The Art of Tetman Callis

Some of the stories and poems may be inappropriate for persons under 16

The Art of Tetman Callis header image 3

November 1990

NOVEMBER 1, 1990

If you consecute, if you refactor, if you unpack your object, if what comes next is a function of what you have already put on the page, form is inevitable.

What you are making is a virtual object — more than the artist, the viewer, or the object, it is the interaction between the three, and the ever-shifting contexts within which they are embedded.

Ultimately, what this is about is the human heart.

You want your work to have the status of a symbol, a sign.  You must write from a position of authority to be possessed by, in possession of, and liberated from your object — and ultimately “the object is `what does it feel like to be alive?’”  Liberation from your object is achieved through maintaining an ironic distance from yourself.  Liberate yourself from your own feelings.  Lose your moral center.  Adopt a stance of continuous disavowal, in your mind, on the page, in your life.  Don’t be captured by one feeling — be filled by all feeling.  Take whatever position you need to take in order to make your work work.  Your ambition must be uncontained.  Your desire must be to be God.  “It’s all about your determination to become immortal.”

Don’t do the best that you can do, do the best that can be done.  Unbind your ambition, free yourself from whatever hold your object may have over you and instead have hold of your object — remain bound to it.  When you work on a story, remain bound to that story — think about it, dream about it, fold it up and carry it in your purse, on your person, next to your heart, so you can work on it.

“You must be psychotically ambitious.”

You must free yourself from your own pettiness.

“`I am the maker of worlds, I am the destroyer of worlds.’”  It is important to throw your old work away.  It is so important.  To create you must be able, with equal desire and aplomb, to destroy.  You are not making private fetish objects.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by throwing away work that does not work.  The form of your art will always be with you, if you remain with it — if you remain “open for business.”

“All the piece has to do is say, `Be with me — I am with you.’  Sometimes I am fucking profound.”

Contemporary popular prose fiction is simply folklore, not art. How do you free yourself from the folklore?  “`How do you get out of your time?’ is the fundamental problem of the great artist.”

Pressure in every line! Reinvent the language to suit your own purposes!

“Style is a defect writ large.”

Beware this common failure in writers: an exorbitant attack sentence that peters out.  If you start out high, you have to go even higher.  If you start out low, you have more room in which to move.  `The table held the book’ looks more promising now.

“All you gotta do is be a believer!”

Reinvent the syntax, redeploy the sentence.

Go all the way, be extravagant, be bold!  The trick is, don’t be sentimental — be ironic.

The more mystery you leave, the more persuasive you are, the more human you are.  “You’re not writing a legal brief.”

When you use adjectives, bring them to nouns in new ways.  Shun the “received text.”

“Try to be alert to the ruin that comes on when the piece becomes linear.”  You need consecution, not linearity.

In “the I-mode of discourse,” never talk about your feelings or thoughts.  You most need to objectify when you are in the “I-mode.”  To express feelings and thoughts, you find for them their “objective correlatives;” for example, you describe a person by describing her walls.  “You have to present an object that we take to be a symbol for feeling.”

“You come down to objects that are rampant on the heart.”  If these objects have an innate energy for you, so too for the reader they will.

“It’s essential to render the object with great precision.”

“You don’t ever want to take the moral high ground.”  If you accuse someone of a crime, immediately accuse yourself of ten crimes worse.  Do not use the page to get even with people — use it to get even with death.

Your goal: “Absolute, supreme control over what your stuff is.”

It’s just like learning to drive a car, this learning to have power on the page.  It will become part of you, and you will wonder that you ever wrote as you once did.


NOVEMBER 6, 1990

You cannot go too far.  In the face of death, you cannot be too obsessive or excessive.  “One has to be an artist all the time.”

Are you adding to the noise or saying something that must be said?

The importance of a story, its timeless, signal self, is almost antagonistic to the event or the news or the locale.  “You want to produce a sign that is holistically ingestible.”

The act of responding to non-discursive, or pre-discursive, signs has deeper roots in us than do our responses to discursive signs; roots rooted in the survival of our specific and genetic ancestors, roots extending now into, among other things, our responses to art.

“You have to be willing to dip into the pettiness of narrative without being entrapped by it.”

