Monday, August 26, 2013

Gosling Happens Sometimes

Last week I worked hard at my money job, listened to more Ulysses (I'm on disc 10 of 22, and I was mistaken before, it isn't abridged), dyed some of my hair blue, went to an event for writers at UCLA, and ended the weekend with an atrocious, frustrating, mercurial migraine. I'm still recovering from the latter, and have no special insights on writing at the moment, so instead I'm just going to post this gif which makes me happy and call it good. Hopefully I'll have more to say later in the week; classes start today.

Video here. I love in the video how he just kinda totes her up to the podium. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ulysses and Other Adventures

I have lots to say about what I'm reading lately.

First, two books that seem to have been written with me specifically in mind: 1) William Shakespeare's Star Wars, by Ian Doescher, is a retelling of A New Hope in [largely] Elizabethan language, in iambic pentameter, WITH. SONNETS. "Red Six doth stand by." Star Wars and Shakespeare are two of my most favorite things - like, up there with chocolate lava cakes and sleeping - so that someone combined them in an intelligent, delightful way is a gift beyond price.

And 2), Gods Like Us, a history of movie stardom by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr. I don't exaggerate when I say that this is a book I've been wanting to read since I was a junior in college, even though it was only published last fall. Among the hats it wears, it's a critical examination of celebrity, its history and development from Florence Lawrence up to the present day. The field of star studies, a miniature niche of film criticism to be sure, has fascinated me since before I knew it existed. This book feeds my need. It's lively and informative and I'm going to write him a fan letter when I'm through.

A couple of weeks ago, I plowed through The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's novel in stories about Vietnam. I have a weak constitution when it comes to art about Vietnam (my father is a vet), and I kind of wish that I'd been able to get through life without having to consume this particular piece of art. But I couldn't. And I read it. And I'm not sorry I read it, but it was somewhat an unpleasant chore, if a fascinating book.

Plus I read less than 50 pages of a book called The People of Paper and gave up. Not for me.

And I read Innocence, by Jane Mendelsohn, which is a late-YA fever dream of a novel. It was quick, and very beautifully written, and was wrapped around an allegory that is well worth contemplation by a large audience of smart young women. But I wanted more concreteness out of it, and I wanted a good deal less emotional wallowing. It, the tough time I had reading Spinelli's Love, Stargirl, and my utter indifference to a book called Chime by Franny Billingsley that was made much of, have forced me to consider (and worry over) the idea that YA no longer appeals to me as much as it once did. Which would be a real shame, if true.

Along with the stars (movie and Wars), at present I'm listening to an audiobook version of Ulysses, which I've never read. It was suggested to me at Esalen that listening to the audio version of this kahuna allows the listener an easier time with the language of the book than reading it. Although only one-seventh of the way through the book (three discs out of 22), I can wholeheartedly endorse this. I downloaded the Gutenberg text onto my e-reader so I could go over some of the passages I didn't quite understand, and I was amazed at how much more complex and obtuse some of the text seemed on the page, when I got the meaning easily enough in hearing it.

The version I'm listening to has been abridged (but I'm not sure that's such a bad thing) and is read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, who are both totally astonishing. Norton has the larger part, and he sings and chants and meows and takes on brogues gamely. But Riordan arguably has the more difficult task: she reads the part of Molly Bloom, both throughout the regular text and for the long stream of consciousness section that closes the novel.

I may eat these words in the end, but at the moment I'm having the same reaction to Ulysses that I had to some of Dubliners: beautiful language, Joyce is obviously the Orson Welles of 20th century literature, but I have no idea why I should care about these characters or what happens to them. I admire it, but it's failing to move me or even involve me much except in little bits, here and there. How stark a contrast I find between it and The Sound and the Fury - which is stylistically almost a riff on Ulysses, but which held a lot more depth for me.

On a not-really-related note, I watched Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest last week. Some of my reactions to it were completely unexpected, i.e. I thought Russell Brand was amazingly good and Helen Mirren kind of dull and flat. (!!!) The MVP was definitely the costume designer. The Tempest is a weird play, and I've yet to find it as compelling as its ideas in any interpretation I've seen (although perhaps I've just been unlucky), so I can't blame anyone involved in this rendering for falling a bit short. They filmed it on Kauai, which the Bard may as well have had in mind when he wrote the play, and Taymor's idiosyncratic style was not at all misplaced. But it just didn't gel.

