Monday, December 19, 2011

A Degree Does Not Make You A Better Writer...

...but if you work your ass off to push yourself and take in every ounce of advice from the people around you, both writers and professors, you'll become one.

I just graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing from the University of San Francisco on Friday. The ceremony was a quick one, as they broke it up into three separate ceremonies based on academic schools, but the ceremony was the pomp and circumstance that follows the two and half years I spent learning, ingesting, absorbing, reading and then finally utilizing on my thesis.

And it's true...just because I have a graduate degree in the subject doesn't make me a better writer than anyone else. Innate, natural talent can't be taught or learned, it simply is. But what CAN be taught and/or learned are the tools necessary to make one a better writer. How each individual receives and uses these tools is completely up to them, but for me personally, I came out a far stronger writer than when I arrived in July of 2009.

A good portion of this is derived from my own particular passion; I wanted it bad enough to succeed on my own merits and via my own drive. Writing a book isn't something you can do overnight (not a good one, anyway). It's a grueling Sisyphean task that requires you to be your own worst critique while knowing when to pat yourself on the back accordingly. There are plenty of excellent authors who don't go to graduate school to learn more about their craft and they write excellent books. I needed the education. I WANTED the education because I knew it would only make my writing stronger.

Technically, you can put a price on an education, but I don't even flinch at what I paid for my last two and a half years of sitting through lectures and workshops every Tuesday and Wednesay night. I hustled to get where I am, as did everyone else in those classes. Overwhelmingly, I could tell that my professors hustled to make sure we students got what we were paying for in spades. Damn near every professor I had was engaged in my progress as a writer and as a critical reader and more than a few of them were uncanny in their ability to see through the haziness of our writing to see the real nuggets we were going for and just didn't know it.

So no...getting an advanced degree doesn't necessarily make you a better writer, but damn if it doesn't help. Thanks to the USF staff and to all my classmates! I wish you all the best of luck in every endeavor. Best two years of my life thus far and I wouldn't change a damn thing about any of it other than wishing it had lasted longer.

(The author, a raging writer and drinker, is on the far left. He is more than willing to sign your cleavage if you mistake him for someone famous or already published.)


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Music Influencing "Sugarhouse: A Haunting"...

I've been listening to a lot more classical lately. Not so much of the old classics like Tchaikovsky or Mozart, but more contemporary composers like Gustav Mahler, Gustav Pettersson, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Modest Mussorgsky. Their compositions are dark and mostly dissonant, a kind of music fare that fits the writing mood that I seem to find myself in.

What I love about most music is that it evokes different emotions in people depending upon their mood or their memories. For me, Jeff Buckley's album "Grace" didn't hold as much relevance until 2006, despite my having owned it since it's release in 1994. Twelve years apparently makes a person's tastes change a bit and this is no exception. I played the violin in the fourth grade. I LOVED classical music, but couldn't read notes to save my life. So at my final concert, when I lost my place in the sheet music, I simply kept my bow moving to make my mother think I was still playing (we played at a HUGE concert hall at the time for our parents). I can't stress this enough: one bow out of sync in an entire orchestra, and people will know. Even if you're not playing a single note. Don't do this.

Regardless, I've always had a special kind of love for the classical music. I know very little about it, but I typically love what i hear. Here are some composers I've been listening to lately:








Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Stories

Over the years, Christmas has given us crazy shopping sales, an increase in television and print advertising, and a disturbingly higher than average need to trample other shoppers once a store opens up thanks to the stupidity that is Black Friday.

But it's also given us a lot of great stories. Most of them are, personally, overly sentimental, but that's the nature of the season; people tend to be more giving and emotional during the holidays, but not so much during the regular days of the year. So, in honor of the upcoming holiday, here are a few of my favorite must-see/must-read Christmas stories. I grew up watching and reading most of these while others are relatively new to my canon of tradition, especially now that I have young nieces.

Truly one of the funniest movies of all time. That TBS tends to run a 24-hour marathon of it every year only solidifies it more and more as a Christmas staple.Told in a Morgan Freeman-style of narration by a grown-up Ralphie, this story runs the gamut of every ridiculous thing possible about Christmas. From a pack of wild dogs breaking into the house to eat an entire turkey, to a kid shooting his eye out with a bb gun, to the most famous scene of all - that of Ralphie's friend being triple dog dared into sticking his tongue to a frozen flag pole outside the school. If you haven't seen this, you absolutely need to.

