I got interested in David Bowie through the side door. As a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Bowie was an unseen influence on most of my life. These were the post-“Under Pressure” years, post-Let’s Dance, the Tin Machine years, where he sort of simmered as cultural force, became a family man, dialed down the weirdness of his ’70s heyday, but before beginning to seriously dabble in dance hall electronica. I was surrounded by Bowie, but had no idea who he was. I’d heard his songs, but had no idea they were his. (This happened to me later with The Velvet Underground, as well. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m painfully poorly educated in music for someone who claims to be a musician or even music fan.) I knew that “Rebel, Rebel” was one of my mom’s favorite songs, at least in the late ’80s.
It remained this way probably until my first two years in college, when Heathen had just been released, and hailed as yet another instant classic in the Bowie catalog. (By this point I was dimly aware that this was A Big Deal.) This didn’t do much for me, personally, but my friends and roommates were falling over themselves listening to it. Not long after, Wes Anderson’s The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou was released, and we all went to the Fargo Theatre to see it, and I was absolutely destroyed by the Bowie covers performed by Seu Jorge (Check them out here.) These were songs that transcended arrangement and language. I was hooked.
Not long after, I bought my first Bowie album, Ziggy Stardust, in quad–despite not having a quad player or even surround setup–from the now-defunct Vinyl Connection in Fargo. Then came “Heroes” (purchased after a rather long Bowie/Eno digression in Warren Ellis’ column/book Do Anything). I keep saying that book changed my life, and I still can’t say that it hasn’t.
Probably should note this is just the vinyl. Still working on it.
I think what appeals to me about David Bowie’s work is the sheer range of it. The man is pretty much myth at this point, but his long-standing reputation as musical chameleon is well-deserved. Space rock, proto-punk, glam, electronic, jazz, it’s a 50-year-long documentation of Western pop music before it happened. And nobody he worked with was anything less a genius than Bowie. His producers (Nile Rodgers, Tony Visconti, et al.), studio musicians (Brian Eno, Mike Garson, Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey, Stevie Ray Vaughen, Mick Ronson, etc.), collaborators (Alexander McQueen, Iggy Pop, Trent Reznor, Lou Reed, Queen, Mick Jaggar, and on and on) were all partners, influences, and architects with him without ever taking the pure Bowie-ness out of his work.
The scandals he seemed to incite and the rumors that surrounded him made him a fellow weirdo, and despite being rich as fuck and in a life I could never inhabit, he was a bizarre artistic astronaut that was still accessible. In writing, there’s the idea of making the main character so featureless that readers can imagine themselves in the role. Bowie was so detailed in all his personae that he was anybody. Instead of being no one, he was everyone. He was a mod; he was a drugged-out rock star; he was a punk; he was a straight-laced family man (as much as one can be with a life with Iman); he was heretic; he was saint. And through it all, that paralyzed iris and wonky smirk dug into the same part of your brain-heart that holds family holiday memories and emotions about the first person you fucked. You knew you were home.
It’s probably fitting that Blackstar is his final album. The LP package is a dour black affair, recalling Spinal Tap or Metallica’s Black Album. It exudes solmnity and style. The music itself is weird and slowly becomes more and more accessible. The vocals span every era of Bowie from the nasal sneer of Ziggy Stardust to the croaking, breaking falsetto of Low to the false bravado of his Plastic Soul years to the straight rock voice of the later albums. It is both grand and simple in arrangement and instrumentation. It is dense and sparse. It is intrinsically electronic and wholly acoustic. The Next Day would have been a great album to end a career on, but Blackstar is the album to end David Bowie’s career on.
And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to spin some records and cry and forget I was going to do anything at all this week.
This may come as a surprise to a certain segment of the people that know me, but I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. Specifically, in the Wisconsin Evengelical Lutheran Synod. They’re the people that Michelle Bachmann caught hell for being a member of as they’re people that believe the Pope is the antichrist. They also have a ton of beliefs that tick all sorts of boxes in “right-wing nutjob” Bingo: young-Earth creationism, misogyny (no woman is to have authority over men in the church!), deadly homophobia, an interesting relationship with Martin Luther’s vicious antisemitism, etc.