Do not love your work so much that you become imprisoned in worship of idols in a temple of your own making; be a high priest in the religion of Art; be a creator of worlds and a destroyer of worlds.  Overcome yourself, which overcoming should become an increasingly difficult task.  “You mustn’t ever become a believer in what you have done.”

We are like ruminants, we artists — eating anew and mixing it with our cud, chewing over and over — “And look what we get out of it: ice cream! With chocolate syrup on it!”

“Let `em see your tits.  They’ve seen them all anyway, it’s not gonna hurt.”

You never have to worry about what’s going to happen next; you don’t have to wonder what to concoct; simply express what’s implied in what you have already written.

“Art is a religion.  It is its own justification.  It needs no other.  I do it to save my ass.”


NOVEMBER 8, 1990

“Sentimentality is a kind of fraudulence.”  Even love stories can be told if you tell the truth completely; if you can strip yourself naked.  Usually, though, “one will show the wart that everyone can see anyway, the one here on your face — see?  See, everybody?  This is my wart, right here.  But will one show the suppurating sore next to the genitals?  Not likely. Not likely.”

You do not engage in confession, you perform affirmation.

“A bit of madness can’t be seen as a great liability.”

Soul — “that irreducible presence…. You have to put your soul out there.”  You, as an artist, “are re-enacting the Christ story.”  You have to put out, all out.

“The very nature of sentimentality is fraudulence…. It’s play-acting…. True feeling can never be sentimentality.”

“You’ve got to be alive” on the page, forthcoming, “unafraid of declaration…. This writing business is not about being polite… it’s not about idle chatter…. You could do much worse than being crucified on the page…. There’s a large thing called control, there’s a large thing called composition, but first and foremost there’s touching yourself.”  How can you truly be an artist if you don’t touch yourself?  “You can’t fail if you’re speaking from your seat of power,” and at that locus is your soul.

Regarding the deployment of the “essentially ironic disposition” of the lusting lover, the cynical seducer — “As an artist you have to grapple with this bifurcation of minds.”

With subtlety, alertness, “a lot of giving away,” soul, you end up giving your soul to yourself on the page.

As for the agon, the irony, between your authenticity and your inauthenticity, read and write with “a deep, deep sense of this.”

The more oppressed you feel by language, the better off you are.  “You must feel yourself oppressed by the absurdity, the ineffability, of human experience.”

“What do I mean by `Make a good getaway of it’?”  This is what the artist wants: to get away, but to get away cleanly; to escape every time to “more life!”

With luck, stamina, work, if you “re-address the object, you can never go wrong.”

“It’s always the most reliable thing” to return to your first sentence and commence to unpack it some more if — when — you get stuck or get lost.

“Your job as a writer is to resurrect the language, reclaim the language.”

Don’t be lazy; shun cliche; “write it out.”

You must be careful what you claim to know in your piece.  What is the “conduit of knowledge?”  How do you know what you claim to know?

`That’ versus `this’: `that’ puts objects at a distance from the reader; `this’ has more pressure, putting objects in the reader’s face.

“Always stay on the surface of your object.”  If you dive under the surface, you lose momentum, you loose the bond of understanding you assume with your reader, which bond is that of harmonious prelingual love.  “Many, many ills await the writer who goes under the surface.”  We live in a time when what lies beneath surfaces must remain essentially unknown to us.

Be careful about having your so-called characters smile and laugh; for example, `she smiled,’ `he laughs.’  It’s a lazy revelation of the dirty underwear of your technique.  Write it out — what did they do while smiling, what did they say while laughing?  Be extreme, go all the way to the general or the specific.  `Laughing,’ `smiling,’ `he looked at her,’ these are dodges, “in the limp middle.”

Build your story like you’re stacking blocks.

You want impedance, you want rebuking — you do not want linearity, “you want turbulence.”  Contend with your object.

“There are scribblers everywhere — the thing is to be great.”


NOVEMBER 13, 1990

“The artist is no more than a solicitor and an abandoner.”  The great artist, the strong artist, is entirely insincere about anything other than “the theater of being God.”  Ironic, playful, slippery is the great artist; she plays a game with himself, believing while remaining in ironic agon with disbelief.  Artists cannot be sincere; furthermore, they should not.  We are “damned by our own wiliness.”

If you saw yourself as completely fraudulent, what would you write about?