Frank Capra made some great movies and this is one of them. I first watched this one with my father many many years ago and it's remained a favorite. Very much a twist on the Dickensian "A Christmas Carol," Jimmy Stewart plays the role of the anti-Scrooge, but who is suicidal due to financial problems. An angel saves him after he jumps off a bridge and shows him the future of his hometown if he had never existed. This has remained a mainstay for many good reasons, but most notably (I think) because it flips the Dickens version on its head and remains interesting.

Tim Burton makes some weird movies, but they're almost always enjoyable (almost). Don't get me started on his remakes of "Alice in Wonderland" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." I visited some friends in LA this summer and got to see the exhibit of Burton's stuff at the LACMA. It was an impressive and daunting collection made up of damn near everything he's drawn or turned into video since the age of 15. The vast majority of the collection was from "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but only because that seems to have been his signature style from an early age.

Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, lives in a world where Halloween occurs every day. One day he stumbles across a frozen winter wonderland where Santa exists. Some of Jack's fellow Halloweeners kidnap Santa while Jack comes to understand the nature of this new holiday called Christmas. A weird claymation flick, but a damn good one where Tim Burton's imagination shines.

"The Gift of the Magi" was a story that went over my head when I read it at a young age, but the dramatic irony of the piece is gut wrenching. I can't even begin to break it down for you without ruining the beauty of the writing, but suffice it to say that this is probably one of the strongest examples of what the holiday spirit is about. A very quick read by O.Henry, master of the literary twist.

Another TBS favorite during the holiday. I shouldn't even have to analyze this one for most of you. Dr. Seuss was a staple in almost every household of every person I've ever met. The Grinch, during the course of an evening, somehow manages to steal every last bit of Christmas from a town far far below his home. Of course he has a change of heart and comes to understand the meaning of Christmas in the end. remember this one. Young Billy gets a Mogwai from his father for Christmas. What's a Mogwai? No one but the elderly man at the shop knows, but who cares. They're cute until you feed them after midnight or splash water on them. This one was a decidedly more serious movie compared to "Gremlins 2: The New Batch." I'm still trying to figure out if it was intentionally bad for humor value or they just said "fuck it" halfway through and stopped caring. Either way, the first one is great for the bonding between Billy and Gizmo. The second one is great for all the humor the director gives to the gremlins.

Adapted from E.T.M. Hoffman's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" is probably one of the most beautifully put together pieces of music. Set during the holidays, a young girl is visited by a creepy toy making godfather who gives her a Nutcracker soldier. Later that night, she awakes and heads downstairs to check on the Nutcracker, only to find herself in the midst of a surreal battle between other toys her godfather brought (mice) fighting the soldier. From there, the story evolves into a strange and fantastic dream-like journey for the girl and her nutcracker. If you don't like classical music and you can't stand ballet, you're gonna be SOL on this one, but I promise it's worth your time and effort.

There are many, many more that I'm missing here, but we've all got our own tastes...these just happen to be mine. Either way, there's a little something out there for everyone in the way of holiday cheer entertainment.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Books On Deck / Up Next (Pt. IV)

Shifting gears a bit. Gotta get into a little terror and suspense, a little horror and a little psychological breakage. If anyone has some recommendations, I'd love to hear them. I'm in the mood for less gore and violence and more "House of Leaves" type horror. More cerebral than blood and guts or vampires and ghosts.


Friday, November 25, 2011

(Review) Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia"

I watched this movie in the comforts of my friend Surya's living room on Thanksgiving night. We started it at midnight and we were already one bottle of Jack Daniels down and well onto finishing a second of Bushmills. After a day of drinking and feasting, we decided to actually go out to the movies and saw "The Immortals" (made by the creators of "The 300" and, we all agreed, surprisingly well done), so there was really no reason for us to even be awake, much less have the desire to watch a movie we both knew was going to be highly experimental.

Lars Von Trier is known, much like Terrence Malick, for making strange and beautiful movies with an often overbearing amount of darkness to them. This one comes not long after his much talked about "Antichrist," starring Willem Defoe, a movie I am now determined to watch within the next few days after having finished "Melancholia."

The movie is broken up into two parts; "Part 1: Justine" and "Part 2: Claire" and begins with Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her newly wedded husband stuck in the back of a limo trying to make its way up an incredibly windy dirt road. They are two hours late to their own reception and once they arrive, we get to see the intriguing dynamics of all the family members. For one, Von Trier doesn't really give us much background on any of the characters - we're simply along for the ride and if you haven't strapped in yet, you'll fall off during the first loop-de-loop. A certain kind of willing suspension of disbelief is needed as both my friend and I agreed - it felt like the married couple, and many of the guests themselves, were involved in incestuous relationships. This isn't explicitly stated, but there are a few spoken moments that lean towards this being the case. Perhaps this is an unintentional narrative slip, perhaps not. If there is any truth to it, it becomes completely irrelevant to the rest of the story, but we both picked up on an incestuous vibe and we're both very particular about spotting details like that, both in novels and in movies.