I don’t think my mom is too happy about that upbringing not really taking hold, what with me being a communist, polyamorous, bisexual queer that believes in taxation over charity (I mean, if we’re forced to remain a part of the capitalist model.) Note: I’m not actually sure how much of this paragraph my mom actually knows. I do still own two Bibles, two hymnals, and my Small Catechism. I also own four Tarot decks, an anthology of Aleister Crowley writings, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upshandis, and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and have dedicated a chapbook to Glycon, the snake god.
In any case, a few things did come about in my childhood. One important thing is the concept of Advent.
Background: The church year is, obviously, very important to members of the church. My extended family lives by counting the Sundays After Pentecost. Advent is the time of year in which Western Christians are expected to prepare themselves for the coming Christmas, to contemplate the new year that (according to the church) has just begun, to set their affairs in order to properly celebrate without distraction. The fact that it comes in the dead of winter is one of the few wonderful paradoxes–there are many not-so-wonderful paradoxes–in the Christian faith.
The solitude and peace that is supposed to come during Advent is often mixed in with other, more somber feelings. Not only is Advent a time for preparation, it is a time for reflection on the year past, to remember the cycle of life and death. The typical church service omits the Gloria section of the liturgy. A number of low-key, even dirge-like hymns get pulled out. My own church would have Thursday night services, accompanied only by piano, lit only by candlelight. (Incidentally, my mom was and still is the pianist for those services.)
So this was the part of the season that always intrigued me, this juxtaposition of somber excitement, of mournful expectation. It’s the same part of me that looks out the window on the skeletal trees, unable to tell the difference between those which still live and those that have been killed by ash-borer beetles, and tries to derive meaning. It’s a time of year that has always been uneasy for me, as we face our own mortality, alone, in the cold and snow, while simultaneously hatching the plans for the new year, which will always be better than the year previous–yet somehow rarely is.
And so this year, I’m trying something different. I’m actually celebrating Advent. Not in the Christian manner, of course. I’m pretty much a lost cause on that front. I’m giving something else a shot. I’m going to try a low-power hibernation, often suggested by Warren Ellis to recenter and get one’s brain and body ready for the coming year.
While I won’t be falling off the grid fully, I’m definitely kicking Facebook to the curb for the month of December. I’ll still (begrudginly) use their messenger app, but I’d much rather have a real, long-form dialogue with you, if you’re interested in in doing so with me. Many of my favorite creative writers were also prolific letter writers as well. So here, email me: cummings (dot) rick (at) gmail (dot) com. I’d much rather use that. Twitter: rickiep00h. These are likely the only channels I’ll be using for the month outside of text messaging (who calls people with their phones anymore?) because I have Plans Afoot.
Not only will I be reflecting on the previous year (or seven), I’m also going to be figuring out what the next stage of my life will be. I have one specific project I might be enacting, which is really a bunch of smaller projects, and will be planning out over the month. Hint: organizing/writing a poetry book is just one part of it.
So starting tomorrow, Dec. 1, I’ll be battening hatches and scurrying below decks to bathe myself in whatever liquor I can find and to eat all the oranges. Hopefully I’ll have good news come January.
Putting this up because my friend Bram E. Gieben just won a Major Award a couple weeks ago, so I figured I’d finally put this out so more people than just me know it exists.
Also, check out the netlabel he founded and runs, Black Lantern Music. Today is the release of their 100th project. It’s also their last for a while as they batten down and reorganize. But there is a shitload of music there for you to peruse. Do eet.
Interviewer: Today my guest is writer Rick Cummings, whose newest project is the website doestetrishateme.com. Well, Rick the first and most obvious question, is, I think, “Does Tetris hate me?”
Rick: Well, I don’t necessarily know your, or anyone’s, personal situation, but the answer is most likely yes, Tetris hates you.
Interviewer: Huh. I guess this was never a question I asked myself before. Is there any way you could explain how you came to this conclusion?
Rick: Well, first, I have played Tetris. So I know from first-hand experience that Tetris hates me. Second, other people have reported that Tetris hates them. While this is anecdotal, several million dollars of public university research has gone into studying the problem of Tetris’ irrational hatred of its players, and every study concludes that, while there is no known reason for it, Tetris absolutely hates you, me, and anyone else that plays it, ever.
Interviewer: I always suspected that, but I was never really sure.
Rick: Well, now, let’s be careful. We can’t let our personal confirmation biases get in the way here. Just becase have personally witnessed the viciouis hatred Tetris has for humanity doesn’t mean that it actually exists. We must point to the evidence. Without science we are simply dumb beasts, sir.
Interviewer: Oh yes of course.
Rick: Of course.
