Friday, November 21, 2014

Not Much More than a Poll

All I'm doing right now is keeping my head on the millstone. Or...wait. No?

Because I've got more schoolwork than I can feasibly do between now and the end of the semester (which is in like two weeks), really I'm just looking forward to the end, which will come sometime between December 8 (last day of classes) and December 12 (last paper due). Hence my thoughts of late stray to December 13, when my mind will be free and able to focus on other things for a month or so. 

When I finished the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, around Labor Day, I promised myself that I could start the next volume at the end of this semester, i.e. on December 13. I've been looking forward to it all this time. But in between then and now, I figured out that I was ready to start writing the wikibook. I haven't written word one on it, because I'm barely keeping my head above water with all the other stuff. So this is my dilemma: should I spend the month's break reading Proust? Or should I spend the month's break making a sincere start on this novel? 

What do you, the viewers at home, think? 

Should I start the book or should I start the book?



Nose to the grindstone! That's what I meant to say. I think I've been reading too much. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where Chekhov Meets Poochie

The Simpsons comes up on this blog sometimes, and it comes up among friends sometimes, but it comes up in my brain, like, all the time. Most of the minutes I live in any given week contain a thought related to The Simpsons. I'm certainly not the only person whose mind is more or less a Simpsons encyclopedia, but I know people who've never watched it. So I never really know, when I'm trying to use The Simpsons to make a point or a joke, whether it's going to make the right amount of sense to everybody.

Okay, then. Disclaimer made. 

The Simpsons once introduced a character named Poochie, a "soulless product of committee thinking" to its violent, animated show-within-a-show, Itchy & Scratchy. In the episode, the title characters are driving, approaching a fireworks factory, when Poochie appears at the side of the road. He proceeds to mug, shout catchphrases, and generally make like soulless characters did in the 1990s. Cut to Milhouse, one of the watching Simpsons characters, who moans "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?" Poochie hops in the car and drives off, and the fireworks factory sits there, unused. No violence; no joy.

You probably don't need to watch this if you were nodding along to the paragraph above, but if you weren't, please watch it, if only up to 1.30. The rest of the post'll make more sense. 

The longer this scene has cooked in my brain, the more writing lessons I find in Milhouse's question. (Really.) Poochie was introduced because Itchy & Scratchy's ratings were falling, and the producers wanted to keep getting raises every year. So they added Poochie to the "dramaturgical dyad" represented by Itchy and Scratchy (or by Tom and Jerry, or by Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote). And Poochie fucked things up not necessarily because he was a dramaturgical third wheel, but because he was a gimmick. What he did was not what the show did. 

Hence Milhouse's question. What he's asking is, when is this show going to do what I expect it to do? When am I going to get the explosion that is the whole point of this experience? 

It is a completely correct question to ask of any art. I'm not saying that every piece of art has to do what the audience wants it to, or what makes the audience feel comfy. That would mean we'd only ever have committee art: blockbuster summer movies instead of art-house films, James Patterson books instead of (not in addition to) Virginia Woolf. But every narrative has to be consistent to its purpose, and satisfactory, whether we're talking about a Roadrunner cartoon or a Faulkner novel.

One of my professors has said that a good book or a good story teaches the audience how to read it. Good art in any stratum accomplishes this. I sit down to watch The Avengers, and I know what kind of movie it is, what kind of enjoyment I'm going to get out of it, before five minutes have passed. I sit down to read a David Markson book, and I know what its pleasures (or lack thereof) will be in a few pages. It tells me what it's up to, and I adjust my expectations.* That's how audiences get satisfaction out of art. Stopping a Roadrunner cartoon in the middle to put Wile E. Coyote on a soapbox about the disappearing desert ecosystem, and never tossing him off a cliff at all, would not satisfy, even if the audience cares about the environment. The audience would just sit there, scratching its abstract audience-head, going "Why didn't he fall off the cliff?" Because that's what a Roadrunner cartoon is for

Audiences with any small measure of sophistication adjust their expectations based on the art they're consuming. I may not feel that every one of my questions has been answered when I watch a Lynch film, but that is not my expectation. 

