Thursday, September 27, 2012

Go Back to the Shadow!

Most days I pluck half an hour out of the afternoon to sit on my balcony and take notes about what I'm working on, writing-wise. Sometimes nothing happens, and I just sit there. Sometimes I bring a book out and read instead. Sometimes I come up with all-new ideas.

Yesterday a big idea came to me. An idea for an ambitious writing project - a book-length series of short stories that would be linked by their main character, by their purpose, and by their structure. The long story I mentioned last week would be the first one in this potential series.

The structure of this story, where four different tales are interleaved, helped me to make the Bigger Point I was trying to make - the reader at some point has to think about what they all have in common (I hope), and why what they have in common matters. It's the Crash narrative, right? You tell a bunch of different eye-level stories in order to get at something about the way humans act and feel. It was also a really interesting way to write, to keep switching voices every couple of pages.

I don't remember where I first heard of the "novel in stories", but once I understood what it meant, I decided I wanted to write one. My attempt eventually became a novella, Those Ghosts of Time, which is still Matt's favorite thing I've written and which I know will never, ever, ever sell. It didn't turn out to be a novel in stories, though - in finished form it was a novella about one character and a few assorted stories that ended up not fitting anywhere in the main narrative.

Published novels-in-stories I've heard of are Justin Cronin's Mary and O'Neil and Molly Ringwald's recent (apparently quite respectable) foray into fiction, When It Happens to You. I'm sure there are many others. I've read books of short stories that seemed all of a piece, as if the characters all lived in the same emotional town - Circling the Drain by the unjustly late Amanda Davis, most of what Raymond Carver's written. It's not the same art form as just revisiting character or locations, like King's Castle Rock or Fitzgerald's various characters. Oddly, even though it's a form I deeply want to emulate, I can't think of a single example of a novel in stories I've actually read. (I'm in the middle of Lost in the Funhouse, but I'm not sure that quite counts.)

The thing I liked most about this idea was telling a single narrative through a bunch of distinct tales. Drawing a throughline beneath things that seemed unconnected. I didn't really have a good outlet for it, though, until I wrote this story.

What I wanted to do in the end was write a series of stories that explored stuff we live with every day - the nature of being in our bodies, the experience of growing older in America, the way we view people with mental illness - but that we don't admit or talk to each other about much. And I wanted to write more about this interesting character I invented, a teenage androgyne, who would help me explore the problem of pronouns in the English language (a bit nerdy, but hey, me and grammar have been best buds for a long time) among other, more significant issues. In brief, it would be a collection of humanist spelunkings that were linked and were all structurally identical. Not actually a novel in stories, but a book of stories that had a great deal in common with each other. I even came up with a fancy name for it.

This morning in the shower I tried to talk myself out of this project. Writing literary is exhausting, and deep down, I don't really believe I do it well. I've got two other books to work on. I collected years of disconnected notes to come up with all the concepts and storylines I slotted into last week's story; how will I think of so many more? No one publishes books of short stories. No one likes books of short stories. Maybe the one story I've written is actually crap and the whole project should be torpedoed now.

Etc., etc. After several long minutes of this, I'd had enough. I stood there in the shower and mentally put down a staff-slamming Gandalf inside my head, between me and the taunting Balrog of negativity that was listing off all this stuff for me. NO. YOU SHALL NOT PASS, MEAN BRAIN.

If no one took on any demanding and weird literary projects, there are so many incredible pieces of work we'd never have. And there's no reason to believe in this project any less than the other ones I've started (and finished). There's especially no reason to cut it off before it begins. I just need to put down one word at a time, take as many notes as I can, and go forth.

There's a lot more to be said here, about my uncomfortable reactions to my own crazy ambitions, about writing a form I haven't studied, about the strange fact that deep down I don't think I write literary fiction well. That realization came out of nowhere. But I think that'll do for today.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tonal Shift

No Deep Thoughts for today. Books & pictures.

--I'm reading Haruki Murakami's After Dark. It's the first book of his I've read. It's good. Not thick and difficult, but definitely thought-provoking, which is kind of a relief; it's been all one or the other for me for the last six months. Nice to find a literary writer whom I cotton to.