Interviewer: Of course. Can you offer any theories into how this hatred inherent to Tetris came to be?
Rick: Well, as you say, all I can offer are theories. The first, and most commonly pervasive on the internet, is that Tetris is a Communist propaganda tool meant to brainwash our children into a pointless life of efficiently stacking blocks. Ask any factory worker or Gulag prisoner what he does all day. “I stack blocks,” he will say. “All day I stack, and if I do not stack, supervisor will whip me.”
Interviewer: Well, isn’t that similar to our beautiful free capitalist society?
Rick: Ah, you’d think that, but no. You see, here in America, you have the choice to not stack and thus starve.
Interviewer: I see! Those insidious commie bastards!
Rick: Indeed! My second theory is actually predicated on the first. Once the Communists had programmed the initial hatred subroutine into Tetris, someone, possibly a disgruntled block stacker working in the basement of Tetris headquarters, inserted a short piece of Terminator code into the game. This Terminator code was left over from the main CPU of the unit destroyed by Sarah Connor in 1984–
Interviewer: Ah, I remember that!
Rick: –and so it has an unrelenting and unending hatred for all things fun. And Sarah Connor.
Interviewer: That poor woman! Hasn’t she had enough to go through?
Rick: You’d think. But she’s very good at Tetris.
Interviewer: How does this hatred manifest?
Rick: Well, pretend you’re playing Tetris.
Interviewer: [pretends to, looking quite ridiculous and holding an imaginary control pad]
Rick: Say you’re playing and you make a mistake.
Interviewer: [playing] Whoops!
Rick: That mistake is then compounded by the semi-random choices Tetris makes in order to give you the next piece.
Interviewer: [still playing] I needed a line piece, not a square!
Rick: So, while it seems that pieces are mostly random and your mistake was slight, Tetris is actually going to inevitably lead you to failure. Because it hates you.
Interviewer: [stops short, looks incredulous, then angrily:] FUCK THIS GAME! FUCKING COMMIES!
Interviewer: [hurls imaginary control pad into ground, gets up, stomps on it, marches offscreen, comes back immediately and perfectly composed]
Interviewer: So tell me, Rick, how does your new website work?
Rick: Well, that would be a trade secret, but I can tell you this much: we use a proprietary algorithm that combines multiple results from your Tetris scores, a full medical history, and a short personal essay, then throws out all those results and Trey, our webmaster, flips a coin. That coin has “Yes” written on both sides, and so the algorithm always returns “Yes” because honestly, Tetris hates everyone.
Interviewer: That seems terribly complex.
Rick: Well, so does Tetris.
Not so much. But I needed somewhere to put this, so here goes.
I’ve been thinking about my Internet usage for a while. This seems ridiculous, I’m sure, but hear me out.
There was a time, not so long ago, that I stuck almost religiously to Twitter, a handful of forums (Whitechapel, in particular, which was run by Warren Ellis at the time), and that was about it. I got a lot done, I thought, and really turned in some of my better school semesters. I think that was due to centralization. And being surrounded by a ton of brilliant people, many of whom have moved on to things like journalism or comics or music or photography or a little bit of all of the above. My news came from those people and RSS.
Now, I’m all over. Somethingawful, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Being pulled in so may directions means that some are naturally going to be neglected (Twitter and RSS) while some take a huge-ass chunk of my time (Facebook). So I’m whittling, as of today. Facebook will largely run dormant. There’s a few reasons, so if you’ll allow me some navel-gazing (what writing isn’t?), I’ll explain.
First, there’s a time commitment to Facebook that I’m not willing to put in anymore. While it’s arguably a good discussion platform without going to full-on forums use, the time I’m putting into those discussions is getting ludicrous. And this is with less than 200 friends. Closer to 150, really. I can’t imagine people having hundreds or thousands of people who they claim to interact with. And honestly, if I spent half the time reading and writing things I cared about than I did on random shit on Facebook, I’d have finished school and a book by now. (That’s really probably the main thrust of all this.)
Second, Facebook is only good for communicating with a select few people you already communicate with regularly. Most of you know this already, but Facebook’s News Feed algorithms hide shit you might actually want to read, but Facebook thinks it knows what you want better than you do. And that’s just silly. I agree that there needs to be some degree of filtration, but unless they’re going to give me the granularity to do it myself (and why would they?) it’s just not going to work for me.