There is an unexplained despondency in Justine's character. She can't seem to will herself to be happy despite the fact that it's her wedding day. Her boss, played by Stellan Starsgaard, hounds her throughout the evening in trying to get a tagline for their new ad campaign, even putting his nephew on her as well. Her new husband acts like a man in love; he wants to make love to his wife at the end of the night, he wants her to be happy, and he wants the night to go smoothly. None of this happens and we see him leave his own wedding night when he falls into his own despondency because of her emotional detachment. The wedding was all in order to help Justine come out of her depression, but she can't raise up out of it, which ends up bringing everyone else down despite all the work and time that's gone into the event purely for her benefit.

In "Part 2: Claire," we're firmly in the viewpoint of Justine's sister, who was also her wedding planner. Claire, played by Charlotte Gainesbourg, is married to Kiefer Sutherland's character, an astronomer paying close attention to a planet that appears to be on a collision course with Earth. Kiefer constantly assuages her fears that the planet is not going to collide with them, but will rather come into their orbit and pass by without much fanfare. He even goes so far as to create a crude device for her - a stick attached to a coiled metal circle. When the stick is pressed against her chest and aimed up at the looming planet, she can see the size of the planet within; if the planet appears both inside and outside the metal ring, it's getting closer. If the planet's size is encapsulated completely within the metal ring, the planet is far way and possibly shrinking.

During this post-wedding time, Justine comes to live with Claire and her husband. Her depression has completely overtaken her and the overbearing mood brings everyone down yet again. It is only during the last twenty minutes of the movie, when we approach the climax, that Justine's mood changes into something less despondent and more calm. The blank look in her eyes becomes a kind of willing acceptance of what fate has to offer them all. What she has been depressed about can now be understood with more clarity.

I won't ruin the ending, but I will say this: Surya didn't enjoy the movie as much as I did, but we both agreed that it was fantastically quirky and rendered beautifully. The opening montage of images were, if not confusing, at least gripping. Von Trier has made an incredibly gorgeous movie, but the ending seemed to come too fast and without much in the way of resolution, so it fell a little flat for the both of us. Taking that initial response into account, however, that may have been the point to Von Trier's work. Time is precious. Family is precious. Emotions can be overpowering despite the moments in which we exist, despite the mood we're supposed to have during these times.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Paul Auster Is A Great Writer, But I Wish He Were Less Boring

I've been making an effort over the last year to read much more than I have in previous years. My finished list at this point only contains about 60 books, which is pretty pitiful. I've also been trying to read more authors that I've heard are good, but simply haven't read. On this list: Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Gilbert Sorrentino, Steven Millhauser, David Mitchell, and finally Paul Auster.

I started with Leviathan after having done some research into the man and heard from many that this was a good one to start with. The night I settled in to begin the book, I had planned on finishing most of it as it was a relatively short novel at 275 pages. The first paragraph had me hooked:

"Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of the road in northern Wisconsin. There were no witnesses, but it appears that he was sitting on the grass next to his parked car when the bomb he was building accidentally went off. According to the forensic reports that have just been published, the man was killed instantly. His body burst into dozens of small pieces, and fragments of his corpse were found as far as fifty feet away from the site of the explosion." 

Pretty gripping, right? And it was...for about ten pages. We find that the narrator was friends with the deceased and we join up with him to figure out what led up the events before the FBI can solve the case. But what follows for at least the next 120 pages is merely backstory upon backstory upon backstory. I finally had to quit the book halfway through because, while the prose is incredibly strong, I kept falling asleep. It didn't matter what time of day I opened the book, everything that followed the mention of the explosion was such a snooze-fest that I stopped caring. Worse still, I forgot that the narrator's friend had been blown up by a bomb of his own making.

This is not a good thing, to forget the inciting incident of the story laid out before us. Paul Auster's prose here is solid and easy to follow, but he seems more interested in getting into the relationships of the characters rather than the reasoning behind why someone would want to build a bomb on the side of a highway. There's a case to be made that the two are completely intertwined; relationships can help illuminate the reasons for a character's behavior, but when the story takes such a huge detour, the story suffers because of it. There's not much in the way of present action to offset the retelling of the past in any substantial way. This makes the whole point of the bomb intro completely unnecessary and exploitative, as if it were merely a gimmick.

