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In Which I Discuss Brian Eno, Poetry, and My Own Horrible Work

March 29, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Another tangent:
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:

  1.  David Bowie
  2.  TS Eliot
  3.  Hunter S. Thompson
  4.  Jon Stewart
  5.  Trent Reznor
  6.  Warren Ellis
  7.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  8.  Frank Lloyd Wright
  9.  Alestair Crowley
  10.  Stephen King
  11.  Lou Reed
  12.  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:

  1.  Bowling
  2.  Stopping at McDonald’s
  3.  Arguing opposite sides of a murder case
  4.  Watching television
  5.  Attending a baseball game
  6.  Being stopped by the TSA
  7.  Playing a used car salesman and a shopper, respectively
  8.  Visiting a morgue
  9.  Doing laundry
  10.  Waiting in line at the DMV
  11.  Watching Reservoir Dogs
  12.  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.

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A Diversion About the Loss of Magic

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Forgive this, it’s going to get rambly.

I’m listening to Beck’s Modern Guilt right now. For maybe the fourth time since I bought it, a month after it came out. Modern Guilt was one of those albums that made music geeks’ brains explode because it paired OMG BECK with OMG DANGER MOUSE, who I’d only just heard about because of that one song that you couldn’t fucking get rid of during the summer of 2006 that I’d only just paid attention to in early 2008. (For the people that don’t feel like trying to parse that sentence over and over til it makes sense: Gnarls Barkley recorded “Crazy” and released it in 2006 and I hated it because I couldn’t avoid it. Then I actually listened to it later, and I kinda liked it.)

But aside from what I’m listening to, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Gillen/Mckelvie’s Phonogram Vol.2: The Singles Club, and my brain’s been shoved into a tangent. First, I get into things way, way too late. It’s like my life is a constant running Jim Gaffigan gag (“Heat? That came out six years ago.” “Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now.”) Second, and this is the important bit, I don’t seem to enjoy things I used to nearly as much… especially in the music world.

The thing about Phonogram is that it uses magic as a very interesting metaphor for the sheer love of music. I mean, other people have drawn the music = magic parallel before, but Phonogram does it in a really interesting way by tying it to ritual magic. But the magic bit is a device to run that same bit of pop culture dissection that Hornby and Klosterman (terrible as he may be) and any other music critic has done in a different way. Instead of running through the same shitty buzzwords that print journalists use, Gillen and Mckelvie can show their readers what they mean. Such is the strength of comics.

But what does all that have to do with me liking music less? Well, not much, I guess, aside from maybe enlightening me to the fact that used to do the same dissection of minutia. I used to consume music by the metric tonne. I used to absorb it and internalize it and make it who I was. Maybe part of this came from the desire to be a professional musician myself. But I think most of it comes from that period in your life when you define yourself by what you consume. When I was seventeen, all I listened to was Metallica. (“No shit?” you’re probably saying sarcastically. “No shit,” I reply, while glaring at you with the eyes of somebody that actually liked Load because it was good, even if it wasn’t what people expected from Metallica.) By the time I hit college, I had expanded to nu-metal. And you know what? I still like the old Drowning Pool records, and Limp Bizkit’s first two albums were listenable for being misogynistic frat-boy shit. I’m even slowly coming to terms with the fact that I might actually like Deftones.

But somewhere in the past few years, I stopped really devouring new stuff, while at the same time somehow broadening my horizons. I like music now that varies wildly, from The Smiths to Amanda Palmer[*] to Mastodon[**] to Gary Numan. But the thing is, my music stopped identifying and shaping me, rather, I shaped my music. I can’t say “I love Nine Inch Nails” with the same vigor as the goth kids in 1995 did.

So my question in all of this is “When does our culture stop defining us, and when do we start defining our culture?” And, as a corollary, “Is it a bad thing when that tradeoff occurs?”

I made a point the other day on a different internet forum that I haven’t read a book that’s really rewired my brain in a long time. The same goes for music, and to a much, much more obvious extent, movies. I’ve simply stopped consuming the massive quantities of brain drippings that I used to. Now, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel guilty, but it makes me feel like there’s something amiss. I used to eat and breathe music. Now it’s just… something I have on in the car. Something that drowns out the sound of traffic outside my house. And on the same side of the quarter, playing music is something that I derive much less joy from. Writing a song is more like work than it ever has been.

I’m loathe to say that it’s because I’m not listening to enough stuff; I hardly think that’s the case. I think it’s more that I’m just no impacted by it as much as I used to be… and I’m trying to figure out why I don’t obsess about the gear Johnny Greenwood used on Kid A to get Sound X like I used to.

I’d like to say it’s because I’m growing up or maturing or some shit like that, but I refuse to accept that. I’m only 28. If anything, I feel like it’s because all the other bullshit life has to offer[***] is getting in the way. I’m now pulled in so many directions that it seems like sometimes the best plan is to just wait the whole thing out and let the valuable stuff come to me through time. And while it’s a good strategy for getting “safe” stuff, it’s not particularly fulfilling.