Third, I’m tired of the advertising. Even with Adblock cutting out everything it does by default, plus several custom blocks, plus a ton of game-related crap that won’t go away, plus their stupid Liked Pages algorithms, and I’m tired of being a set of eyeballs for Facebook to make money off of. I’ve already lopped out almost all of the movie, book, and music Likes I have because I’m fucking sick of getting the same advertising day in and day out. Plus I won’t have the joy of logging in from a school computer and having the Adblock-free experience. I’ve mentioned on several occasions how I don’t understand how people without Adblock can even use the site.
Finally, a number of people I know function just fine without it. That’s not to say that I won’t check from time to time (I’m figuring either early mornings or evenings), but I won’t be on 24/7. I won’t be jumping on every comment thread I may have posted in. My interaction may not even go beyond Likes. Who knows. But, in the unlikely event that you’re concerned you won’t see much more of me, well, thanks to the aforementioned News Feed algorithms, you probably weren’t seeing that much to begin with.
If you’re truly concerned about not being able to reach me (let’s be honest, though, I’m not that important) you can get me through the following channels, which I’ll be on far more than Facebook:
Twitter: rickiep00h (Those 0’s are zeros because I’m leet that way. And if you’re all “I don’t DO Twitter,” well, imagine it’s like Facebook without the annoying distractions. Just the distractions you choose, instead of the ones you follow out of some weird devotion like “family” or “people I knew in high school but literally haven’t talked to since before graduation.” Plus the website isn’t made up of 80% adspace.)
Tumblr: rarely-important.tumblr.com (Tumblr is probably the closest you’ll get to my unfettered id. Follow if you like art, music, nerdy stuff, horrible memes, feminism, socialism, sex-positive gender politics, sex, erotica of both men and women (and some trans thrown in for good measure), and comic books. You might learn something. Or you might be offended. I’m really okay with either. But anything I’ve linked on FB probably started on Tumblr.)
Anything else: Honestly, from those two links and the link to this post, you’ve found most of my internet life. You can extrapolate from these if you really want, but you won’t find much more than that, honestly. Horrible selfies and bad choices, maybe.
If you want to contact me directly, there’s still Facebook Messaging, Twitter DMs, Tumblr asks, email (ricks dot and dot leeches at gmail dot com for personal stuff, cummings dot rick at gmail dot com if you for some reason want to discuss writing and/or business matters), and text messaging (msg one of those other comm paths for my number, because I’m taking it down from FB as soon as I remember.)
Amanda Palmer wrote in the Dresden Dolls song “Modern Moonlight” the line “God I love communicating / I just hate the shit we’re missing.” I’ve taken that to mean both we’ll never be able to hear and process everything, as well as the fact that we’re so keen on missing cues from people we’re actually communicating with. I’m hoping that in throttling my FB usage (and computer usage in general), I’ll be able to both communicate more and more effectively. We’ll see.
Addendum: Just in case you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of this, I have 47 different actions from Monday in my activity log, and that was a slow day, in which I spent most of the day reading comics, hanging out with my kid, and playing Pokemon. The days when I get really embroiled in FB arguments, it gets much worse. Let’s just say I need to unplug.
It should go without saying that this contains spoilers. This isn’t just “You should see this movie” or “You shouldn’t see this movie.” You should. I highly recommend The LEGO Movie. It’s great fun, it’s technologically amazing, it’s funny, and it has–at its core–a very good message about individuality, creativity, and parental relationships. I cannot praise it enough for its good qualities, which it has in spades, and you can, I’m sure, read about elsewhere.
However, in the realm of not-so-good qualities, it also knocks ’em out of the park. It does this in to major ways. First, it’s a massive, massive sausagefest that I think actively dismisses women and almost insults people for bringing their daughters. Second, it’s ableist as hell.
Of the hordes of characters in the film, four of them are women or girls with speaking roles (maybe five, if you include a literal one-line appearance). All of those–and I say “all” without hyperbole–are only there to serve the needs of the main character or another man. What makes this even more irritating is that at least one of them, the main female lead, Wyldstyle (played by Elizabeth Banks) is so close to being a really good, well-rounded character.