But wait, you might exclaim, how can you slam a book when you didn't even bother finishing it? A valid question. Perhaps the story rights itself after the place where I chose to stop, but after other people told me to try The New York Trilogy, and I read it, I have no doubt that I made the right decision. I'm not sorry I stopped reading the book, but I am sorry I bought it.

The New York Trilogy is a set of three stories described as such:

"City of Glass" - As a result of a strange phone call in the middle of the night, Quinn, a writer of detective stories, becomes enmeshed in a case more puzzling than any he might have written.

"Ghosts" - Blue, a student of Brown, has been hired by White to spy on Black. From a window of a rented room on Orange Street, Blue keeps watch on his subject, who is across the street, staring out of his window.

"The Locked Room" - Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind his wife and baby and a cache of extraordinary novels, plays, and poems. What happened to him and why is the narrator, Fanshawe's boyhood friend, lured obsessively into his life? 

These sounded like more my speed. They felt off-beat enough to keep my attention and seemed to have a kind of authorial playfulness to them that Leviathan most assuredly did not. On top of that, they were all a third the size of the novel, so I didn't think I'd have to worry about losing interest as fast.

"City of Glass" turned out to be a fairly engaging story. A man gets a phone call from a husband and wife who are scared that the man's father has returned to kill them. The couple believe Quinn to be Paul Auster, a private detective Quinn can't seem to find. Quinn decides to act like the main character of his own detective novels in order to find out exactly how dangerous this father may be to the couple. What emerges is a very strange tale of biblical allusions about the Tower of Babel, language, and one man's getting wrapped up in the mind of his own character. There wasn't much of a conclusion to this one, which was disappointing as it had a lot of promise, despite it being the longest of the three stories (158 pages). Where Leviathan failed in investing me in the characters, "City of Glass" completely had me interested in the interconnectedness of those involved. But again, the ending fell way flat for such an interesting premise.

"Ghosts" failed where Palahniuk's Fight Club succeeded. An existential story about (another!) detective of sorts, the reader finds out that Blue is essentially paid (by an unseen White) to follow Black. White (who is posing as Black) turns out to simply be another side of Blue, but it's not necessarily explained how or why. Blue is engaged to a future Mrs. Blue, but gives up that life in order to take on this job. He is happy, hasn't much to complain about, and lives in a pre-paid, furnished apartment across the street from Black's so that he may keep a constant vigil on his movements.

Auster builds up great tension by having Blue dress up and act as different people in order to engage Black in conversations throughout, even having him dress in homeless garb (a mimicry of a long stretch of pages in "City of Glass") to try and eke something out of Black. There is the rumination on Blue's part about men not living the lives they should be living, but there's never much of a conclusion to this one, save for Blue's ending the case in violence and running away. He never even really contemplates going back to his fiancee, who he mentions a few times, but not often enough for us to think he genuinely loves the woman. What few twists appeared in the text weren't terribly interesting and I saw one or two coming from a long way off.

In "The Locked Room," the unnamed narrator is called to the home of an old boyhood  friend. The friend has gone missing, leaving behind a pregnant wife and a collection of writings that are apparently so good, they need to be published. Told from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, there is a strange lack of dialogue, despite these brief moments being the most interesting parts of the story. Auster is great at telling us what other characters think and how they feel, but coming from such an in-depth first person point of view, I feel like I'm being made to assume the narrator can read minds. This lack of actual dialogue between characters ends up making the story feel more like a monologue than a short story. There aren't a lot of successful or interesting stories that take this approach; dialogue is pretty damn important when you're dealing with a cast of more than twenty characters.

The exposition is more telling than showing; he breaks down each new character mentally by describing them physically, but then speculates on their emotional states. It's a bit much as 80% of the story is told through narration rather than conversation. I realized thirty pages into this one that this is what annoys me most about Auster's writing - there is not enough true, on-the-page interaction between his characters in order to make believe these events actually happen. Considering the mental states of the narrators he's created thus far, I'm able to buy the premise of each story, but not necessarily the exposition or the conclusion.

The narrator ends up filling the gap that his friend Fanshawe leaves behind; he becomes confidante, and then lover, to Fanshawe's wife. He becomes father to Fanshawe's child and eventually becomes Fanshawe's biographer, a bit of the story that feels unhinged and ridiculous, especially when we watch the narrator focus in on a stranger in a Parisian bar, call him Fanshawe, then chase the man through the Paris streets before getting himself pummeled by the stranger.

Even more strange, just before this scene, Auster writes that the narrator of "The Locked Room" is also the author of "City of Glass" and "Ghosts," but it's done so off-handedly as to make the reader think "well, that must have been an afterthought because it doesn't make much sense yet." There's a little mention of some connective tissue later on in regards to previous stories, but it's just that; a mention, not enough of a thing for one to look backwards through the text in search of answers.

