creation and to see that it had, indeed, actually ‘set’ and that all the possibilities that you attempted to imbue in the piece have actually matured and are present in full bloom. (Though I must admit, that I have a few that still have not yet gelled after a decade or two.)
Another point of interest, I’ve never, repeat never, found the reader to be able to detect these secret seams and psychographic fault lines. Never ever. Just thought I’d mention it.
See for yourself.
Here’s the title metafiction from Mythomania
Gwalstoe, as he called himself, was the first certified case of dementia mythos (Mythomania in layman’s terms) since the days of the pre-Socratic Greeks.
Considered dangerous by the authorities, he was compelled to register his mind as a weapon. He was brought to those
of the medical profession. who were considered to be the best in their fields yet the only responses they could elicit from the fellow were such statements as: “You will die but the songs about you will live forever;” “Much of the confusion of life is stilled when you realize that you ARE your father,” and the like.
The treatment proceeded in this manner until he was declared incurable, and, as a menace to society, the next step was incarceration. He was placed in the deepest & darkest pit available for solitary confinement, yet still his myths poured forth.
(No attempt proved fruitful at stemming the dreadful flow. The guards had to be especially outfitted with waxen ear plugs that their sanity might be preserved. All the residents within the surrounding area were evacuated to emergency shelters in church basements and school auditoriums and the surrounding countryside was declared a disaster area.
Realizing the futility of this all (and cognizant of the bad press they were receiving) the authorities released Gwalstoe, now old and emaciated, on the proviso that he spend his remaining days wandering in the desert and the other barren areas of the Earth.
Now, all this happened long, long ago, or many years henceforward, (I forget exactly which), but let me tell you that even today if you listen ever so closely to those sand-filled winds that now and again blow from the South, you can sometimes hear Gwalstoe’s faint voice crying,
“I AM THE SOUND OF THOSE SONGS NEVER SUNG.”
Author’s note: The Mythomanic The illustration above is the only known recorded image of the Gwalstoe. This was recorded in the desert outside LA. in the late ’60s or early ’70s.
Anyway, back to Sylvia’s introduction to Mythomania. She continued, “What distinguishes this work continues to distinguish even more forcefully Paul Payack’s later work, is the nature of the creative intelligence from which it stems. This is an intelligence cool yet engaged, composed, witty, immensely concerned with the broad pivotal elements of human experience (’life, death, etc.’ in Virginia Woolf’s words).”
This is also key. Metafiction should only concern that which is, now how should I put this, not ephemeral, which rules out, perhaps, 99% of contemporary existence, and also put me at direct odds with most of the late-twentieth century world and continues to do so in the early twenty-first century. The reader of the metafiction should be able to understand its issues and concerns, if he or she reads it 500 years in the future, or had read it 500 years in the past. Now, remember that as a marketing man I’m well versed in the use of focus groups, product testing, and statistical sampling. So I understand the difficulty in proving the concept. Nevertheless, there it is.
I believe some things are lasting precisely because they are built to last. I recall my Greek professor, when commenting upon the rather odd names to be found in the Odyssey, said that these names were unfamiliar even to the Ancient Greeks. (Homer was on to something.) Or my Shakespearean Lit professor stating that though America had been discovered more than 100 years earlier and was an all-important issue to Elizabethan times, Shakespeare never the once mentioned it. (For it hadn’t as yet proved its staying power. Maybe he was on to something?) Just as in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Shakespeare placed the tale on the seacoast of Bohemia, knowing full well that what we now know as the Czech Republic had no seacoast. It would have interfered with the story.
I’ll get back to Sylvia’s analysis in a second but first I must digress with a Sylvia story. Sylvia was a personal friend of Robert Frost, whom she referred to as Bobby, Vladimir Nabakov, and the like. I went to visit her one day at her apartment in Cambridge with my two young daughters, Bekka and Elisabeth, who were perhaps seven and four at the time. She served tea. High Tea. Somewhere during the ceremony Bekka managed to lock herself in the bathroom (I had to unscrew the door knob with a butter knife since Sylvia had no tools), while Beth was aggressively exercising a small stool that ‘Bobby’ had made and presented to her some years before.