--...especially after investing 90 pages into Chuck Palahniuk's Tell-All, which was crap. This is strike three for me & Chuck. Critics generally didn't like Tell-All either, so I'm thinking I'm going to give Choke or Lullaby a go, just to give him a third swing that's actually meaningful. But I'm willing to bet that I won't like him then, either; there were bits of Tell-All that reminded me of the stuff I didn't like about the other books of his I read. Specifically, that he manages to include irritatingly excruciating detail and still leave me with almost no idea of what really occurred in a given scene or chapter.

--I'm also reading John Dies at the End in between other stuff, which is by turns totally delightful and overly outlandish. Like, outlandish beyond delightful and into "Um, are you sure you had an editor?" It's already been made into a movie which I'm looking forward to a lot, but the tone of the trailer is entirely opposite the tone of the book. A little like this. Facts are all there, tone is radically different.

It's near about time for me to change out the pictures on my pinboard; they've stopped being awesome and started being visual background noise. So I wanted to note here what they were as of today. Marlene and Salvatore I've already talked about, and I also had this picture up to remind me conceptually of KUFC's main character when I'm writing about her.

There's also this one:

The Great Gatsby was one of the first books of adolescence that really bewitched me, and I spent a lot of time and energy reading Fitzgerald in my early teens. And writing about thinly disguised teenagers arguing over how awesome Fitzgerald was. Thank God that stuff has mostly been lost. This is on my board for lots of reasons, but one jokey reason is that Dr. Eckleburg knows when I'm procrastinating instead of writing.

And this:

To remind me that human life is almost never exactly as it's been recorded. I love pictures of Victorians smiling (and thank goodness there are more of them than you'd think), because really, people have always lived in the same world we live in now, and there's the proof.

And this:

Not quite the same picture, but close enough. This is where I got married. There's a lot more about this place that's inspiring to me, but it'd take all day to explain.

And then there's this:

Monique Art Print

I am a visually oriented person, and I love looking at things - especially attractive or interesting things - more than I can really put into words. This image is one of my favorite things I've ever seen. You can't imagine how happy I was to find it in postcard form in a box during our move in June; I thought I'd lost it forever.

There's also a picture of a happy dog in a field, but I'm not planning to take that one down. It does make me feel a bit guilty every time I look at it, because it's the front of a card that was actually sent to Matt, not me, by his aunt and uncle. I just love stealing his stuff.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dim Star

Before I get going - yesterday I blazed through Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? in about four hours. I know there are people who read this blog who have challenging mothers, and if you're one of them, get yourself to the library and put your paws on this book. I admit bias, because her Fun Home is in my top ten favorite books ever. But really. Read it. Epiphanies await you inside. (And don't listen to this sexist asshat.)

All right, so, today's subject. Remember how I said I went to the beach in part to see if I could make some biggish writing decisions? The one that was troubling me the most was which book to buckle down on: the [non-]horror novel or the KUFC book. For one or the other, I need to set a deadline and commit to it and get to work.

I could reproduce for you the dithering I was doing over these two projects, but I do not think it would make good reading. In short: the most significant attraction for the [non-]horror novel was an agent telling me it's an extremely saleable idea and she wants to see a rewrite if I do one, and the most significant attraction for the KUFC book was a heady and totally new blend of confidence and organization. The most sig. negative for the [non-]horror novel was having to write from scratch a book I'd already written and am a bit sick of, and the most sig. neg. for the KUFC book was fear (creeping terror, in truth) that I'd get to the end and be similarly fucked.

Trust me that there were many more things to consider and I've rifled them all.

Mid-last week I was so tired of worrying about it and wanted so much just to write that I opened up KUFC and started writing. I'd only gotten to about 9,000 words on it, which is really very little, before setting it aside. Last week I added 4,000. After my third day of work on it, I guessed that my decision was made.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Just Keep Swimming

Many months ago, Matt drew my attention to a video of John Cleese giving a talk on creativity. Because I am not a very good wife, I didn't watch it until a few weeks ago. My excuse was that it was long - more than half an hour - and I'll grant you that's an okay excuse, but I should have watched it anyway. Because it's terrific.

Here is a transcript, if you prefer.

I'm going to guess that everyone who watches/reads this will walk away with a different feeling of what the best idea in it is. So I won't claim that what I got out of it is the most important thing in the video. But golly, it's been helpful in the recent past. In case you have no time to watch the whole thing and draw your own conclusions, here's what I'm talking about:
You know I mean, if we have a problem and we need to solve it, until we do, we feel (inside us) a kind of internal agitation, a tension, or an uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And we want to get rid of that discomfort. So, in order to do so, we take a decision. Not because we're sure it's the best decision, but because taking it will make us feel better.