Ahead is Jincy Willett's book of short stories Jenny and the Jaws of Life. And some writer-type activities, too, a writer's "faire" at UCLA next weekend and some laborious revision. And classes starting. Yeah, that.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Grad School, Here I Come

So I start classes in just over a week. I'm attending Cal State Northridge, which is about 10 minutes away, and I'm taking prerequisite classes to qualify for grad school there.

Back in May, I decided that I wanted to get a graduate degree. This was the culmination of a long process, and in fact over the summer I drafted and re-drafted a lengthy post explaining this decision and what it's about for me and all the things I considered. The more I edited the post, the more I hated it, so I decided to chuck it and just explain in two sentences, as above. I didn't study English much at all at the college level, aside from Shakespeare, and it's grounding that I'd like to have (and which I increasingly think I need) while moving forward as a writer. Since I don't have an English BA, I have to take enough high-level English classes to equate an English major before I can apply for the MA program.

I don't know if I'm going to continue on this path, whether I'll take a semester or two of these prereqs and change my mind, ending with life-choice-egg on my face the way I have numerous times before; whether I'm going to sign up for a program at UCLA instead (more on that shortly); whether I'll spend the next four years slogging through and wind up choking on the failure of my thesis, the way I did in undergrad. But I'm starting, anyway, on August 26, and we'll just have to see what happens.

Cal State Northridge is very near me, with no traffic to speak of. UCLA is half an hour away as the crow flies, but that distance is hard ground in terms of freeway traffic. There's a big program there called UCLA Extension, which I think resembles a community college. UCLA Extension has a writers' program, which is pretty detailed and sort of self-contained. You can get a certificate there, which looks to me like it's a mini-graduate degree, but Extension is open enrollment, so I assume it's only somewhat like the real thing.

The people who teach in this program are people I recognize: the editors of litmags to which I've submitted, the authors of short stories (or books) that I've enjoyed. (Francesca Lia Block, a sort-of hero of mine, teaches a course on YA fiction.) Because of my student status at Cal State Northridge, there's no way I'm getting into any of the writing classes there, so I went on and signed up for a basic-level fiction workshop at UCLA Extension instead. Its instructor is Jim Gavin, who was a Stegner fellow and whose story in Zoetrope was one of those rare litmag stories I enjoyed enormously, enough to look him up. I'm pretty excited about this class.

Sidebar: Oddly, UCLA doesn't have a master's program for writers unless they are screenwriters. Neither does USC, although the latter does have a Ph.D.

After this semester's over, I hope to have an idea of where to go next. Northridge promises training in literature that I don't have, that I think I can use, while UCLA promises prime networking and actual writing training from working writers rather than professors. I don't know what to expect from the quality of each. I don't know which one I need more. But I'm really looking forward to finding out.

There's a whole lot more to this decision: the years of talking myself out of a graduate degree, why an MFA isn't right for me, the school research I did, what various famous writers have said when weighing in on the necessity of an MFA and why I think they're jerks. That was all in the post I decided not to put up. If that stuff interests you, let me know, and I'll do it as a supplement.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dissection and Deep Hurting

Last week I managed to set down one of the stories I wanted to write in August, as well as a detailed outline for the other. The outline felt good, but the first pages of the story did not feel good at all. Things went better as the days went on, and ultimately I finished a first draft on Sunday, but I think the don't wanna instinct that keeps me from writing for long swaths of time is the muscle memory of those first few pages and how lousy they feel.

I did something with this story that I don't remember doing before: opening it, word by word; flaying it, like a coroner performing an autopsy. (This is kind of a gross metaphor, but honestly, it's so apt that I don't want to find another.) I wrote pages and pages and pages - the first draft is nearly 9,000 words - of excruciating detail about the observations and sensations of my main character, rather than saying only as much as I needed to and moving on. The latter method is the way the final draft is supposed to be, omitting needless words, but I suspect that peeling back the skin so gradually, and picking up and describing every last organ, is going to help me finish with a better product. I'll have more good stuff from which to pound out the final (hopefully far shorter) version.