Anyway, this is what she said about my tales: “An increasing concentration of focus is achieved. The tales become shorter, often reduced to a single modest paragraph, at times even to an epigrammatic sentence or two. Verifiable historical reference dwindles and disappears. Time and place are still remote, but the locations now partake of a dreamlike antiquity, an imagined region peopled (if at all), by imaginary figures. Characters are merely indicated in the abstract: ‘an idiot,’ ‘the man,’ ‘he,’ ‘this certain gnostic,’ ‘the future King.’ The result is to poise the tale in the everlasting, so to speak, shorn as it is of all human specificity.
“Equally, the thematic concerns are now more closely and coherently allied: the mysterious nature of godhead as it evolves in unrelated spheres; the human imperative for some form of divinity to worship, and the ultimate erosion and dispersal of this divinity; the heinous evil of human control exerted by the powerful upon the powerless, of human violence, destructiveness.”
This is great stuff. I am both profoundly moved and honored every time I read her words. She was a mentor in the Classical Greek sense of the word (see the Odyssey for more on the same). She pushed me, prodded me, yet understood precisely what I was trying to do.
Aside and Note to Young Writers
An aside and note to young writers: Sylvia cautioned against living the life of a writer, thinking it much more important to actually write. She said I should look at my metafiction as if I were making deposits, as it were, into a literary bank account, and not concern myself with “cashing in” until the time was right. This advice proved invaluable. I still find it amusing that most who fashion themselves writers never actually write. To me it’s a simple distinction. If you want to be a writer, you now know what to do. Don’t talk about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t look like it. Don’t live the life of a writer. Write. Writers write. So write. End of story.
Another Rule for the Genre
Here’s another rule for the genre. I have long demanded that each tale encapsulate three levels (or layers) of meaning. The first, the obvious one; the second, that which lies just below the surface; and the third, the hidden, secret or ‘true’ meaning of the tale. Granted, it is not always possible to discern these levels and layers. Especially when the said tale is, perhaps, a single page, a single paragraph, a single sentence or, even, a solitary word (encapsulating a single thought). But there it is.
The Collage Narrative
After 10 years or so of writing metafictions, I had begun to encapsulate my tales in fewer and fewer words, becoming ever more precise, ever more succinct, until the words, themselves, began to disappear, until there were no words, only images. Thus began my exploration into what I later labeled ‘the collage narrative’.
Collage narratives work (and behave) the same as any other form of expository writing with one minor exception: there are no words.
Working in the genre, I began to use pre-20th century sources of black-and-white line art: etchings, drawings, illustrations, wood-cuts and engravings, and the like, collected from the world over.
Any source is fair game or, perhaps, game fare. (For example, I happened upon the basic elements for Santa and the Ho-Ho-Ho Zone at the Grand Place in Brussels.) Only certain images would and will do. No color. No photography. No Twentieth Century, (though I later modified this a bit).
I also came upon the notion that you could create a collage with as few as two elements. This was key. There was now no room for error. It was just like the experience of writing metafiction. Everything extraneous was stripped away, and until all that remained was the essence, the essential, and the elemental.
To fully exploit an art form, it must be bounded. Without boundaries, you can’t get to the boundless. Only bounding enables the full exploration of the form. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, setting these simple rules, allowed me to push the boundaries out into the form of critical essay, non-fiction and fiction.
For those who are interested, here’s the Introduction to Mythomania by Sylvia L. Berkman, in its entirety.
Introduction to Mythomania
Sylvia Leah Berkman
Professor of English, emeritus
Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Harvard University
Paul Payack is a writer of great originality, seriousness, and imaginative zest, to the highest degree intellectually curious. At the age of twenty-seven he has already produced a substantial body of prose fictions (to define his work loosely and approximately), beginning with his first collection, A Ripple in Entropy of 1973. It is worth considering this collection in some detail, since it illuminates both the quality of his talents and the subsequent course he has winnowed out in his development through the following four years.