Well, the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer. And so, just because they put in more pondering time, their solutions are more creative.
For me, these kinds of problems are what my characters are going to be like and what made them that way, what the insides of their apartments look like and what kind of clothes they wear, how I'm going to get from point A to point B in the plot without boring the reader or jumping too awkwardly. Solutions to problems both small and large.

Actually, I can give you an example of a problem where I haven't given up when the simple answer arrived. In my KUFC book, the antagonist group has put together an energy initiative which causes serious harm to my main character and her people. This is in an alternate-history U.S., in the 1940s, and it's a project that is extremely harmful to the earth but on which the antagonist group has put a positive spin, claiming it creates natural, sustainable energy for the general populace. I thought for ages trying to come up with a name for this project. The name had to be slick and memorable, had to indicate both benignity and corporatism, and had to be a word that would eventually make my main character shudder at its very thought. And the only word I could come up with, after thinking and thinking, was Greenpeace. Which is a word that, as most of us know, already exists and has its own connotations and that I can't possibly use.

I argued to myself that I could use it, that it would be a sly wink to the real 21st-century reader, would be yet another clue (as if the reader needs one at the juncture of the book where the project appears) that this was an alternate timeline. I almost convinced myself - but no. It's not the right word. I have to find another one. I'm still sitting solutionless under this problem, BUT, thanks to John Cleese, I'm not afraid of the discomfort of not having that solution yet. I'm using Greenpeace in my notes for the time being, until I come up with the right word, but I'm determined that there'll be another solution coming along sometime in the future. Because this is a shoddy solution and it won't do.

There's a way in which this instinct toward pushing on through discomfort to find the Right solution - not just the convenient one - ties in to perfectionism, which makes me, a recovering perfectionist, very uncomfortable. It's the same little voice, saying keep going because that's not a good enough solution, that dogged me and paralyzed me with not good enough not good enough not good enough for so many years. I don't want to venture into dividing perfectionism into good and bad, because I really couldn't say without bias, but I think driving on with intention toward the best solution is a different thing than failing to start because you can't achieve the ideal solution.

In the past week, I've started to believe keep going is really the only thing that works. It's certainly how I got through the hardest times in my life, and it's simple and catchy enough to sit in my brain without meanness and motivate me. It's how I wrote 2,000 words last night that I trust. Hard to argue with results like that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enough Gas

On Sunday I went to the beach for the first time since I've been in California.

Specifically, this beach. 

I've been feeling increasingly yucky over the last few weeks, more anxious and mired in pettiness. I miss the calm humble feeling that being in Montana gave me. Granted, I basically had one primary goal during my time there, and here in my regular life things are much more diffuse. I have a lot more to make me feel insecure and off-track and incapable.

Lately I've been having vivid dreams. Some of them have been downright cold-sweat nightmares, even if the monsters in them are usually me and not external toothy beasts. Most of them have felt uneasy, dubious, as if I'm making fatal mistakes but won't find out the consequences for months or years. One of these involved a good friend who splits his time between England and Minnesota who's asked me in the past to come and visit him during the times of year he's in the U.S. I've never met him in person and am very eager to. When I woke up from the dream about him, I had the craziest itch to get to Minnesota, like, that week, to sit in his quiet house and stare out at the land he owns.

It occurred to me that maybe the big reason I'd been feeling yucky was that I was mostly looking at a screen of some kind all day every day, or potentially taking a break from such screens to look at the building across the courtyard from my own building. There's a decent amount of nature in my daily view, trees and hummingbirds and whatnot, but 90% of my day-to-day is human-made. My Montana trip reinforced to me more strongly than ever that nature matters to me, that I need to be around the earth and sky - both bigger than me - to be ultimately happy.

Well, the ocean is bigger than me. And it's a lot closer than Minnesota. And I haven't seen the Pacific since...God, 2001? Has it been that long? So I put on some sunscreen and drove down to Malibu, which is the closest piece of coastline to where I live in L.A.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Which Reminds Me of a Story

Over Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, I wrote a long story, nearly 10,000 words, that fits together some ideas I've been percolating for months or years. Something central and sad that I've noticed about the world and how we behave in it. A story idea I'd had for so long that I'd gotten impatient with myself about having not written it. Smaller observations and ideas, all important to me and nagging from my notes books to be written, that somehow hooked together as I wrote.