And so back to Milhouse. His question betrays his expectation for Itchy & Scratchy: it's going to be violent. If a fireworks factory appears in the frame, there damn well better be explosions before the end of the show. Failing to make that happen betrays the audience's expectation and, more significantly, the purpose of the art. By showing the fireworks factory, the show is teaching Milhouse how to watch it, and by bringing in Poochie (who is essentially a commercial for the 1990s, not a character), it discards that lesson. 

The fireworks factory is something else, too: it's Chekhov's gun
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. 

Chekhov's gun mostly means "don't put shit in your stories that doesn't matter," but I also think of it as a lesson about narrative coherence, and about what draws the audience's attention. A gun on the wall in a story about the descendants of Samuel Colt might not need to go off, but that gun in the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead sure as hell had to. It was contextually unusual, and it was brought to the audience's attention. The fireworks factory might not be unusual in the context of Itchy & Scratchy, but it was brought to the audience's attention, and Milhouse is totally right to ask when that particular gun is going to go off.

There's yet another lesson that comes out of this question, which was (IMHO) most succinctly stated by Tom Servo in the MST3K of Overdrawn at the Memory Bank: Never show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie. The fireworks factory is the most interesting thing in the cartoon, but it's Poochie's bullshit that's front and center. And Poochie is rendered even more horrid by the possibility of the fireworks factory. 

So, in sum, what can writers take from Milhouse's question? I'll put it in bullet form: 
  • Teach your audience how to read your art. 
  • Don't fuck with that lesson. 
  • Understand that your audience is going to have expectations of your art, based on when and where s/he is consuming it and whatever other paratextual cues you offer about it. 
  • Meet those expectations, unless you want your art to annoy. 
  • Put only the stuff that matters into your work. 
  • Make that stuff matter as it narratively ought to. 
  • And don't shortchange the best parts of your work in favor of something that works less well, even if that something matters more to you. 
That's a lot to glean from one nine-word question in a TV episode from 1997. Not bad, Van Houten, not bad. Oh, and there's a thing to learn from Poochie himself: don't put a commercial masquerading as a character into your art. But I don't think we really needed Poochie to learn that. 


--
*This is why postmodernism is so cool to me: it constantly tosses those expectations up in the air and lets them fall as they may. But it's also why not everyone can deal with postmodernism - because they want their experiences to be consistent, because they want to feel secure about the kind of art they're consuming. You should've read the reactions on an opera fan page I frequent about a postmodern production of Prince Igor I attended last season. Whoo, they were not happy. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Based on True Plant-Related Events

I don't have anything to blog about right now, so instead I'm opening my coat. What follows is 1,000ish words of an exercise I wrote for my workshop class this semester. I didn't like the way the remaining 500 words turned out - too tidy - but I liked this first 1,000. I hope you like it too.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I Guess I'm Mostly Surprised When It Works

There's one last thing to muse on from that Facebook Q&A: Things that surprise you while writing, things that worked that you didn't think would, or vice versa, etc...

This comment came from my husband, whose job is in a creative field very different from my own, but who offers me tremendous advice about how creative work works. He has lots of experience with what works and what doesn't, and how to deal with each possibility. I have less, and I am not remotely as mature as he is about ideas not working. Really, he should be the one writing this post.

Plus, I looked at this comment and I didn't know how to build an answer out of it. The only thing I could think about was writing a sci-fi novella years ago, one that didn't work out because I couldn't really write yet, and discovering after it was on the page that the climax of the book was a big shootout that killed four children. I did not know those kids, who were pivotal, would die at any point in writing the novella until after I'd made them dead. Total shock.

But I've told this story to myself and others so many times that it's threadbare. I've lost the particular memories of it, the sense of what I thought the story was going to do before I sat down to write that day. I remember feeling horrified that I'd written such a thing, and I remember the knowledge that the event was precisely in place in the novella. Little else remains.

That story connects to Matt's first clause, things that surprise me while writing, but other than "let your work surprise you as it twists and turns and takes its own directions," which isn't universally sound advice at all, I don't know what to take away from it. Maybe nothing. Maybe it was just a thing that happened when I was an inexperienced writer and I hadn't yet learned how to listen to the book that was inside me and take notes about it before I sat down to draft.


What worked and didn't work...well, usually it's in the particulars that such things go on. I take a lot of ideas from dreams (two of the four novels I've written, a couple of the not-very-many short stories I've published), and that feeling of OMIGOD I have to write down that dream it was AMAZING, and then finding the next afternoon that the dream was absurd or go-nowhere, is not exclusive to me, or to writers.

