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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 Little Hero Worship

August 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Part of the original goal of this blog was to post some fiction. Oddly, the first short story I actually sat down to write turned into something more, and now I’m working on it as at least a novella, and possibly a full-length novel. I’ll tell you right now that it’s probably not very good (as most writers say about the work up until it starts paying good money) and it’s in a genre rife with people both trying to get published and eager to tear new works into tiny shreds: science fiction. It’s not what those in the industry call “hard science fiction.” I’m certainly not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. I’m not pushing the boundaries of scientific thought, I’m just using a sci-fi setting to create the scenario for my characters to live inside.

There are a few notable practitioners of this sort of thing, and three of them are easily some of my favorite writers ever: Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Warren Ellis.[*] Most of their work falls into the much larger realm of “speculative fiction,” and I suppose that’s what I’m doing with the story: speculating.

As this post is probably going to end up as more of a journalistic logging of progress, I’m going to go a step further with those three writers. I’m noting that not only is my writing in a similar vein as those writers above, there is a definite slant toward using the structure they tend to follow. King and Vonnegut, especially, write in quick, clipped vignettes or scenes within chapters. Stephen King even goes so far as to organize those chapters into books, and sometimes those books into volumes of a longer work, in this case, The Dark Tower. Ellis, in his one and only prose novel, Crooked Little Vein, uses a similar structure, only instead of organizing into larger chapters, each scene or vignette is simply given a numbered chapter all its own (some of them only consisting of single sentences… some only a few words long.) And his comics work is certainly structured that way. Some number of scenes form some number of issues which form some number of story arcs of some number of larger works.

What I’m not trying to imply is that my work is nearly as good as authors on the level of Vonnegut. Far from it. I doubt my first novel will set any hearts a-flutter, nor will the sci-fi community shit its collective pants in amazement. I’d like to think, though, that the visible influences of other writers of pedigree will help out a little bit in making what will seem to some readers as a very loose structure seem a little more pedestrian. Not that I’m hoping anyone critiques my work as “pedestrian,” of course. Or derivative, for that matter.

I don’t think that it was my reasoning, starting out, to make structure out of some sort of disjointed scenes, though. I think that my brain just works that way: scenes come out of the ether fully-formed, and when they end, they end. Maybe they come out that way and end abruptly because I’m not very good at transitions. Looking at, say, Slaughterhouse-Five, though, one discovers that almost all the bizarre, disjointed scenes end up meshing with the larger theme or plot point later in the book. King uses his sections to tell his stories from other points of view, not unlike Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Ellis uses his breaks to control the tempo and rhythm of his stories.[**]

So I guess I’m sort of trying to do all those things, even if it ends up seeming like doing too much. Maybe when I complete my first draft (at the rate of about 3000 words a week–if I’m lucky–maybe that will be by the end of the year) I’ll go back and organize the breaks numerically. As it stands right now, I’m not even sure how many chapters I’ll end with, so maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Maybe when I’m done I’ll just leave it without arbitrary chapter breaks. We’ll see.

Finally, I get a lot of comfort out of words from Vonnegut, King, and Ellis. Vonnegut and King rarely sat down to write a specific story, and King even goes so far to say he doesn’t care about plot unless he’s stuck. Which kind of shows in his writing sometimes. Which he admits to. Ellis, on the other hand, has proclaimed loudly that he “hate[s] everything [he] writes about two weeks after [he] write[s] it.” And every writer that actually gives a damn about carrying on their craft, and talking about it, and helping others, seems to put across the point that they’re always insecure, even after many years of success. But there’s also a persistence, a stick-to-itiveness, the desire to just keep going and writing stories. King’s On Writing just drips with this feeling, and pretty much any time Ellis seems to get asked about the any subject on the process he’s willing to speak at length about it. Like this nugget (probably NSFW):

My point, I guess, is that I’m not trying to take things too seriously about this whole “writing” thing. That clip above makes me smile every time I watch it. Writing is something everybody struggles with. In Roger Angell’s introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, he talks about his stepfather E.B. White’s writing habits:

When the copy went off at last … he rarely seemed satisfied. “It isn’t good enough,” he said sometimes. “I wish it were better.”

Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time.

I read passages like that, and it makes me feel good knowing I’m not the only one. Countless freelance bloggers out there (and thousands of authors before them) say that writing is a solitary act. Somehow we all connect, though; we all know the trials and difficulties we face when a scene just won’t work, or when a line doesn’t flow properly, or even when we can’t remember the word that fits just perfectly for that emotion we’re trying to express. It makes me feel good to know that even the people that I admire and I’m trying to emulate have the same problems I have.

And it drives me forward a little bit. Being successful at writing, to me, is being able to finish what I’ve started. So far, by analyzing what I’ve done, and how it’s structured, and where that structure is coming from, and the attitudes that helped define that structure, I’ve been able to feel like I can finish this one. It will take me a long time, but one day I’ll be able to say that I competently wrote a full-length novel. Even if it’s not well-received, at least it will be done. And I can’t fault myself for finishing that goal.

Maybe once that first one is out of the way I can write something that someone else will want to read.

[*]One could argue that Ellis deals as much in hard sci-fi as not, but indulge me here.
[**]This probably comes from his background in comics. A single comics panel is a single slice in time. How you control those slices sets the pace for reader. You can check out more on the ridiculously complex world of writing for and structure in comics by reading Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics.

Categories: novel progress, writing

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.