It was a fascinating process, too. To expand on the gross metaphor (sorry), exploratory laporoscopy is the way I usually do it: make a quick incision, poke into these characters' world, take a few notes, and leave. But with the patient on the dissection table and all the time in the world, I can discover so much more. Subcutaneous layers. Pores and capillaries. Getting the writing done as fast as possible jibes nicely with my habits, but this story didn't go that way, and it was much more rewarding for that.

One of the good things about drafting in longhand is that I have no real idea how much I've written, so I don't start getting nervous about how long (or short) it's going. One longhand page is often about 250 words, but that varies so much in reality that I can't do a real estimate until I transcribe. The pressure's off that way. I don't really get anxious about going over 10,000 or whatever until the longhand part is over.

I'm experimenting with another way of writing that's pretty much exactly the opposite of the advice I got at Esalen. Pam told us that metaphors are generally wiser than we are, and that grouping seemingly unrelated ideas together often results in thematic coherence that we can't see until the work is finished. She and other writers (Faulkner? can't remember) say that if you set out to write about An Idea, what you'll come up with is the most boring, forced, creatively devoid work possible.

Yet all the work I've produced that I like best (and that readers have considered most coherent and finished) has started with me knowing exactly what I'm up to before I begin. An essay I wrote that connected the societal value of women's safety with a personal anecdote about my apartment complex, an essay I think is really quite good -- I didn't start drafting that until I had both ideas in my notebook, until I had connected them and taken some notes about them. Even while drafting, I kept my mind on that connection with every last word I wrote and tossed out the stuff that, while good, didn't fit.

When I focus hard on the Idea behind whatever it is I'm writing, I come up with coherent work, whereas if I just try to set shit down that seems okay, I come up with multiply threaded work that, when followed to its logical conclusions, just collapses. Writers I admire say to trust inspiration, to write on through to the other side and find coherence in the process of revising. I'm working on a story right now where I did that, and I've had to pitch the draft entirely and start over with an outline (perhaps as I should have done at the outset, eh?) rather than do something that resembles revising. It's made me miserable.

The trite conclusion here is that every writer works differently, and what makes your creation process go smooth might make somebody else's halt completely. Another possible conclusion is that next year I'll be in this space talking about how outlines don't work at all for me anymore and freewriting is the only way to go. Ah well. I just want to draw attention to the idea that no writing advice is perfect for everyone. Not even mine.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Haters Gonna Hate, Bullies Gonna Bull, Trolls Gonna Tro

Note: the links and video in this post are full of expletives and adult content - some of it vile, some of it hilarious. FYI. 

The end of July brought pretty lame news for creatives. An indie game developer, Phil Fish, got tired of taking abuse from various corners and announced that the game he was in the process of creating was going to be cancelled and that he was leaving videogames altogether. The games industry needs developers like Fish (creatively; not perhaps personally), and it's pretty ridiculous that haters drove him out.

He really just needed to look at this chart by Ann Friedman (click to embiggen).
It makes things so CLEAR. 

This article on the Penny Arcade Report is one of the best I ever expect to read about the ways in which superfluous negative criticism - a.k.a. trolling - subtracts from our lives. The toxicity of trolls feels to me like a kind of cosmic blowback from the no-tolerance-for-bullying thing that's swept American schools for the past few years. We'll just take it to the internet, the bullies bellow; you can't stop us there.

I was bullied a little bit in middle school. The thing I learned from this experience (along with "middle school sucks") is that nothing fucking works. Ignoring them doesn't work, because they escalate. Reporting them doesn't work, because they will find you alone, and they'll escalate until they get your attention. Responding in kind doesn't work, because then you're a jerk too. Plus, they escalate, and you'll both get bloody noses. Making them think usually doesn't work, because people don't bully with their brains. Humiliating them from your place on the high road is pretty much the only thing I know that works, and hoo mama is it tricky.

Upsetting as it was at the time, I remember only sketches of the bullying I underwent then. I remember better something that happened in a community college bookstore about five years ago. I had come straight from work, and I was wearing a button-down shirt that I liked a lot. It had wide, vertical black-and-white stripes, and the black was a little distressed and arty.