But the boy-and-mom crisis story, yeah, that one didn't work, and it was a surprise. It was the first story I wrote after I finished Highbinder, and I think the writer-dial was still mostly tuned to action/genre, because half the story was literary and the other half was written like a comic book. The two halves interleaved to tell the story of how this kid and his (single) mom cope with the kid having had an affair with the mom's best friend, a married woman who lives next door. I thought the idea was solid, and I thought the execution went okay. The actiony parts of the story were much more lively and interesting to read than the literary parts, but again, I'd just finished a book that has a lot of action in it, so I had a good bit of that energy left over.

I workshopped the story at my UCLA class, and my instructor told me exactly what to do with my ending - which was definitely the least-working part of the story - but I've set it aside without revising it, because the thing just doesn't hang together. I continue to be surprised every time I think about it, because it really should have worked. I got three decent characters, triangulated in a good conflict; I got an unusual, surprising structure; I got some pretty okay writing in there. But it just doesn't have that certain thing that makes reading worthwhile. It's limp and dull, like hair without Pantene Pro-V. Oh, well.

One thing that always surprises me is how insignificant to readers are the problems that have obsessed you while drafting. The Girl Scout story is written practically as a dyad, in two parts that are almost their own flash pieces, and I worried like crazy after revising that the story didn't have an overall arc and felt like two separate stories smashed together. No one mentioned this, not my initial readers nor any of the 15 people who read it for my workshop class. I even asked two readers about it and they were both like, shrug, no. This happens pretty much every time, that I worry about some element of a story and no one notices it, and instead they notice shit that I never would've thought of.

In writing Highbinder, I worked really hard to give someone a certain set of characteristics without saying flat-out that her nature was not altogether human. I put in bits and pieces of this nature pretty much every time she was mentioned. No one noticed. Three people have read that book and given me detailed feedback on it, and I said something to the effect of "You didn't notice anything in particular about Character?" and they were all like, shrug, no. Gaaaah.


So I've stopped asking those questions, the stuff I worry over that no one mentions. In my workshop class, the workshoppees' questions often seem to be of that strain - they ask them, and I'm like, why on earth are you worried about that when X issue is the elephant in the room? And the answer is probably that the writer notices stuff that the reader doesn't, and vice versa, eternally.

There's a lot that surprises me while I'm actually putting words on the page. Largely the same thing, over and over, that I marveled at during my years of copy editing: that English is contortionist in its flexibility, in the multiple ways it's possible to say what you want to say. But other stuff, too, stuff that's kind of overly self-complimentary, so, sorry.

Like, that I'm at a point now where I can confidently cross something out with the knowledge that I'll write something better instead. Or that I can write a sentence that doesn't sound quite right and just make a note to come back to it later, because it's not a disaster, I can find another way to say it that doesn't suck. That I can make up things to say, one sentence after another. These things amaze me every time. I feel like the same writer I was in high school, the one who was content to write 1,500 words of sheer description of thinly disguised Fitzgerald characters and not want to change a single word despite it being undeniably stupid. I'm not that writer, at all, even if I sometimes behave like her. But I feel like her, and I'm amazed when what comes out of my pen is nothing like what she'd write. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Perhaps I'll Wet My Whistle

I have a long post drafted and ready to go, but I think I've written a few too many long posts of late. So here's something shorter.

I got an acceptance from a pretty cool magazine last night, but I can't tell you about it yet because I'm following my own advice. It was for the grandma story, which I apparently haven't talked about on this blog much; the only place I found it was in this post, which was almost a full year ago. I was satisfied enough with the story that I just kept sending it places instead of fussing over it and blabbing about it here. Maybe there's a lesson there.

I'd like to note that this acceptance comes after an extended string of rejections over the last couple of months. I am very, very happy. I even had a second glass of wine to celebrate. (I live dangerously, y'all.)

The end of the semester can't come soon enough for me this time around. I think I must be doing one of my classes wrong, because the workload is just monstrous. I do not actually have a plan for how I'll complete everything I have to do over the next month. Freak out and run around in circles, maybe?

Here, let's let some Simpsons writers amuse you more than I can. A meatier post is headed your way next week.


Monday, November 3, 2014

What Not to Do if You're Butthurt and Other Stories

Here are a few mini-blog posts, instead of one coherent one, because that is what I have for you.

