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Friday, October 9, 2015
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Right now I am reading a book for class. The book is called “The Necropastoral” and it is written by a poet names Joyelle McSweeney, but it is not poetry, it is about poetry. Right? I’m annoyed too. She has the verbal verve of a poet, but let me share with you a pretty typical section from the book:
This spasmodic, ampersanding, defective interpenetration, with its sticky goo-, moan-, and pity-effects, is of course a model of politics and temporality that completely denatures liberal models of the body and the state, of points and events, of agency, hierarchy, power, linearity, and historical time. (8)
So yeah, that is one sentence and this book seems to have a whole lot of sentences like that one. I think that I am going to read this book but I am simply going to switch my brain off and enjoy all of the fun words because - oh did I mention - I have to finish reading it tonight. Because sometimes I am bad at studenting.
For reasons that are none of your business I was just now reading about the movie RKO 281 which was made about 700 years ago and/or in 1999, which is basically the same thing.
I have both seen and enjoyed this movie. It is about the making of Citizen Kane. The movie is basically about Orson Welles (played by a dynamite and youthful Liev Shreiber) as he is lured from the NYC theatre and radio scene by Hollywood and how he then proceeds to (due to a petty personal gripe) decide to make a movie excoriating William Randolph Hearst whose nickname at the time was “Literally the Only Dude You Don’t Want to Piss Off”.
I have not watched RKO 281 in more than a decade, but it made a big impression on me when I did watch it. I have a distinct memory of Liev Shreiber shouting - about the art and industry of making movies - “It is the most powerful storytelling medium in the history of mankind and it is controlled by bankers!”
I can find no place on the internet willing to confirm the existence of this dialogue, so I guess I should go watch the movie again.
The point is salient though, right?
My BFF Mike The Director is constantly annoyed by the fact that I like to play at both writer and producer and so I will write things like, “And then the moon EXPLODED and melted all the buildings on Earth, but then EVERYONE REALIZED that buildings were not important and so over the next 300 YEARS they developed an agrarian society based on simple trade and which focused on meeting the emotional needs of human beings rather than on the erstwhile construct of “personal successes” or EXISTENTIAL VALIDATION” and then MTD is all like, “How the fuck am I supposed to make a movie out of that?” and then I am all like, “I don’t know, but we seriously do not have the budget for an exploding moon.”
RKO 281 is a fantastic movie because the actors in it are good (did I mention John Malkovich plays the writer?), the script is great (written by a dude named John Logan, based on a documentary by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon), the subject matter is fascinating, and because it traffics in the creative process itself which we all experience in our lives, be it in the form of writing shit down the way I do, visualizing it the way my friend Mike does, or simply settling into bed at the end of the day and plotting out a series of events for the next day. We tend to mitigate the importance of creativity in our lives, but without it we would be worse off. Without it we would be in the weeds.
At one point in the movie RKO 281 - if I recall correctly - a cinematographer shows up and says something along the lines of, “Hey, I wanta work with you” and when Welles asks after the guy’s credentials he removes from his duffel an Oscar for cinematography. That is the dream for all of us auteurs. Talent and skill all coming together in the service of something good.
There is always a struggle between the effort of making and the product of that making. As a simple, lowly writer I rely only on the reader to be my partner, but even that is more complicated than I am acknowledging.
If I have to sum all of this up, I would say that there is a difference between the initial creative impulse (think: an exploding moon) and the exercise of the creative muscle (think: a short film about exploding moons). And, I guess, I think that you should get on Hulu right now and actually watch Citizen Kane 70 times and actually watch RKO 281 35 times and then let me know how transformed you are by this experience I advised you to have. Though I suppose it is possible I’m just bored and trying to Rick-Roll you into watching better movies than you normally do because, let’s be honest here, your Netflix history is pretty embarrassing.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Below are a couple of pieces of writing I have done recently for my Theories of Fiction class. You were probably smart enough not to pursue an English degree (you probably majored in something like Getting-a-Job or Having-a-Skill) and so I will briefly tell you what a Theories of Fiction class is:
Basically it is just a study in how writing works and what it does. Sort of. Imagine that you wanted to learn how to fix a bicycle and so you took a class called “Theories of Bicycle Repair” and then you showed up to class with a wrench and some spare tires and they handed you a book about how to fix a bicycle. And you’re all like, “Well that’s cool, but I had to walk here because my bicycle needs fixed” and then for the rest of the semester you talked about different ways to fix a bicycle and people were saying things like, “In Wilbur Wright’s essay about bicycle repair he said that before you can fix a bicycle you have to understand what sort of bicycle you are fixing, so let’s spend a couple hours talking about different types of bicycles” and you’re all like, “Well that’s cool, but I have to walk home later because my bicycle is still broken” and everybody was like, “Yeah, but is it really broken? It is still a bike, right?” and then you’re all like, “Well yeah, but …” and then they’re all like, “Maybe you just aren’t appreciating the multitude of possibilities of what a bike can be? Maybe you have an ideological bias about what a bicycle is supposed to do. Why are you oppressing the liminal potentialities of what a bicycles can be? Did you ever think of that?” and then class is over and you walk home.
This is an unfair characterization. I actually love the class and I enjoy the people in it and I like the reading. That being said, the nature of the class is that it is about how to repair a bicycle, not about repairing a bicycle.