Two bookstore employees hanging around in the aisle made fun of me for wearing a shirt that looked like a referee's. Actually made fun of me, exactly the way you'd make fun of your little sister for a stupid-looking ponytail if you were ten. I was so amazed that this was possible in adult life that I muttered "thank you" several times (??) and got the fuck out of there. This still bothers me from time to time, not because they hurt my feelings and made me stop wearing that shirt forever after, but because it seemed so colossally dumb and bizarre to ridicule a grown woman, a stranger, for her clothing. What the hell were they thinking? Why??

Matt has tried to explain to me that trolls have a different thought process than you and me. That "why" doesn't really enter into it. That all they want is a reaction, any kind of reaction. Returning their abuse, killing them with kindness, and deletion all offer them satisfaction. Because each shows that you wasted a thought on them. Leaving aside how little I understand this, I find it pretty pathetic. Like Honey Boo Boo. A desperation for attention so all-devouring that it lowers every one of us into the muck.

On my last morning at Esalen, I had breakfast with a couple of ladies I hadn't talked to much before. One of them was around my age and the other was around my mom's age. I don't remember how it came into conversation, but I said that I didn't know how much of my motivation to write well and succeed should come from "I'll show 'em all." The woman my age nodded fervently, clearly grokking it even without what I was about to say, the explanation I was about to give: there are so many people I've encountered whom I want to look defiantly in the eye when I shake hands with an agent, or pick up the Sharpie to sign yet another book, or accept my National Book Award (and while I'm dreaming, I'd like a pony). So many people I think of when I write a really fine sentence and think See, fuck you, I'm worthwhile, and you'll be sorry you crossed me.

But even before I said any of that, the woman my mom's age said "Not even one bit of it. Don't waste your energy on showing anybody. People you have to show aren't worth a moment of effort."

She said it with such conviction. I'd heard this message before, but hadn't heeded it, as it's always seemed a bit like communism. A nice principle, but not one that is applicable in the petty, muddy, bloodily competitive human life I generally lead. Rugby on a rainy day doesn't coax the finest, highest thoughts out of most players. I've been using "I'll show 'em all" to motivate me from time to time, because I figure that at least it's something to motivate me, rather than just muddling about and hoping for the best. But the woman seemed to speak from experience. And the idea of showing 'em all does leave me kind of empty at the end of the day.

Of course, there's stuff like this (NSFW, but a must-watch):

I think "Thank You, Hater!" is a one-off, and taking this amount of time and energy to respond to trolls is really not a good idea on a regular basis. But oh, is it ever satisfying to watch.

Speaking of satisfying, if you ask me, Parker/Stone are kind of the last word on this whole question of what to do about people who tear you down for no apparent reason - bullies, haters, trolls, lesser rappers. This whole episode from season 16, "Butterballs," is worth watching for its insight on bullying, but this bit, at the end, is one of those moments that sticks after the satire fades.

If only Phil Fish could have seen this and taken it to heart before he gave up on his endeavors. Before he let them win.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Operation Read Less (no, really)

The other day I unsubscribed to a blog I've been following for something like four years. It wasn't a mentally taxing blog to read, as it was a one-outfit-a-day fashion blog, but the updates were just too frequent and I found myself getting annoyed, rather than pleased, every time I clicked on a link for it.

This isn't a tragedy. Interests come and go. People change. As an unfortunate number of tattooed folk learn, passions bloom and fade. I feel a little sad that I'm not into her blog anymore, but I don't have to make excuses to her about how I spend my time.

A few weeks ago I made an incredibly vague resolution: stop reading so much stuff on the internet. I seemed to be spending half my waking hours skimming essays and reading articles and looking at scrolly picture-posts on Buzzfeed. When I was in the middle of a good book, or a good Netflix week, I had less time for this stuff. Yet if there was nothing else to do but work or the dishes, there I was, back on Slate, reading articles that didn't interest me very much. Back on Facebook, clicking on links I knew weren't my thing at all.

I just didn't want to miss anything. In case a link that looked kind of eh turned out to be the little sparkle that jumped into my life and rearranged everything. In case Slate ended up posting something that I could respond to and get an essay published. In case Buzzfeed miraculously put up that animated gif of Christof looking self-important from The Truman Show that I desperately want someone to make for me.