(1) I woke up this morning thinking about public figures who are not universally admirable - a consequence of reading this post, which had a sort of eternal-mirror effect on me, as I'm close to removing that blog from my reading list because I find the writer increasingly combative, and so while I don't have the same relationship with the writer of that blog that the writer of that blog has with the subject of that blog post, it's still kind of ironic. Dontcha think?

I considered writing my own post about how I cope with public figures I admire but do not like, but after I looked at the comments on Jenny's post and found that "people we admire usually aren't everything we want them to be" is not in fact the great new lesson that I thought it was - because I learned it on my own, through experience, without being taught it by a parent or a mentor or an article on Medium.com, and hence thought it was worth sharing as if it was new - I decided to save that musing for a time when it's somehow more relevant. Anais Nin, Richard Nixon, and yes, Amanda Palmer: these are people who are not everything I want them to be (or sometimes almost nothing I want them to be), but whom I still admire. Another time I'll tell you why.

Yes, I admire Richard Nixon.

There are so many good Deal With It pics that I pretty much died trying to pick one

(2) This weekend I finished Absalom, Absalom!, and I hope there are few books more momentous, more sublime, to come in my lifetime. I don't think my heart can take many more. It was SO HARD, you guys, it was harder than Remembrance of Things Past (or the first three volumes anyway) and way harder than Moby-Dick, but it was better than almost any book I've ever read.

I don't know why.

I can't distill for you why, for me, it built to such a pitch that I thought my head might pop like a grape before I was finished putting all of its words through my eyes, nor why even for all that I couldn't understand exactly what happened in the last major set piece. (Thank Christ for SparkNotes.) It was like the dead middle of The Sound and the Fury, two or three of my favorite pages in all literature, except bigger and badder, and for a stretch of many more pages. It reminded me of a film, Ordet, which is so difficult as to be almost unwatchable but which I always list as one of my favorite films. It gave me a set of thoughts and sensations that no other film has ever given me. Absalom, too, is so hard that I can't see myself recommending it, but I'll certainly put it up there on the list of the best books I know.

(3) Something happened in the videogame world that reflects very tidily on something I'm dealing with in my workshop class that I've been wanting to blog about. Jim Sterling, a critic for The Escapist, created a walkthrough review of the independent videogame The Slaughtering Grounds, giving it a poor grade. (That is, Sterling recorded his eye-view experience of playing the game and talked over the recording, discussing what he found was or wasn't working about it. Video here.) The developer, whose name does not seem to be a matter of public record, responded to this poor review by making a video with text annotations over Sterling's criticisms, explaining his intentions in making the game and why Sterling is a poopyface. This went about as well as you might expect. (Sterling's response to the response to the review is here. The dev's response to the response to the response to the review [yep] is here.)

Actually, same goes for this one - just Google Images "butthurt"

The central problem here is that you can't argue against someone's response to your art. You can't. You can't. You can talk about how your intentions may be different than the consequent experience of the art, but it's risky; I think the only contexts in which that works are a) if you need to improve the art, to make the experience jibe with your intentions, and you need more explicit feedback to do so, or b) you find it funny or interesting or instructive how the intentions and experiences don't match up and you want to share that. But it is not possible to defend against user experience. And most kinds of defending oneself against criticism sound terrible. They sound defensive and immature, almost universally. From the outside, even subtler ones than this dev's poorly spelled insults sound defensive and immature.

See, I couldn't even narrow it down to just one

It's particularly awkward in workshop, because there's nothing I know of that a writer can say about her intentions to which I won't respond with "Okay, but it needs to be on the page." If you get published, you can't go around to everybody in the world who's reading your story and stand over them and say what you meant by this or that. It has to be on the page. Matt's boss puts it even more succinctly: "You don't come in the box."

[by which he means a little version of the developer is not wrapped up with the game disc. perv.]

(4) My writing exercise this weekend went so much better than I expected that it put me in a good mood, which is such a rare event that I feel the need to record it. I keep waiting for a writing exercise to be good enough that I want to share it, but not so good that I want to keep it under my hat for revision, expansion, and potential submission. If that ever happens, I'll post it here. In the meantime, th-th-th-th-that's all, folks.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

William, William!