Solutions to problems arising in the creation of a piece are “always present in what is already deployed” in that piece, and are simple and intrinsic to the piece.

Your closing phoneme should have resonances further up in the closing paragraph, and the cadence must be “spot-on.”

Preserve mystery!  Skimp on the news!

Follow the intrinsic logic of what you say and what it implies.

To make the piece a non-discursive, holistic symbol, there should be nothing in the piece which does not need to be there.

“The idea is always, first and foremost, to render the object.  Make them see what you see.”

You should always write what is most difficult for you — that is where to put your pen, in the difficult place.  Do what cannot be done.

“Timing is everything.  It is everything!”  Cadences, harmonies, revelations — the dance of words.  Dilate sentences without putting in more news, to relax and extend the sentences harmoniously; adverbially, not adjectivally, but adverbially, to bring more clarity to the sentences — adjectives bring particularity, slowing a piece down to its detriment.

Placing adverbial components at the beginning of a sentence sounds as if you’re begging for permission to speak; otherwise, in other places adverbial components can dilate a sentence to produce better timing, allowing the punch-line to work.

How to write a novel : Gordon told us our first night of class how to write a novel; he knew no few of us were thinking, `When do we get to the good part?’  It is really very simple, this good part, this how to do it.  You start with a strong opening line, an attack sentence that really attacks.  You look backward to go forward, writing one sentence at a time, swerving and torquing, each sentence following from what has gone before in the work.  You write with scope, bringing the universal out of the particular; with stance, from a point of view, a tone of voice, a place of yours that marks you off as different from everybody else; and with authority, so that of the authorial voice the reader has no doubt.  You open your heart and never chicken out.

Winning or losing in this game of making the canon, of making great art, is a matter of paying attention to details.  Check your work exquisitely, always convinced that you are missing some mistake you need to find and correct.

“Insomnia is a gift.  Worry.  If you are sleeping the sleep of the achieved, something is wrong.  Smugness is what will do you in every time.”

The “I-mode”, the first-person singular, is the most powerful mode of story-telling, and the easiest to up-fuck.  When in the “I-mode,” suppress the “I”, using it as little as possible.

“You can always see in the work of a second-rater” that point at which he became frightened by his vision and chickened out.

Slow down, go slow, take your time and unpack your object, filling up your sentences with pressure and congestion, making every phoneme count.

Every time you return to your object, you revise (as in `see again’), you rotate, you refactor, you enlarge.

English is so nifty, manipulation of syntax is always possible, and such manipulation expands the musical possibilities of the language.

“As soon as you explain you have driven the drama out of it.”  Exposition is for essays — the uncanny cannot abide explanation, nor can the weird.

You want to dilate your object, ever refactoring and unpacking, and at its best your dilation should be a multi-dimensional dilation of your text as a whole.

You relation to your language must move from your having a set of learnings, your parroting of received text, to your being an owner of language, a proprietor of speech.


NOVEMBER 15, 1990

“You must begin to feel very proprietary towards the English language.”

“In the business of world-making, logic is everything.  The essence of the task at hand is world-making.”  Do not confuse a relating of perceived reality with this making of worlds — there is no translation.  You are starting from scratch.  “Nothing is known prior to your utterance.”  This is of central importance — you write of reality, of the reality of human being, the reality of the human heart, but you are not transcribing reality; rather, you are making worlds.  Your reader is tabula rasa to your work.  Your work is a world turned in upon itself.  Nothing can be there that you don’t put there, so be careful about what you put there, and be careful about what you assume is there but is, in fact, in the eye of your mind and not in the words on your page.  Think of what you are doing as being no different from writing a computer program, or writing the rules to a game.

Following from this, employ attribution to speaker when you write dialogue.  `She said,’ `he said,’ all their sibling saids, these are basically extended punctuation, not to mention polite.  It is rude to your reader to leave unclear who is speaking — if you wish it to remain unclear, say so: `…, someone said, someone whose sex, whose age, whose weight, someone whose anything at all beyond being possessed of voice, could not be told simply from the sound of this voice.’