I also tore down the wall between fiction and specifics of my own experience, putting my own childhood dresser into my narrator's bedroom and my own opinion of FJ Cruisers into a character's brain. I've always tried to skirt doing this, because I don't want people making assumptions about what's in my head due to what's in my fiction, but it becomes an elaborate problem to be inspired by my own life but to try really hard to disguise it, more tiring than the main issue of writing the story. So I gave up on striking the right balance and just wrote what was there.

I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I spent about seven hours on the story on Wednesday (after putting in a workday). And I knew there was a good 2,000 words of it that wouldn't stay, that even as I was writing I knew were the wrong words. Probably I'll have to do a lot more difficult work on it. But I think I've really got something here. It's the first time in yonks - if I'm honest, the first time I remember since 2003 - that I've written something setting forth a clear intellectual idea in which I believe. (As opposed to a story idea, that is.)

I fooled with it a bit on Thursday, cutting out a bunch and rewriting a bunch. Trying and failing to sit back in my chair and look at it objectively; hoping before I went to sleep at night that I hadn't been too much influenced by the Wallace stories I've been reading over the last two weeks. I'm going to give it at least a week, preferably two, before I look at it again.

Part of the reason this story feels so different (and it feels like a total sea change) from what I've been writing in the last two or ten years is that, thanks to the Wallace stories, I stopped thinking about standard technique. I watched a video of him reading from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and discovered that the "And but so"-and-similar tic that he uses at the beginning of many sentences sort of runs together into a mush of connective words when it comes out of his mouth. I'd read it as the same disguised formalism that earmarks most of his work, but having now heard it, I wonder if all along he's just imagined he's telling us these stories. As a bard in the king's court.

Hence I gave some thought to how I talk to people, and how I write on this blog, and I realized that I like to give illustrative examples before (and while) I explain how I feel or think about something. (I simultaneously realized that it's probably sort of a bore to talk to me.) This illuminates the manuscript for me - makes it easier to get my point across and adds verity to whatever point it may be. I wondered how this would translate in fiction writing, because I don't do it in fiction writing, and part of the answer is that it translates to a lot of what seems like digressions but are very much not, which for me make a piece of fiction richer (and I know for some people make it obnoxious to read). Another part of the answer is that it feels like exactly how I should have been writing short stories all along.

When I wrote this story, I tried to do two things. I wrote with the central intellectual idea firmly in mind with every single word, with the idea never once leaving my head for any single sentence. And I tried to write it the way I'd tell if it I was one of the characters. I.e. event X happened today, but event X only mattered to me and felt Y way to me because of event Z two weeks ago. And of course I made the effort to hide X and Y and Z in showing, not telling, and the showing came in the form of digressional examples. Which is why the story was almost 10,000 words in its first draft, because there are four stories leaved together and numerous digressions to show and show and show.

Instead of worrying about Omit Needless Words, I just wrote, in the voice I felt suited the character, in the style that felt like a loose pair of jeans, with a great deal of lovely crazy English. Instead of chewing my nails about not being good enough to forget the ever-clanking mechanics that turn today's wheezing literary market, I just wrote, thinking (when I thought about it) that eventually, maybe today or maybe five years from now or maybe twenty years from now, I'd write well enough to find an audience. Instead of nervously donning white gloves and treating this story as the next piece of copper I'd have to shine to perfection, I just wrote. And since I haven't reread this thing yet, I could be wrong, but I'm starting to wonder if (with at least a half-full toolbox, which I think I've got) this is how to do it.

Overintellectualizing is not new to me. And I've wondered kind of faintly whether it's what I've been doing since 2006 or so. But I got it in my head that writing was supposed to be meticulous and difficult and miserable if you were doing it right, and that doing it the way it felt right was going to lead to sloppiness and ignominy and cries from the audience that you didn't know what you were doing. I think it's somewhere in between: after you get the toolbox and get your head right, it's supposed to feel good.