Image searches only ever turn up Christof looking serious

It dawned on me at Esalen, when I hardly missed this shit at all: This is so not how I want to live, sludging through a swamp of mediocre media to feed my fear that I'll miss something.

So for the last few weeks, I've been trying to consume less on purpose. Before I click, I say really? is that really how I want to spend the next ten minutes? Because my notebook is right over there, not yet completely full of my words. That upon which I sit encompasses a bunch of flab that might improve in tone by putting that ten minutes into the treadmill instead. There are things I could learn how to cook, books in my apartment that I haven't yet read. There are mixtapes to download and hell, there's even usually laundry to do. Laundry is better than another passel of words that's going to mean nothing to me in an hour. It actually is.

I love the internet. I love my computer. Nevertheless, I kind of hate sitting in my desk chair at this point, because I sit in it around eleven hours a day. It's the same damn sit all day long, and yet for many months now I've been doing the opposite of trying to reduce the amount of time I spend there.

Instead of doing my work in one big chunk and walking away to live my life - which is after all how I lived before I started working at home, even if there was a lot less of my life to go around a given week - I'm doing it in little stutters, dribs and drabs of work combined with Facebook-checking and YouTubing and looking up random shit that floats into my head on Wikipedia. I do not know why I do this, except that I think the freedom of working at home makes me a bit self-destructive.

I want to believe you so bad, awesome vintage lady 

If the little shit, the flotsam of articles and Wikipedia and the lightsaber sound that means I have a new e-mail, really mattered, I'd still remember to do it after I was done with work. But the pattern of multitasking, of swapping back and forth between the work and the play, has been so firmly ingrained that I'm having to relearn, laboriously, how to stop doing it. Even while I was writing this, I had to stop myself from clicking tabs over to Facebook, to see if something new had been posted in the last 15 minutes.

EVEN IF IT HAS, SO WHAT?? I want to scream at the impulsive repulsive destructive part of my brain that compels me to do this. YOU WILL LIVE WITHOUT SEEING THAT BLUE BORDER FOR HALF A FUCKING HOUR. YOU ARE CONCENTRATING. KEEP CONCENTRATING UNTIL YOUR WORK IS DONE.

So. The consumption has to stop. I don't have a ceiling, like I will only read seven articles a day or I will only watch three videos a day or whatever, it's just a chaos level that I can feel, I can tell when it's going too high. And circumspection is the watchword. Taking that extra moment before clicking to think really? because your time is actually precious, you know has made an enormous difference. Time will tell if I succeed at the actual defragging of my time into work and play. I hope I can gather all the fragments back together to make a little more room in my brain.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Writing Not-Nothing

Over the last week I did manage to write some. I outlined stories that hadn't worked out on their first go-round, in the hope that I can squinch my eyes and grimace and rewrite them from scratch. I also wrote 1,500 words on a hadn't-worked-out story in Lark Mode (as in "on a"), with results that I found interesting but possibly worthless. I also wrote about two sentences on a story that I've been brewing for weeks but haven't found the courage to write just yet. (Two sentences isn't nothing...) And I spent inordinate hours revising a story that's, oh, four years old? I revised and rewrote so heavily that it's probably only got a few dozen words in common with its original draft. It fits nicely with a theme issue for a mag that I admire, so I hope my revisions work out.

Presuming the trend of writing not-nothing continues for a couple of weeks at least, I'm not sure what to do with my time. The wikibook is what should be on my plate, but my enthusiasm for it is at an all-time low. (Although - if you've ever thought up clever names for Xbox achievements, and you don't have anything to do with them, I will gladly take them off your hands. 50¢ per.) I have two stories in mind right now to fill this time, both of them literary, but they both just look like a lot of work. Neither seems urgent or fun.

Part of the problem is that my daily schedule is engineered at present to keep the most productive hours of the day for money-work. For now, I guess this is as it should be, because [long explanation of 2013 finances]. But I wish I could swap it around.

I have three blog posts in the pipe for you. None of them is idle crap like this. But I'm never sure if my thinky posts are more or less interesting/enjoyable to readers than the idle ones. Feminism posts don't do so well, but other than that, the stats are inconclusive.

Oh, and this is happening. As long as this is single-player DLC, I'll play it until I go blind. NOIR. RAPTURE. KAT DIE HAPPY.