Do not assume anything of the reader.  Like Euclidean geometry, the work of art is a self-referential system.  “If what you have written must depend upon a prior actuality, it is not whole unto itself…. You want something which is valid in its own terms… a closed system.  A closed system.  Not an open system.”  A piece written this way, as a world unto itself, as monolith, this piece will be even stronger and more realistic in its impact than a piece purporting to report on a series of actual events — it will be a piece become symbol for the world itself.

So you wanna be a writer?  So whadderya gonna write about?  You are going to place your pen at that point which most threatens your sense of stability, and write from there.

Fuck plot; fuck the telling of your life; your life will be told, your plan will reveal itself from itself and in interaction with itself.  “Your only teleology when you sit down at the page should be dominion” — dominion over the page, over the language, over yourself, over your audience.

The key to power on the page, greatness in art, is yourself — knowing yourself, being true to yourself, and revealing yourself.  “In declaring your self, you invoke them selves.”

You must consider the question, “Do you love sentences more than you love anything else?”  You must consider this question every fucking minute for the rest of your miserable writer’s life.  You must answer this question in a manner honest and direct.

Travel tip — “Men sleep naked, not nude.”

Get a good grammar and marry it!

Avoid the self-indulgence of continually adding anew in a piece, of continually throwing in more news; instead, reinvent upon your initial conditions.

About writing that is “as pretty as flowers…. Let the flowers be crushed.  Let the perfume be released.”

“Mystery is at the very center of what engages the fictional transaction… but writing is not about telling; it is about showing, and not showing everything.”  Do not explain, do not tell what `characters’ are thinking.  You want to create the effect of an apparition before the reader; you are the god of the page with your Byzantine smile.  It’s just like sex — you don’t say, `Okay, now I’m going to lean in and kiss you on your mouth, and my mouth is going to be open so I hope yours is too, and I’ll touch my tongue lightly to your lips then kiss your closed eyes, and oh, while I’m doing this, I’ll reach one arm around you, brushing your nipple and breast as I move to pull you closer, and while I’m doing all this, you’ll shift in your seat and reach one hand between my legs….’ Sounds like great fun, but you don’t say it, you just do it.  Same with making art on the page, the old `Don’t tell it, show it.’

What are your options, since the stories have all been told?  To be of the first rank, you must transcend what has gone before, while making your work resonate with what is timeless in what has gone before.

“The job is to make them see what you see, not to tell them what you see.”  It’s harder than it sounds.

“You want to have something that is worthy of your death, worthy of your death.  You want every story to be your last.”  This cannot be stressed enough.  You will die tonight, and what will you leave behind?  Will you leave behind you even one shining star?

“Be a worshipper, on your knees before everything, judging nothing, explaining nothing.”

When you go to make your sentences, “Go to a hard place.  Go to the hardest place you can find.”

Never, but never, fall in love with yourself.  You can and will do wrong, everywhere, and certainly upon the page.

“Stay right on the top.  Give nothing away.”  Stay tight.  Stay crisp.

“Being the god of the page is a social transaction, and all the rules of social transactions apply here, too.”

You must be absolutely convinced that you are “entitled to speak the best sentence ever spoken.”  You alone are so entitled!  Everyone else is a usurper of your privilege and your right!  You await no permission, you await no one’s prior turn!

“Show and show and show.  `You don’t get it?  Fuck you.’  The right ones will get it.”

You really don’t need more than three objects in your attack sentence.  Here’s an attack sentence with three objects: `There is nothing.’  Acoustically, it’s weak, being a four-beat sentence ending on a downbeat, which downbeat is also a nasal stop.  A more acoustically pleasing sentence might be, for example, `There is not one single thing.’  As far as objects go, you can’t do much better than `There is nothing.’  Well, yeah, you could — you could do something concrete.  But still, from `There is nothing,’ where could you go?  You could go to `Here is everything.’  You could go to `Here there is even less.’  You could go to `There always was nothing, there always will be nothing.’

One of the worst things you can do in your writing is give in to the temptation to get back at people.  Worse yet, it’s easy to do this without realizing you are doing this, with even the thought that what you are engaged in is not petty revenge, but is something else.  It is very difficult to speak from your heart without hurting people; but when you speak from your heart, you don’t say, `You are a despicable person, weak and a failure, deservedly lonely and full of deserved hurt for failing in so many ways so many who have loved you.’  Rather, you say, `I am a despicable person, a weakling, failed and empty of all save my loneliness and my hurt, as I have betrayed and abandoned all who wanted nothing more than to love me and find in me a constance, a presence, a verity strong.’  And your reader reads this message and responds with, `Yes, yes, I too have failed, I too am filled with pain, now it’s all coming back and I feel it all over again.’  You’ve touched your reader, pushed the catharsis button, made him want to cry in your lap, made her want to hug you and stroke your hair.