Wyldstyle initially comes on a strong, independent, creative character. She’s quick on her feet, she builds great vehicles and is calm and collected in the face of extreme danger. (This is not to say that she’s the Female Badass. She is a strong character, not a Just One Of The Guys dude with breasts.) And then…
She has a boyfriend. Okay. He’s Batman. Okay. She spends the entire movie pointing out that she has a very serious relationship. Okay. And in the last five minutes, she totally dumps Bats for the main character. Why? Why does she automatically have to fall for the main character? Why does she have to be in a relationship at all? Can’t she simply exist as an independent entity? This supposed romantic relationship does nothing to further the plot at all. It’s basically tacked-on for… I don’t even know. Not even the main character (I should probably name him from now on: Emmet) seems to know why or how he ends up in this romantic relationship that is established by the film as being mostly platonic (at best) anyway.
The only explanation I can come up with is Hollywood Bullshit. Wyldstyle is the female lead and must therefore fall for the male lead in whatever hamfisted way, just so some demographic’s numbers look a teeny bit better. I can’t see test audiences approving this incredibly artificial premise of a romance, but I guess if the test audience is made up of 8-year-old boys and their thirtysomething fathers, maybe I can understand it. Incidentally, that’s pretty much all I saw at the screening we went to: lots of younger elementary boys and their dads. The few girls and women I did see were far more excited going in, and throughout the movie. And I hope the “plot twist” stabbed all those dads right in their livers.
What makes it worse is Wyldstyle’s character spends the entire film serving under the male characters. Emmet, Batman, Vitruvius (the Wise Old Sage character), all of them. After her initial entrance, she spends the entire rest of the movie being the exact opposite of what she could have, should have been. And worse than that is how she is repeatedly told that she is not “The Special” (basically exactly what is sounds like, the “prophesied savior” character.) Nope, that’s Emmett. The unremarkable, uninteresting male lead. He even talks about how not-special he is, but Wyldstyle has to keep reminding him over and over again that he has to be. Because, y’know, he’s the male lead. Or something.
And this is the best female character in the movie. All the others that actually have speaking roles–Unikitty, Wonder Woman, Bad Cop’s mother, the female coworker of Emmet whose name escapes me at the moment–they’re all marginalized, impotent, and secondary to the men in the film, at best used as plot devices. Even Wonder Woman.
In the larger scale of the film, the metadiscourse of the live action segments (like I said, spoilers) is pretty painful from a LEGO P.R. standpoint. The entire third act of the film revolves around a boy and his father and their relationship. It’s all about making boys feel good. Every character in the film, then, is serving not just Emmett (the “main” character), but the boy who is ostensibly “making up” the movie. Which is itself a pretty difficult concept: the film implies than this kid only sees women as objects to help him achieve his goal (whatever that may be.) It’s a much more potent film than it lets on just from that one subtle implication.
Now, my other major gripe isn’t nearly as detailed or even nuanced as above. The LEGO Movie is completely and unabashedly ableist. Morgan Freeman’s character, Vitruvius, is the Wise Old Man of film. Which is okay, I can handle a well-worn archetype like that. However, the film goes one step further and makes him blind. Okay, whatever, I can handle that. The appalling part is that his blindness is repeatedly played for laughs. And even in backwards-as-hell Fort Wayne, IN, a lot of those jokes fell flat. Yeah, they got a couple titters here and there, but by and large those jokes were completely superfluous and solely played as comic relief. They are literally “This guy is blind and isn’t that funny? Look at him walk into walls! Ho ho ho!” It’s physically uncomfortable.
Now, in true compliment-sandwich style, I could go on for at least as many words about how wonderful The LEGO Movie is or how technically brilliant it is. I could talk about its financial success, or its great cast, or its fucking amazing theme song, but frankly those things just highlight how much of a letdown these other issues are. I don’t think it would be hyperbolic to say this would be the best kids film I’ve ever seen with just a few subtle tweaks that wouldn’t even substantially change the film. A gender flip here or there, the removal of the awkward romance between Wyldstyle and Emmett (and even Wyldstyle and Batman), and the removal of the ableist garbage from Vitruvius’ character, and it would be absolutely amazing. But as it is, we have a flawed masterpiece of children’s entertainment, because it’s not children’s entertainment. It’s boys’ entertainment.
It’s a major stumble of a company that’s already stumbled in its relation to girls while still making halting steps toward including them. And despite the fact that I’ve already given them (and Warner Bros.) my ticket money, and I’m strongly considering getting it on Blu-ray, I do so with several caveats, including the one about having conversations with my daughter about how girls are (or aren’t) portrayed in the film. About how there’s nothing funny about simply being blind. About how she and I interact with each other and the LEGO collection we share. These are all important subjects, but I really wish we wouldn’t have to talk about them because of how an otherwise amazing movie screwed up those subjects so badly.