Like sex, come to think of it. But I won't get into that today. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

They Simply Dig

My friend Dave, who is a visual artist and much, much wiser about the creative process than I am, posted a video of Louis CK talking a bit about his creative maturation on my Facebook wall a couple of weeks ago. I think I had previously conflated Louis CK with some vulgar-for-the-sake-of-vulgar comedian I don't like, or maybe I had just seen an act of his that was over the line for me, but anyway I had him in my head as a person whose work I had little interest in. He's started to get a lot more attention among my circles in the last few years, but I never investigated. And I waited a day or so before I watched this video. Don't make the same mistake I did; watch this now. I know it's 10 minutes long, but watch it.

After I saw this, I knew I had to blog about it. Because this is a central worry for me, that at some point I'll have used up all my ideas and be left with nothing. So I keep believing in trunk stories, fiddling with them and polishing them and sending them out, instead of writing new stories.

This is wrong. This is the complete wrong thing to do. The only way to do work is to do reams of it, to write and perform an entirely new comedy special every year, to dig deeper and deeper and deeper until you're sure there's nothing left. That's when you find your best stuff, the stuff that distinguishes you from the eight zillion other comedians out there, and that's when you go forward.

I know exactly how lost and resentful and terrified Louis CK felt when faced with Carlin's process. The old stuff, the fifteen-year-old jokes, it all feels so valuable. I clutch the old stories to me with sheer panic at the idea that they're disposable. They felt like the best I can do, and how can I just throw out the best of me?

But creative work has to be disposable for it to get better, and the best I can do is way, way ahead of me. That's the lesson I'm assembling this year. Even if it's a lesson some of you reading this learned long ago, and you think me very silly and creatively immature for just getting it now, you've got to be patient and understand that it's a total head-spinning epiphany for me. I have to trash everything before I can unearth what I really have to say. There's a reason Louis CK just kept getting bigger and bigger - he was getting better and better, along with doing his own stuff more and more strongly instead of jokes that could be anybody's jokes.

And the thing I've been repeating like a mantra, as if I can make myself believe it if I repeat it enough times, is that you can't use up all your ideas. That human life is so rich and so wide that even if I thought I'd put everything I had into one story, I can put everything I have into another story I write next year and it'll be completely different. And not only that, you can still mine the same thing in innumerable ways. Tiny Beautiful Things, heck, Strayed's entire career, is proof of that. Very little that she's written has not looped back to her mother somehow, and yet it's all worth reading.

Those trunk stories? Sure, they've been polished to a high shine, but they're only copper. The gold is still ahead. That's what you get when you dig deeper.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Spitting in the Male Eyeball

Although MovieBob, the reviewer for The Escapist, and I do not always see eye to eye, I started taking him seriously when he released a review for Sucker Punch back in spring 2011. Not unconditionally, but strongly, I loved that movie. I was able to nail down most of why in a review I wrote at the time, and MovieBob helped me to see the rest.

For some reason, Bob has decided the time is right to re-defend Sucker Punch, and he's doing so in two separate episodes of The Big Picture (a feature that digs beyond review to analysis, and is often not to my taste). The second one was released today. Here are parts one and two, and because I realized I had a lot more to say than Facebook comments would permit, here is my original review/defense of Sucker Punch, tarted up a bit for its grand re-release.

Spoilers below.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Is a Man Not Entitled to the Sweat of His Brow?

Over the past week, I played the game Bioshock from start to finish. (On Easy mode.) For all my big talk about geekdom and video games, I don't actually play video games often at all. The last time I played was, oh, 2007? 2008? when the RPG Oblivion was new. I played that for hours and hours, and loved it. But I grew so invested in the nature of play that my emotions got way out of control, and I had to stop. Generally I sit and spectate while Matt plays, often very helpfully adding feedback. ("No, go over there first...what is that thing? Oh, it's just a floor light, never mind.")

I've watched him play a lot of games that were unique or interesting or worth thinking about, but almost none of them have I desired to play myself. I wish I could have played all three Uncharted games from start to finish, but they're quite long and I think the combat would have pissed me off. The Gears of War series is fascinating, but although I could discuss its meticulous bar-raising within the context of gaming for a long while, I don't think it really has cultural import outside of that context, and anyway it's so damn bloody that I don't even like watching it, much less playing. I'd probably like the Fable series, but I never really got into the stories when Matt went through them.