Really, it works.  Make yourself the lowest of the low, and you will find yourself elevated above all others, to godlike heights.


NOVEMBER 27, 1990

“There is never any getting it right.”  You live and work in a world “that is fraught with compromise and ill-will.”  Steel yourself now, if you really want to grab for the brass ring, if you really want to piss with the big dogs, if you really intend to put fire to your pen and attempt to make the canon, steel yourself now for what the critics will say, what they will write.  Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t get thoroughly trashed in a major review; if you’re going to make it, your time will come, for “if a fool looks into a book, can a wise man look out?”  You will always be tempted to temper your vision by the reactions of the world around you, “which celebrates mediocrity.”  As the years go by, it will become more and more difficult, this struggle to stick to your art, to your excellence.  You will be set upon by mediocre people — “Mediocre people support mediocre people, and they support mediocre objects.”

If you are utterly possessed by your object, as you must be to begin writing it out, but you are having difficulty rendering it, don’t give it up.  Keep turning it and turning it until you get your handle.  Don’t try to approach your object as anyone other than yourself.  And the object must be your object. “You cannot enter somebody else’s thing…. It is monstrously insensitive” to think that you can.

“Whatever it is that is vexing you is your own private thing.”

“Ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent of the objects out there are false objects” because the artist falsely apprehends the object.  You must learn to recognize what is false about your apprehension of your object, and turn and turn your object until you find the true way in.  Don’t make it up — don’t pretend.  If your object really grabs you, you will find the key.  “We all know frauds, and we detest them.”

“You are never ever going to achieve force if you are inexact.  You must be precise.”

Form, format, structural concerns, these are what is central to art; for example, sentence structure.  Know your grammar!  Watch your structure!  Know your parts!  Structure produces meaning — it produces the symbol which is the art object.  For example, if you use fragments, use them often or not at all; for example, do you want to have a sentence with an adverbial prepositional phrase followed immediately by a sentence with an adjectival prepositional phrase?

“It becomes what it becomes, a powerful artistic event, as a result of its structural properties.”  You must have “a working understanding of the musicality of the language.”

Your form must be non-normative if you are to stand out in the crowd.

“You’re out there by yourself.  Not a happy place to be.  The only thing to do is the work.”

“You can do any God damn fucking thing you want.”  That is, if you do it right.

Stay on the body.  Write it out.

In the “I-mode,” do not analyze your state of mind.

You know when it’s beginning to drag, when you are running out of steam, when you are becoming vapid — that’s the point at which to look back at what you have written and refactor it.  Decide, `Where’s the dangerous place to go?’  Go there.  Raise the stakes.  You want to do that which cannot be done.

Beware of doing the easy thing — dipping into the received language.

Explain only in a manner which actually deepens the mystery.  “The reader loves the enigmatic, because the enigmatic becomes numinous.”

“Everything should be a provocation.”

“The oxymoronic tension,” for example, “He sold the keys to a woman with no hands.”

“In the deepest sense, art is putting like with like, and like with unlike” (which is not the same as putting together two discrete nonrelations).

When you reach the end of a sentence, and you repeat there a word used in that sentence or in close auditory context, “there is a curious kind of abatement.”  Like with like, to be sure, but be careful with like with identical.

It’s problematic in a piece to go back in time, and if you do, don’t stay there long.


NOVEMBER 29, 1990

`Unpacking the object’ is to get at what is in the object that tells the truth about the object; and that truth is, ultimately, the truth of the human heart.

Conflict is essential.  The only way to think of a sentence is in conflict with every other sentence.  The only way to think of writing is in conflict with every other writer.

Not just any kind of conflict will do.  You want conflict that touches the mystery of human being, not stuff like social conflict — beware the political agenda of any given time.  The true, grand political agenda is human being.

Look for the “remarkable self-contradiction inherent in us.”  Always look for the nullifying polarities.