There’s a lot to be said about the Friends theme from LEGO, and it’s relation to girls, and it suffers from a lot of the same problems the film does. It’s so very close to being good for girls–there are great sets subtly inserted into the line that go against the beauty salon-type sets. There are a lot of really good ideas promoted by those sets, and the focus is much more on camaraderie than the adversarial nature of a lot of the main-line sets (and definitely more than, say, the Star Wars sets.)
I encourage you to look at the full line than just cherry-pick. As I’ve said, it suffers a lot of the problems in messaging–especially when you add on the marketing push behind it and the world they created around the sets, beyond just the bricks and characters.
When viewed from the angle of “What is there to build?”, it’s hard to make the argument that getting more girls to build more things with LEGO is bad. I love that there are vehicles and science sets and town buildings, and that many of those things are generally pretty gender-neutral outside of using a (usually small) number of pastel bricks in pink or purple or blue. And I love that those colors now exist to integrate into the rest of the LEGO world.
However, when viewed from the angle of “What is the overall message we’re sending?” LEGO still has a long way to come. They’re making an effort, and while it may be shrewdly profit-driven, more choice is never bad. The only thing that really irritates me (I mean, aside from, say, Stephanie’s Newborn Lamb) is that the sets aren’t in the same aisle as the “boys” sets. I don’t think that’s a failing of LEGO, though, but one of our retail environment in general. Society in general.
I don’t think it’s misogyny on the part of LEGO so much as patriarchy in general on the part of society. Which is… sort of how I feel about The LEGO Movie? Like, I don’t blame LEGO for operating within the confines of the space that exists for them. I will definitely take them to task for failing to do all that they could do, though. Why does Wyldestyle have to be “in love” at all? Why does Emma have to have a “fashion” design studio instead of a “general” design studio where she can create whatever she wants? Why does Unikitty have to be a generic bubbly pink character? (Hell, her name is basically a portmanteau of “unique” and “kitty”!) Why are almost all (and I mean this, all but a very small handful) of the “Master Builders” in the film male?
Post Script 2:
I fully expect that I’m going to get some garbage from both/many sides for this, but seriously, the whole thing–from the movie to Friends to the corporate climate at LEGO–is a lot more subtle than most people give credit. The movie not JUST good or bad (from every angle). Friends is not JUST good or bad (for girls, for LEGO, for society, whatever). LEGO is not JUST trying to make a buck off of The Pink Aisle (though it seems that way from the outside). As a LEGO enthusiast from before I was in school, a feminist, a father, a father of a daughter, and a genderqueer individual myself, there’s a hell of a lot more to this issue than just “Pink LEGO is bad for girls/Pink LEGO is destroying the hobby.” So please, please, please: question things and educate yourselves about the whole thing instead of just looking at the color of the bricks and the aisle they’re in. Like most issues, there’s good and bad in everything, and the best that we can do is learn about ourselves and the world we live in. And while we can always strive to make the world better. Let’s not shit on the advancements we’ve made, even if they seem minor. Let’s not vilify those who make decisions we don’t agree with. Rather, guide them. Educate them.
That is what good stewards and, moreover, good parents, do.
A little hidden secret among writers is that they actually do get writer’s block. When they say, “Oh, I don’t believe in writer’s block,” they’re full of shit. Why? Nine times out of ten, when you ask them where they get ideas, they say “I honestly have no fucking clue.” The other one times (that works, trust me), they’ll give some sort of version of this answer:
“I [read a lot/watch the news/keep a mental file of subjects], and when two things slam together just right, that’s usually when I start writing.”
And that’s all fine and well for those who can do such things. But the rest of us mortals sometimes have problems with those things slamming into each other, let alone “just right.”
A slight tangent:
Back in the ’70s (when he was still having his good ideas), Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with a thing called Oblique Strategies. Essentially, it was some number of cards–I don’t remember exactly how many right now, and honestly you can check it out on Wikipedia yourself if you want–with phrases on them intended to push through, y’know, writer’s block. Some of them were obvious, like “Work at a different speed”, but some got pretty cryptic, like “Ask your body.” Essentially, it came down to generating an idea out of basically nothing. Sometimes, that idea was enough.
Before that, people like Stockhausen and Varese and Lucier and Glass and Reich were creating generative music; that is, music created from procedural rules and repetition, rather than traditional music theory.
