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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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Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Ten Years Later

April 23, 2009 1 comment

“Hey, I finally saw Heat!”
“Heat? I saw that six years ago…”
“Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now!”
~Jim Gaffigan

Ten years ago, we were all agog over The Matrix. Cyberpunk, electronica, and people in fetishistic vinyl clothing were suddenly everywhere. Me? I was still in my final years of high school. I admit, I never saw The Matrix in the theater. I, like many others who didn’t, kicked myself later for not doing so.

But this isn’t about The Matrix. Nope. It’s about a book. You know, those papery things they used to make before we all got addicted to our screens, phones, and Xboxen?

That book is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Had I read this book when it came out, like some of my friends did, I might have a different view of it, but now, ten years later, we can look back on its trademark cutting-edge technology and see how well it has weathered the times.

First, some basic plot and character points. The book is one story, told over two time periods, with concentric story layers. Some characters occupy both timelines, some occupy just one, but they are all interconnected in some way. If you’ve stumbled this far into the internet to find my little corner, you’ve probably seen or heard of the book, but I’m going to try not to divulge too many secrets (well, no more than are in the book’s own synopsis…)

The Waterhouse clan is our main protagonist group in the story, given here in the forms of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse and his grandson, Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, or Randy for short. Randy is a professional hacker; he builds networking code. Really good networking code. His grandfather was likewise gifted with numbers; the elder Waterhouse was a cryptographer in World War II. So what we end up with is a single story, told in bits and pieces, in two different time periods, but involving the same family. Oh, sorry: families.

See, Randy ends up contracting Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy to do some underwater cable work. Turns out Doug Shaftoe’s dad, Bobby Shaftoe, did some work with old man Waterhouse back in the day, in the super-secret Detachment 2702. They also worked with the mysterious Enoch Root, and together did all sorts of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Germans (and Japanese, I suppose) during the war.

But why would this mean anything? Well, there’s a lot of talk involving Randy’s new business venture, Epiphyte(2)– the 2 denoting that this is the second company called “Epiphyte” that he and his friends have concocted. Basically, Ephiphyte is building a data haven–a place where people can deposit their secret information without the prying eyes of governments or other entities seeing it. Eventually this whole operation gets turned upside down, thanks to operations and pacts made in the past… things that the elder Waterhouse, Shaftoe, and Root know about. The key to all of this is a mysterious set of computer punch cards that show up in the possession of Randy’s family.

Add to this some smatterings of Dr. Alan Turing (the computer guy), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the Army guy), and some German conspirators that may or may not have lived, plus some Japanese engineers, and it all adds up to a century’s worth of awesome sauce.

Of course, the book is complex in ways other than its structure. There is some pretty complicated math in the book, plus there’s the added bonus of a lot of networking, business, and hacker lingo. What dates the book is precisely these things. The networking technology at this point was so far behind where we are today, when wireless networking is something you can get on just about any phone, GPS navigation is standard issue in many cars, and encryption is as easy as flipping a check box in a Windows dialog box. Back then, all these things must have seemed so bizarrely ahead of their time. The concept of servers and T1 lines and internet banking are all perfectly normal conversation in many circles now, no longer relegated to the annals of computer science buildings.

Now, I’m 27 years old. I have a pretty good grasp on network architecture, and I know a thing or two about Linux. But the math in some parts of the book is so far beyond my own abilities that I just let it pass. Whatever, I figure Stephenson probably had someone check it to make sure it worked. And that’s the thing about the details the book has: they don’t get in the way of the story. No matter how technical it wants to get, the book breaks down to Good vs. Evil, good ol’ treasure hunting, and the guy getting the girl.

The main thing that kept me coming back to the book (especially the second half, which I consumed in about three days–no small feat for being a 900+ page book) was the style. Think about it this way: if somehow Warren Ellis’ brain consumed all of Tom Clancy’s technical knowledge and then spit it out as both detailed and hilarious, that’s how this book would read. Like a technological Hunter S. Thompson. Which probably means I’ll have to add Stephenson to my list of People That Are Influencing My Fiction Writing.*

Since it is written in present-tense third-person, the book has an immediacy all the way through it that is hard to deny, and is probably what lent itself to such voracious consumption in the second half. And given that Stephenson wrote quick, simple chapters, with utterly fantastic cliffhangers, and structured the pacing in such a way that you didn’t know which plotline was going to be next, it was difficult to put the book down. It went from being a “chapter at a time” book to a “couple hundred pages at a time” book, and I was so consumed by it in the second half that I was emotionally invested in nearly every character in the book, from the lowest Chinese slave camp laborer to the highest German admiral to the nerds at Bletchly Park.

And so, ten years later, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon stands the test of time not because it was an ahead-of-its-time cyber-thriller, but because it tells a pretty good story in a relatively unique way with a ton of fantastic copy. Sure, there are only so many stories to be told, but this one tells a few of them, at breakneck pace, with a fantastic sense of humor. Its details may be a little sketchy now, but it’s heart is definitely still in the right place.

This book may be ten years old, but Cryptonomicon is well worth the wait.

*The list so far: Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Ellis, Neal Stephenson