Going back to Phonogram (sort of), the main goal of magic is affecting the world around you. But at the same time, part of most magical traditions is understanding the world around you and how it affects you. So maybe that’s the problem? Maybe I’ve let the world affect me for too long? Maybe it’s time to start internalizing my surroundings so I can bend them to my will. Or maybe it’s all just twentysomethings-from-the-1990s wankery. Because sometimes I feel like my whole generation is a generation of wankers.

In any case, it still doesn’t answer why something that used to mean so much to me doesn’t anymore. At least, it’s not the same. Have I built up a tolerance to the things I used to enjoy? Do I just keep needing more and stronger music injections?

I mean, I don’t want to sound all middle-age crisis-y (again, the 28 years old argument), but I kinda miss the person I was ten years ago. Or at least, the one aspect of me that wasn’t an asshole. Back when it felt like I meant something, when the world around me felt like it meant something.

Ugh. This is getting entirely too emo. I’m going to stop before I actually say “I hope I die before I get old.” Because I think that’s when I jump the shark in my own brain.

Oh, and if you’re actually interested in what I’m listening to these days, I’m listening to a lot of She. Combine chiptunes and traditional dance hall electronic, and you get She. It’s really fucking good. But I’m not going to go learn Japanese to understand the (occasional) lyrics.

[*]Amusing Amanda Palmer anecdote: I can distinctly remember finding a Dresden Dolls CD in my friend’s binder in 2003 or so, when he was buying, without question, everything Roadrunner put out. I asked what it was like, and he said something to the effect of “It’s okay, but not metal at all,” at which point I completely disregarded it. Just last week, I bought the Dresden Dolls DVD Paradise because I’ve fallen entirely in love with all things Amanda Palmer. Oh, how times change.

[**]Amusing Mastodon anecdote: My first exposure to Mastodon was a few years back on a trip to (I think) Wheaton, MN, to run sound for some friends of mine. I came back from that trip and immediately bought Remission, and have purchased everything they’ve released since. “March of the Fire Ants” is still their best song.

[***]Cliff Burton: “When I started, I decided to devote my life to it and not get sidetracked by all the other bullshit life has to offer.” Also possibly relevant: “You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and getting bored.”

Oh, Is That All? (Part One)

July 10, 2008 Leave a comment

I’m lucky in that I can call a very creative group of people my friends. I know two web developers (one of which is a particularly lucid writer), a novelist that’s working in television, a theater technician, poets, and countless musicians. All of them have big hopes of becoming something Important. What I’m wondering, though, is what will ultimately push them over the edge into profitability and/or notoriety? And for that matter, what about any other random blogger in the world?

One problem with being a producer of a creative piece of work, be it fine art, writing, blogging, music, whatever, is that, ultimately, you’re trying to sell something to someone. Unfortunately, most of the time, that something is information. Images, ideas, or expressions that aren’t easily wrangled or tangibly owned the way, say, your couch is. Without being able to extract some sort of easy monetary benefit out of a product like a blog post, being creative is generally a pretty piss poor way of making a real living. So how do we fund ourselves, as bloggers, or writers, or photographers, as creators? Advertising.

Not our own, of course. Not advertising our own product with our product, but advertising someone else’s product with our product.

There’s countless websites out there telling you how to create traffic and therefore generate revenue for yourself through your blog. Most of them make the claim that the best way to create traffic is to have good content, and the rest will come naturally. But will it really? Most of these sites say that, in order to have good content that you need to do a few things to really get people to notice, most notably specialization and personal branding. Selling yourself to sell certain ads to certain people, essentially.

While I agree that there are advantages to specialization, what happens if you’re one of those people who simply can’t keep tied down to one subject type or beat? What happens if you have a really good idea that you just have to write about? Do you put it on the shelf for later, or for someone else to publish for you? Do you start multiple blogs and spread out your workload? I contend that you shouldn’t have to. Sure, market saturation and trends will tell you that that should get more people to your site, but will it really?

This is where my real point begins. In all that specialization, and pandering to your audience and advertisers, what’s to guarantee that you’ll get any traffic at all? Sure, there are people that blog or write or take pictures or paint solely for the joy of it, but anyone trying to make a living though creative arts generally have to jump through so many hoops just to get noticed that it’s enough to make any self-respecting writer jump ship and work as a day laborer for the rest of their lives (or until their bodies give out.)

Should we just write, put it out there, and hope to get noticed? You’ll be waiting a long time for that to happen, I think. You could pimp the hell out of your work to your friends and anyone that has an internet connection, but I still don’t think that will guarantee any staying power. Look at the webcomic industry. Is there really any rhyme or reason as to which comics are popular and profitable versus the flashes in the pan? What is it that makes Drudge one of the most popular websites in the world when all he does 90% of the time is simply repost stories, like just about any other schlub could do?

For an answer to questions like these, I’ll be using one of those generic “Get Traffic Quick” strategies. I’ll be sending out an e-mail interview/questionairre to some of my aforementioned creative people and see what is important to them in a blog, what gets them to come back, and finally, what they are doing to further their creative presence on the web. Hopefully I’ll have the project completed within the next couple weeks, so keep your eyes on this space.