This all comes around, I swear.
In my poetry writing class, our professor likes to split between self-generated poems (that is, poems without limitations) and programmed poems, which have a specific goal in mind. (Use a certain form, use a certain kind of word, etc.) Our most recent assignment was to create a poem in which two people, living or dead, meet in a situation they might not normally. This was based on the John Bradley poem “Two Tangos with the General”, in which the narrator has some… interesting experiences with Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
How hard could that be, right?
Pretty goddamn hard, in my case. It was pretty hard to come up with only two people, and dump them in only one situation, and make it both reasonably believable and utterly surreal. I told my professor as much, and told him that I was getting to the point of just throwing names into a hat.
And he said “Yeah! Do that!” I about peed myself. And then I thought about it for a minute. (The hat, not the peeing.) What if I actually did it?
“I suppose I could; that’s a pretty Eno thing to do,” I said.
“It’s a VERY Eno thing to do,” he said. (Sometimes he speaks in both italics and caps.)
So, in the spirit of experimentation, I made it a little more complex. I made a list of twelve people whose work I admire:
- David Bowie
- TS Eliot
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Jon Stewart
- Trent Reznor
- Warren Ellis
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
- Frank Lloyd Wright
- Alestair Crowley
- Stephen King
- Lou Reed
- Andy Warhol
(Yes, yes, I realize they’re all men. I’m working on it, okay?) Then, I took a twelve-sided die, and eliminated the result from the list, leaving eleven names, then ten, then nine, and so on, til I only had one left. Then, I took all twelve names again, and did the same process. That way, I had two quasi-random people with absolutely no decision-making on my part.
After that, I made a list of twelve mundane/bizarre situations:
- Stopping at McDonald’s
- Arguing opposite sides of a murder case
- Watching television
- Attending a baseball game
- Being stopped by the TSA
- Playing a used car salesman and a shopper, respectively
- Visiting a morgue
- Doing laundry
- Waiting in line at the DMV
- Watching Reservoir Dogs
- Sitting in the same book club
Then I rolled a d12 again, eliminating one each time, until I ended up with a scene.
I’m not positive on my math here, but if my numbers are right, there is a 1 in 1.4 billion chance that these characters and this subject would have come out in this specific order. And the weird part is how well it all worked! (At least in my mind. You’re free to think it’s bollocks, of course.)
Once I had finished, though, the whole process seemed odd to me in a really meta sort of way. For example, Bowie not only worked with Eno, but he’s also been caught on film literally picking lyrics out of a hat, or cutting up and simply rearranging words. Stephen King talks about his own idea generation in his book On Writing, which basically boils down to taking a walk (hopefully not getting hit by a van) and letting his mind wander until he gets two things that stick together and seem compelling enough for him that he can keep the idea til he gets home to start writing. And of course, I thought it was odd that they are/were both simultaneously high-brow and low-brow, they’re both former cocaine addicts (Bowie doesn’t remember making a few albums, specifically Station to Station; King doesn’t remember writing a single word of Cujo) they’re both morbid and hopeful, and so on. The morgue was just perfect, though McDonald’s would have been amusing as it’s the specific reason Bowie wrote “I’m Afraid of Americans”.
And really, it’s these sort of interconnections that I’ve been intrigued by my whole life. The musicians I pay attention to are all related somehow, the authors I read all read each other, my favorite non-fiction book is Warren Ellis’ DO ANYTHING, which itself is about interconnectedness in creativity. (I pimp that book constantly, I know, but it’s THAT GOOD.) Honestly, some of this shit isn’t coincidental, even when picked at random. Even the list of people I chose didn’t come out entirely at random, as there are interconnections between all of those people, too.
But what does this all come down to, eh?
Well, for starters, it’s really me trying to look more creative than I probably am. Any mook could pick two names off a list and write a poem about them. I happened to like the results, but it wasn’t hard once I got down to work.
The other big takeaway is to try methods that others have used to break out of their own ruts. Staring at a white page or blinking cursor is scary. Getting your fingers to play different patterns on guitar takes effort. Flip a card over. Read a book. Roll a die. The idea is probably in there, you just have to coax it out. This is how I got mine out in this instance.
Note: I discovered while writing this that Philip Glass is writer/producer/radio personality Ira Glass’s first cousin, once removed. I recently (late November/early December) started listening to This American Life as a podcast. There’s another one.