A Ripple in Entropy presents a great variety of fictional modes. notably, a majority of the pieces are rather long, 1000 words or so, with a clearly established central character, progressive action, a climatic resolution: that is, the established ingredients of the orthodox short-story form. In this mode, one of the most impressive stories is “And Caesar Will Tremble”. Here a humble and irrelevant old woman stands among those witnessing the Crucifixion, clinging to her fluctuating faith in her own redemption by means of Christ’s redemption through God the Father; and staggering before the blinding betrayal of that faith through Christ’s ultimate comprehension of His own radical betrayal on the Cross. In this carefully developed tale, one finds most of the elements of Paul Payack’s later work: the historic scene remote in time and place; the balanced prose, with its tincture of archaisms achieving further distance; the whole import of the narrative condensed in the unadorned final sentences. I do not mean to say that this story is flawless: it bears some marks of youthful striving, some lapses of tone; but it is fundamentally steady, arresting, and sure.
Other fictional modes in the abundance of this early collection are the unvarnished parable, the adaptation and extension of Old Testament lore (such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden), the pithy epigram, the brief, almost bald, summation of crucial experience that attains its power through its very stark reductiveness, the invocation of traditional events gleaned from mythologies, encyclopedias, and histories (concerning Prometheus, Julius Caesar, Zarathustra, among others).
What distinguishes this work, and continues to distinguish even more forcefully Paul Payack’s later work, is the nature of the creative intelligence from which it stems. This is an intelligence cool yet engaged, composed, witty, immensely concerned with the broad pivotal elements of human experience (“life, death, etc.” in Virginia Woolf’s words, as well as the minute arcane details of human behavior through uncounted centuries: a short note on the historical position of the onion in varied cultures, for example, or the fateful propensity for disaster darkening the Fridays of the world.
In Paul Payack’s following works an increasing concentration of focus is achieved. The “tales” become shorter, often reduced to a single modest paragraph, at times even to an epigrammatic sentence of two. Verifiable historical reference dwindles and disappears. Time and place are still remote, but the locations now partake of a dreamlike antiquity, an imagined region peopled (if at all), by imaginary figures. Characters are merely indicated in the abstract: “an idiot,” “the man,” “he,” “this certain gnostic,” “the future King.” The result is to poise the tale in the everlasting, so to speak, shorn as it is of all human specificity.
Equally, the thematic concerns are now more closely and coherently allied: the mysterious nature of godhead as it evolves in unrelated spheres; the human imperative for some form of divinity to worship, and the ultimate erosion and dispersal of this divinity; the heinous evil of human control exerted by the powerful upon the powerless, of human violence, destructiveness, even though eventually this evil and its issue scatter into motes of dust. Indeed, the broad presiding these in these collections is that of irremediable mortal transience and oblivion. “Star-Splitter” (in
Solstice, 1976), stands as a particularly fine example of these several trends, “I am the writer of epitaphs,” it opens; and goes on, dispassionately, to rehearse the doomed capriciousness of any human survival through an act of commemoration in the face of the inexorable shrouds of oblivion which must descend. Here the measured prose cadences admirably echo and confirm the theme.
In the present collection, Mythomania, it seems to me, Paul Payack has come into the fluent command of all his highly specialized gifts. Though the range here is wide, both in subject matter and in form, one is conscious of an underlying creative temper — or should one say temperature? Command ensures freedom, and a spirit of
freedom invests the whole — freedom of imagination, of irony, humor, wit. One finds further a larger freedom into the admission of feeling, as in the beautiful “Most Staggering Event in the History of the Planet,” imbued as it is with sympathetic admiration for “the mother of all the vascular creature which would come to breathe upon the planet … the first living thing to crawl out of the sea.”
One can think of this command, this freedom, as a buoyant current animating the whole, flowing out of a deep wellspring of self-confidence. One realizes that the author feels ready to embark, with delight, on any subject, in any form, that his curiosity directs, from a pithy two-line dialogue exchange to a substantial narrative. Now he can consider mortal ugliness and evil with trenchant gaiety (“A Crack in the Cosmic Egg”); or regard a saint’s conclusion that the wasteland of religious is “nothing more than a conspiracy of cartographers” (“Computer Misprint”); or elaborate on the folly of human egocentricity in the detailed, precise game of chess included in “The Sands Below.” Or … but let the reader explore the variations for himself. Inherently, the thematic substance of Mythomania, reinforcing that of its predecessors, is searching and grave; but now as one reads one participates in the vigorous deft skill as the author blends the several notes of his instrument into a native harmony.