For the sake of clarity I should mention that a Theories of Fiction class is different than a Critical Theories of Literature class (which I have talked about on here before). A Critical Theories of Literature class is more like a history of intellectual thinking as it relates to literature. Critical Theories also tends to be one of the hardest classes any English major has to take, but it is invaluable to me as a writer and as a person, primarily because it requires one to rapidly move between different modes of thought. One week you will work your ass off trying to understand one way of thinking (say Structuralism) and when you finally get it you say, “This is fucking great! I totally get it and I think I am a Structuralist now!” and then the very next week you will have to work your ass off trying to understand a way of thinking which is actively diametrically opposed to the way you just learned to think (say Deconstruction vs. Structuralism) and you end up saying, “Wait, I also understand this! I now renounces my Structuralist past! I am a Deconstructionist now!” then a week later you end up being something else.
The end result of all this a sort of wonderful elasticity of the mind, known in most other disciplines as “Schizophrenia”.
The piece below is a first draft an “Aesthetic Manifesto”. That was the assignment anyway. What you see below is not so much a first draft as it is a thinking-out of what I need to articulate in something called an “Aesthetic Manifesto”. The keen reader of this blog might notice how similar my academic writing has become to my blog writing.
Aesthetic Manifesto: Draft 1
One sure sign that you have ended up in the weeds while attempting to write your aesthetic manifesto is that you freely and under no threat of duress return to the manifesto of Dadaism. Asking Tristan Tzara for help is probably about as good of an idea as asking William S. Burroughs to write the tax code; it will be fascinating, it will likely not be illuminating.
Because we expect our manifestos to be jaunty and bombastic and pamphlet-able, I am breaking this one up into bite-sized chunks, like chicken in soup.
The nighttime work of a writer is writing. The day job work of a writer is the amassing of tools to be placed into a toolbox. These tools can be words or styles or strategies or thoughts or images or people or - as is frequently the case in my own life - whiskey.
I have not yet formulated a Grand Unified Theory of my own writing. Or rather, I have not yet figured out how to write it down. But I have some thoughts:
Tzara did write things like, “knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: DADA”. You gotta admire a guy who writes like that. I think I would have enjoyed being a Dadaist, though I don’t think they would have enjoyed me. I think I would have liked being a Trotskyite too, though I have never been able to decide if my affinity for Trotsky is entirely the fault of David Ives.
My aunt used to own a small box. It was made of light colored wood and half the size of a brick and it didn’t open, exactly. It was a kind of rudimentary Rubik’s Cube she’d picked up in Hong Kong. Slide one side in order to move a peg inside in order to release the top panel to slide away in order to be able to hinge open the other side, etc etc etc.
I write like that.
I try to build magical little clockwork black boxes. All writing should have within it a kind of mystery; that creates the joy of reading. The act of writing then, is the act of building that mystery (shout out here to Sarah McLachlan) and it is one of the most problematic acts of joy and most complicated acts of problem-solving I have ever even heard of. I think about writing the way that chess players think about chess: that it is an insane pleasure which will probably one day crush me and drive me completely batshit out of my mind.
I’ve been writing basically my entire life. I used to use a machine called a ‘word processor’, which was like a box where you kept all of your frustrations and paper jams. Early on as a writer I made a list of things that I did not want to write about. An excerpt:
- Medical examiners
- Criminals out for one last score
- Astronauts (I have no idea why this ended up on the list. I was 12.)
- Heroic G.I. Joe-esque soldiers
- Wise-beyond-their-years children
- Fearless and high-moral investigative journalists
- James Bond ripoffs
- Any type of character that Tom Cruise might one day want to play
- Chosen Ones (Luke Skywalker, Neo, Jesus, Harry Potter, etc.)
- Serial killers
The list goes on.
Other people will invariably write that shit and god love them for doing it, but the world is far too weird and complicated and confused and mysterious of a place for me to spend my time doing it.
The most recent thing I wrote was about a guy who needed to find 50 mimes real fast.
I find myself returning to Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins about once a year. The way that some people return to Don Quixote or the Bible. For me, Still Life is about as perfect, small, and beautiful of a novel as has ever been written. From the kitchen table where I do all my writing I can see it. I also make sure that I can always see the spines of Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope, Amiee Bender’s Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, One Hundred Years of Solitude by my man Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and at least one Vonnegut novel though I waffle often over which one that should be (Slaughterhouse-Five or Mother Night). These books are my extended, portable, literary family.
For the record: Yes, I just said Still Life is as nearly perfect of a thing as I have read.
That’s not true.
I have actually read the one perfect thing that exists and it is a short story by Carol Shields called “Various Miracles”. I will not defame it by saying any more about it.
I feel like I am still in the weeds.
Our writing must contain joy. Not happiness, but joy.
I like the act of attempting to make the ridiculous not ridiculous.
I love the words: svelte, duck, ephemeral, tart, slick, syllogism, phosphorescent, emitting.
I hate the words: cacophony, webinar, Hegelian, parataxis, jurisprudence, chalk.
Our writing should be charming bordering on snarky, sexy bordering on lurid, clever bordering on obnoxious, honest bordering on profane, and ultimately when the mystery box finally slides open and reveals itself to us, it should be tender. Our writing should always be like writing to a complicated lover, in that it should hold everything we are capable of feeling. It should be the most true thing about us.