Apparently, certain people are more natural mimics than others. These folks adopt others' accents, often unconsciously, if they hang around them enough. I've never been much of a mimic; I can't even pretend to be Australian without sounding like a Hanna-Barbera villain. I created a Cockney accent for Nancy in an elementary school production of Oliver! that, most unfortunately, no responsible adult could talk me out of. (If anyone still has VHS tapes - Taylor Elementary, Norfolk, Virginia, early 1990s - please burn them.)

The book for my Faulkner/Morrison class this week is Absalom, Absalom!, which boasts the longest sentence in the English language (1,288 words), according to Guinness. I'm saying this with my forehead to the ground: it is a hard book. I believe that the not insignificant trouble I'm having with it is just desserts for the passionate post I wrote defending long sentences, but I also believe that Absalom is why my writing exercise this week included a sentence that was a hundred and eighty-seven words long. Previously for this class I wrote a sentence that was even longer (209 words), but for that one I just kept piling conjunctions behind commas. I only used one semicolon. The one I wrote on Sunday uses all kinds of punctuation to patch itself together, just as Faulkner does in Absalom.

This is the earlier one:
He’d tried skating on a downhill section of hardpack, but his board had hit a rock and he’d fallen badly and broken his right ankle and couldn’t walk, so he tried to wad himself up onto the board and roll along like a legless man but he’d slipped on a hill leading into one of the abandoned building sites that surrounded their warehouse like enormous moons around a small, sheltered planet, and he’d tumbled ass over teakettle down and into a terrible pit dug for a long-forgotten foundation with a rocky bottom full of small dead creatures who got in and couldn’t get out; a half-rotted dog was in there and Ray’s hand sank into its putrid chest first thing when he tried to stand and he shrieked and dropped down again and he lay there half the night, his ankle full of ground glass, sweating and shivering in a thin TAPOUT t-shirt, shouting himself hoarse when he saw headlights, and they got him to the hospital and gave him blankets and sips of water and x-rays and codeine, and his dad didn’t come to pick him up at all, in fact hung up on Sergeant Kleinman when she called to say how his son had passed the night. 
Not that Faulknerian, just has a sort of rising pitch. The 187-word one I wrote for this week's exercise is much more of a bob-and-weave, swoop-and-double-back piece of work. I don't feel good about making it public, but here's a shorter long sentence from the same piece (74 words):
Only that one remains in my memory, but when they chanted it – the two women interviewed for the podcast who sat and touched each other’s hands in rhythm to see what they remembered two decades at least after the last time they were bored somewhere and had to do something with each other aside from folding paper into shapes to flick and mold and fit inside itself – my palms itched on the steering wheel.
See how much less organized the second sentence is? How clauses hang on each other like plastic monkeys from a barrel, prepositional mixed with conjunctive, rather than chains of tidier clauses holding hands obediently? That disorganization is my brain trying to sort out and incorporate Absalom. It is a hard book, but I'm still mimicking it, even though I'm not trying to and don't want to. I want to write my own work, not Faulkner's, but a pale attempt at his syntax is still what's coming out of my fingers at the moment because it's what's on my mind.

Can you blame me? Rowr.

No, I'm kidding, he's a dead alcoholic with dubious taste in socks. 

This isn't the first time this has happened, but it's the weakest I've ever been at keeping other voices from bleeding into my writing. I suspect that part of the reason for this lack of integrity is how emotionally challenging the reading for this semester has been. I don't feel like I'm close to a breakdown or anything, but the diet of Faulkner, Morrison, and the short stories we've been reading in my workshop class has made a tumult of my insides. Most recently, "Diary of an Interesting Year" was assigned, and I couldn't bring myself to read it twice, as I have all the other stories this semester. It was unrelentingly bleak with a charming British wit painted on top.  I stared at the blinking cursor for minutes on end when it came time to write a reading response to it.

So that's why I did some work on the secret project this week instead of the wikibook. The secret project is more instinctual, and a bit Gothic, and while I still don't want to mimic Faulkner to write, I thought his influence might help instead of hurting. It went fairly well. I didn't finish what I'd hoped to finish, but I inched along. I tried hard to keep the sentences short, or shorter anyway, so it felt a lot more inchy than usual.

I'll let you know if Absalom, for all its difficulty, turns out to be Great. Or if any of that Greatness rubs off on me. (Prognosis: doubtful.)