Your story must display that it and you know what the story’s object is.  “A story must be about what it is about, and continue to be about what it is about.”

Look for dialectical opposites, for the dynamic of the Tao.

If you have foresight in your writing, as opposed to looking back to go forward, the foresight you should allow yourself is the looking for the dialectic. Look ahead only to see what you can oppose to what you just wrote.

When you write your best, you have found “the solution to the problem of yourself.”

“You cannot be every writer that ever was.  You can only be the writer only you can be; but in so being, you can be better than any writer that ever was.”

“What is the error in yourself?”  Find it, develop it fractally, a la non-linear dynamics, to create “a protestation of your error.”  You repress everything else to reveal what you otherwise keep repressed.  You get a style — “the solution for oneself.”

The error is that which is not normative in you.  You must speak from a place of non-normativity in order to stand out.

The solution for yourself comes from “the wrongness in you.”

God damn it — be bold!

If your work is to work, it must work the way your mind works — the way your mind really works, deep down inside your secret loathsome self.

“You will always be imperfect against an authority outside yourself.”

“You must want to be someplace else, to take somebody there.”

“You have to want to be elsewhere, yourself.  Think of Milton, think of Whitman, and take us there — take us there.”

“There must be some kind of contract between the writer and something durable, something eternal, something enduring.”

“The structure must be balanced, balanced, balanced.”  Develop an ear for the sense of equality and order in your work, and remember, balanced does not mean entropic.

The more possessed by your object you are, the more powerful you are.  And your object has to be your object — not anyone else’s, not the contents of the evening news, not the politically correct.

Your work, if it is to work, must be contiguous with you, and in others it must resonate.

And, you must have character, courage, steadfastness, dedication.  Haven’t got them?  Get out now.  Go do something else with your life.

“You get a riff, you keep a riff going…. And what does the story do then?  It begins to write itself!”

Refactoring!  “It’s by working what the language offers up.  The language is everything…. The language is an engine insuperably more powerful than you are…. Keep agitating your thoughts about language; keep agitating your relationship with language.”

Language — “Let it come on you.  Invite it to come on you.  Let it come on you, this demon.”

Don’t start with `Then.’  “Of course it’s `then’ — it’s next.”

Don’t go beneath the surface — “Never, never comment.”

Picture a sentence as a bow, as in bow and arrow, and this bow is strung.  Such is a picture of the shape and tension a sentence must bear.

“The job when you are on the page is to be a proper respondent to the object.”

“Torque” is veering away from what has gone before.  “Swerve” is contending with what has gone before.  “Torque will get you home free,” because through employing torque you will eventually reach a point which naturally obtains closure on your beginning.  Swerving “requires thought that is antagonistic with where you’ve been.”  Swerving is wrestling with what is prior.  “An extension of the poetics of combat.”

“You can’t go wrong throwing away, there’s much to be said for throwing away, you can’t throw enough away.”  You must slough off old skin, banish bad habits, clear the decks for the action that is to come.  Shit it out and flush it down.  You will lose only what you do not need, only what will poison your writing by holding onto it, and you will gain … not much — only power, focus, control and confidence, to name a few.

As you work on a piece, picture yourself as a performer spinning plates on sticks.  You have to keep them going, and get new ones going, keeping the old ones going, running, frantic, back and forth and back.

Don’t go back in time in a piece.  If you do, you are engaging in exposition, and taking away from forward momentum.  If you need the past, you must pick up the bits and pieces of it as you go forward.

“It is first, authority; and second, stance.  The news is tertiary, if even that important.”

“You must deliver a persona.  The writer’s voice must be somewhere in the cosmos.”

“You’ve got to be somewhere.”

You have to go beyond being gifted, beyond being articulate, and mess with the itty bitty stuff — the language, its cadences, stops, syntax, like/like, like/unlike — you must not be content to write, you must demand to compose.

You take your initial sentence, your object, and you extrude and extrude, unpack and unpack, reflect and reflect, all in ways thematically and formally akin to the ways in the attack, the opening, the initial sentence.

Write out, by hand, sentences from a good writer’s work.  Diagram the relationships among the parts.

2 Comments

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Luke Tennis // Aug 20, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Again, great stuff! –Thank you.

  • 2 Tetman Callis // Aug 21, 2012 at 6:32 am

    You’re welcome.

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