Bioshock, on the other hand, enchanted me from its first moments. Its premise is that an engineer industrialist named Andrew Ryan (whose shared initials with Ayn Rand are not a coincidence) built a city, Rapture, at the bottom of the sea, and attempted to create a society of supermen there using genetic engineering and the sheer force of his will. You, the player, make your way down to Rapture after a plane crash, and hijinks ensue. (There are many more aspects to the story and structure of this game, but I'm selecting the ones that made me fall in love with it.)

The game is almost a whole piece of art in its visual design, imagineered to the very smallest detail, an Art Deco paradise that has been wrecked by seawater and greed. Its beauty utterly mesmerizes me. Beyond that, the mechanics of the game are superb, the gameplay is endlessly diverting, and the story delves into philosophical issues that turn the very act of playing a video game entirely on its head. I won't call it flawless, but it's the finest piece of work that I've ever seen Matt play.

I decided to play it myself for two reasons: 1) the ghost of Rapture just won't leave me alone, its beauty and mystery and madness, and I can hardly command Matt to play it for me again; and 2) the third Bioshock game is being released early next year (supposedly; the release date has already been pushed back) and I want to play it. I was pretty sure I would suck badly at the game, and at first I did, but I got used to using the controller quickly enough and on Easy mode, it's pretty hard to die. For the record, shooting splicers in the face with my grenade launcher never got old.

Even though in real life, Rapture would be terrifying and dangerous (and, of course, impossible), during the hours I spent there this week, I constantly had that same looping feeling that I have when I read Harry Potter: I never want to leave this place. I just want to walk around in the environs of Rapture for days and days, looking at the advertisements and the wreckage and the remnants of the beauty that was. I want to imagine it's possible that such a place could ever have been built, even if petty human urges ruined it. I want to stay here forever.

And that, my darlings, is effective world-building.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Empty Vessel

Like all other things, I've found that blogging is cyclical. For a while I'll have nothing to write about, and then suddenly I have a rush of topics, too many to do in a single post or even a single week of posts. There are four different ideas in my draft queue to write about, along with a post cannibalized from previous material that is suddenly relevant again.

So, topic #1 for today. In my previous post I mentioned that Matt drew out something from me about what I prefer in heroes that is apparently unlike most readers. I marveled at it for hours afterward because I'd never sketched this difference so cleanly before. We were talking about main characters, and I told him that it's always bothered me how the main character has to be the superhero of the story. Why do we have to read about the apocalypse from the POV of the guy who saved the world? There are so many stories out there about this particular apocalypse, and the story of the guy who saved the world is going to be part of the history books anyway. Why not hear some of the more obscure stories? I want to read them. The writer can choose to write about anybody, after all.

I told him that the type of main character I'd always wanted most to read about was someone like Lucy Pevensie from the Chronicles of Narnia. She didn't have any special powers; she wasn't a keen archer like Susan or a great leader like Peter or especially clever like Edmund. She was smart enough, and brave, and honest, and had a good heart, but none of those things set her so strongly apart that she was the superhero of the story. Yet she was the central narrator of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I loved her dearly. Still do.

For so many reasons. I could give you a dozen examples of moments where I identified with her, wanted to weep or celebrate with her, admired her for her cool head or her compassion. For instance: when she decides to explore the wardrobe, she leaves the door open behind her, because she knows it's very foolish to shut oneself in a wardrobe. This utterly sensible instinct endeared her to me instantly. (Of course, Edmund is not so sensible.)

This is where I'd put a picture of Lucy if I could draw.
Google Images only turned up photographs of Georgie Henley,
who is all wrong because she isn't blond.
(Sorry, Georgie.) 

I always want my heroines to be like Lucy. She doesn't have any overarching motivation other than to explore, be with people she likes, and do the right thing. She's instantly relatable because her superpowers are nonexistent; she's just a little girl who does her best.

In the course of explaining all this, I looked at our bookshelves, and saw that a lot of the books I hold dearest have heroes like this, and a lot of the books that everyone else loves have central characters steeped in exceptionalism. Holes, for instance, has the most singularly ordinary hero I can think of, and I am deeply enamored of that book. Conversely, The Hunger Games tells the story of the girl who not only defeated all of her foes, but did her part to topple an evil empire. Bag of Bones is about just, you know, this writer. Ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, with pretty subtle motivations at first. But Harry Potter is the ideal example of the central superhero - he's the most unique person in his entire universe. Although Harry moves me (since he, too, is always only trying his best in a hard world), I've always had a bigger soft spot for Ron Weasley. He is the non-Harry. (And Hermione, of course, whose superpower is BOOKS.) Why do I love Samwise so much more than Frodo? And Legolas so much more than Aragorn? They're along for the ride; their goodness sees them through, but they're not driven the way the superheroes are. And Superman? He's the most boring character in all of Christendom.

Yeah, yeah. Sell it to somebody else, sweet cheeks. 

This is why, in writing the [non-]horror novel, I accidentally made the sidekick more interesting than the main character. I wanted the main character to be a Lucy Pevensie, brave and smart and trying her best, but not pushed by any distinct motivation other than what was forcing her hand. I wanted readers to replace her with themselves, to hope for the best and admire her instincts and imagine how they would react. I failed to understand that a) fictional main characters need more of a motivation than "get through this in one piece", whether trapped in a lodge or trapped in their own lives, and b) non-me people enjoy reading about the superhero, not the empty vessel.

So one of the two biggest changes I'm making in the rewrite is to reinvent her as the superhero. I cringe to do it, because it always seems like...a coincidence, you know? As if it just so happens that the person you started with on this journey is the most important person in the book. Nay, the most important person in the world. All the books that start out with the central character on an ordinary day at college and wind up with the central character clinging to the bottom of a supersonic helicopter and shooting at terrorist dolphins (is there a book where that happens? Maybe I should write one) seem like they're the documentarian who got lucky by focusing on the ONE girl among hundreds who went from Miss Teen Podunk Hills to Miss Teen America.

Leaving aside beauty pageants, this was an important writing lesson to me. Even though I don't always want to read books about the superhero, they're certainly the most popular ones, and the ones I should probably try to write at this point in my nonexistent career as a novelist. I think that ties back to uncompromising art; my friend Max left a comment on my Facebook link to that blog post saying that maybe what people do is they compromise the art to get published/funded/whatever, and then they write the stuff that's really bizarre and awesome, once they have an audience. I thought petulantly of a bunch of examples where this didn't happen, where the art was what it was from day one and no one had to compromise to put it out there. But then I learned that the Beatles did this exact thing. And thought of a ton of examples of radical artists compromising a little bit (didn't even have to be a lot!) at first to be able to stride forward into experimental wonderfulness. So score one for Max. Where the line is between compromise and whoring oneself I think is a more complex question, and different for every artist, but it's not today's post.

Although today's post certainly did tangent a lot. Speaking of which, visual-art friends, can one of you draw me a picture of someone hanging off the bottom of a supersonic helicopter shooting at terrorist dolphins? Because as much as I wanted to be able to draw a picture of Lucy Pevensie as I see her, the image of grizzled terrorist dolphins with bandannas and cigars clutched between their teeth and souped-up AK-47s in their flippers...I don't think I've ever wished quite so badly that I could draw.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bookworm Report

I can't think of anything big and thematic to write about today, so just some short updates. Mostly about books.

--Over the weekend I read Chelsea Cain's Heartsick. I discovered her through the modern-day Bloomsbury that is a certain Portland writers' group, one which includes Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chuck Palahnuik (to whom I do not cotton as a writer, but whom I respect), Monica Drake, Cain herself, and others. When I discovered that Cain wrote contemporary thrillers, I was shocked, because I thought it would be crazy hard to be a thriller writer in a writers' group including high-literary folks. I suddenly had a hundred questions for her about how she coped with this, emotionally and practically, but I knew I could never even get to the point of writing her a fan letter, much less asking her for advice, unless I actually, um, read her books. So I started with Heartsick, the first in the series, and - I never say this unless it's true - I couldn't put it down. It was SO FUCKING GOOD. If you like thrillers, or if you don't really like thrillers but you like reading about serial killers (me), or if you liked The Silence of the Lambs (also me), read this book. I mean it. Get hold of it today. Beats The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by a country mile.

--I also finished off two books lent to me by a friend: The Hunger Games and The Glass Castle. I know I'm a weeeee bit behind the zeitgeist on both of these books, but I think that's good, because I didn't love either one. It's a bit nuts that I didn't like The Hunger Games, because I still carry Feed around in my head every damn day of my life and I loved the Uglies series, but stylistically it was so plain that I felt you could barely distinguish it from journalism, and I really didn't want to read journalism about Battle Royale. And I was put off by its intended audience. I am not so naive as to think that kids can't handle shit as intense as this (I read The Shining before I was ten), but this book seemed way over the top, kind of on purpose, for reasons I don't really understand. I hypothesize that Collins initially wrote it for adults, but publishers or somebody told her that adults don't want to read about teenagers (which is crap, but seems a pervasive notion), so she recast it, and the people who took it on were all "ooh, it's over-the-top for kids, we'll get a lot of attention, let's do it!" Perhaps not. It's just a guess.

The Glass Castle seemed lesser than the sum of its parts. It read like a long string of going-nowhere stories, the winding tale of the writer's upbringing, and they didn't really build to anything except "Wow, what a shitty childhood." Sure, it's redemptive that she made it out and got a degree from Barnard and found success in the end, but I didn't feel anything driving the narrative (except the need to record it all) until about 3/4 of the way through.

--And I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter. If you have a daughter or were ever a young girl, oh, read this. I have a lot of love for the author, Peggy Orenstein, who wrote me back after I wrote her a fan letter for the essay that ultimately became this book, but it's not just that. This is an extraordinary, necessary book, and it shoved me a few steps further down the path of belief that marketing and advertising agencies are altering the shape of our days and months and years and lives in ways that are akin to human rights violations.

--I've been reading kind of a lot in the last few weeks.

--Yesterday I bought a Nook. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I hate almost everything about ebooks (the sole shining advantage is the lack of storage space necessary. There's also the (insane) fact that data seems more permanent than physical objects in our current century, which is only sort of an advantage and more just awful), but I looked at the Nook display and all the people buzzing around it for a long, long time when we were at B&N on Monday. I felt this settling sensation inside me and decided it was time.

I picked Nook over Kindle despite my devotion to Amazon (and Prime membership, and all sorts of other good reasons) because the internet told me that Kindles have ADVERTISEMENTS, which I am NOT DOING in ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. NOT. I read books to get away from that excrement. So I bought a Nook. I used it a little bit yesterday, to check out a book from the library and to buy another Chelsea Cain book (on sale). I read the library book for a couple dozen pages and it wasn't that bad. I liked the experience of reading it pretty well, even if I don't think much of the book so far.

The thing I would really like is if ebooks and paper books could exist in the same market. There are books I'd rather hold in my hand to read, and books I'd be happy to carry around with me in an electronic gadget. I'll bet there are lots of readers like that out there, and that their preferences as to which books are which are very different from mine. So it would be great if we could just have both. But the current model of book publishing simply won't sustain, and it seems that ebooks are exactly the catalyst needed for a total industry overhaul. So maybe paper books will go.

See, even Darth Motherfucking Vader hates ebooks

--Matt talked patiently with me for nearly two hours a few nights ago about the [non-]horror book. We talked widely and generally about creative work and its pitfalls and perils, and we talked quite specifically about what I should do with the book. He helped me to discover something pretty amazing about the kind of hero I like to read about (compared with the kind of hero everybody else apparently likes to read about), something that I think will propel me into the second version of this book.

I liked the book the way it was, but after talking and thinking it over, I'm going in a completely new direction. Away from murky cross-genre and toward adventure; away from an unlikable and unspecial heroine and toward a more traditional one. (With actual motivation!) Those of you who read All Available Time will barely recognize this next version (I hate to call it a draft, since rewriting it nearly from scratch doesn't feel like a goddamn draft) when I'm finished with it. If you, too, liked it the way it was, let's electronically put our heads together and weep for it. Then I'll get started on it all over again.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

I Am Not a Poet

the moon is hidden by that tree
where the hummingbirds fly home

I return to "her bloodstained hair"
(a refrain that lives with no purpose)
and the city - the city - the boundless tiny city
where I have lived so little and dreamed so much

words die in my mouth

the heart of a woman is no bigger than
the heart of another creature -
its edges hurdle the sky

and I am always turning back
to the deathless mute need in my fingers
to say
to breathe there


what more?

that dream, the hidden moon,
the crayon that traces on into the world
into the white space of our fondest nightmares

along the way are creatures great and terrible
with deathless hearts
and bloodstained hair
and tongues that flap on
like hard-hung sheets against a prairie wind

and chilly knowledge
of junkyards undiscovered