I'd rather not ruin the ending, but the final scene ends up leaving a lot to be desired. After 134 pages, my initial reaction was "and?" The psychology at play doesn't quite seem to jive, but coupled with the drawn-out monologue-like prose (I often felt like I was plodding through a literary desert), the whole piece feels self-indulgent for the sake of being self-indulgent. On a sentence level, the writing is strong. Very strong. Auster has a wealth of great lines and sections throughout. But on a story level, the writing leaves me feeling empty; I lose my connection to EVERY character involved and rather than swing towards one or the other side of the emotional pendulum, I find myself sitting motionless right in the middle, uninterested in the plights or rationalizations of these characters.

I would not recommend Paul Auster to anyone who wants both strong writing and strong storytelling. Based on these two books, he's at his best when in the middle of dialogue, but there's not enough of it on the page to warrant reading more of him.


Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hunger Games

I had the great pleasure of reading a trilogy of books this year called "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. Geared more towards young adults, the trilogy consists of "The Hunger Games," "Catching Fire," and "Mockingjay."

I had heard about them and seen them in the bookstore, but it wasn't until my good friend Andrew hyped them up to me that I decided to buy all three at the same time. Andrew's taste is usually pretty spot-on with literature, so I figured if he liked them as much as he was saying, they had to be good.

And I'll be damned if he wasn't right. Each book sits at about 400 pages in length and I read all three in less than as many days. I was so engrossed in the characters and the story that I was half-tempted to call in sick that Monday morning just to finish the third book. I didn't answer the phone, I didn't watch any television, I simply read. There are only a few other sets of books that prompt me to read so voraciously: Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series and, honestly, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. While King is geared more towards adults and Rowling more towards much younger readers, Collins' "Hunger Games" sits somewhere in that nice middle area appealing to both.

Set in a strange kind of post-apocalyptic world where the United States is broken up into 12 districts (the 13th is all but completely destroyed), the basic premise is that of a lottery system set up to take two children from each district, put them in a constructed wildlife arena, and broadcast them all fighting to the death until only one remains standing.

While many of the post-apocalyptic tropes are used (overarching government control/domination, separation of classes, and one or more characters "raging against the machine"), these all work. The subject matter is nothing new, not by a long shot, but it's all in the delivery and Collins delivers a truly gripping and engaging story based on two main characters, Peeta and Katniss.

I have lent this trilogy out to friends to read. They in turn gave it to others to read when they were done, and those friends gave it to others when they were done. I just recently got a replacement trilogy back in the mail...which is to say, everyone who's read this has loved the hell out of it. There are certainly some logical gaps in some places and there are places where the writing could be much stronger, but this is overall one of the most compelling sets of books I've read in a very long time, despite being written for younger readers.

Hollywood has recently bought the rights to turn this into a movie and, while I was dubious at first, the full trailer for the movie has been released. After seeing it, I have to say...I'm super excited to see the transition of this one to screen. Of course I'll probably have a few issues after finally seeing it, but based purely on the trailer below, the feel of the movie almost directly corresponds to how I envisioned the books while reading them. You should really go out and buy these books immediately. When you get home, you should read the hell out of them. You won't be disappointed.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Jealousy In MFA Programs

Google says that there are nearly 130 MILLION unique books in the world. Even assuming a +/- 10 Million difference, that's a lot of people writing a lot of stuff. As much as I hate to quote the guy, Chuck Palahniuk (via Tyler Durden) says that "you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile." (Fight Club)

And really, there's some truth to this. Both pre- and during my time in an MFA program, I'd come across articles about the relevance of the MFA program and whether it homogenizes writers or waters them down to the point of being irrelevant. My response? That's nonsense. Absolute, pure, ridiculous nonsense. Here's why.

A.) The relevance of an MFA program to a writer should be the same as a medical program to an aspiring RN - the skills and tools needed to progress in those particular fields should be the ultimate aim. if you're not pushing yourself, no one's gonna do it for you.

B.) My own experience (1 of several hundred MFA in Writing programs) is that it does the exact opposite of homogenizing writers. I had the distinct pleasure of being given the reins to control my own writing. It was as if my professors were saying "It's not perfect or pretty yet, but here's how we can get you in the right direction to where YOU want to go." I came into the program with an already skewed style of writing, but I was never told to tone it down unless it was in the service of the story. 

When I arrived, my prose was all over the place. I was trying to dazzle my fellow workshoppers with often confusing and flowery language that was, most likely, only covering up a mediocre story at best. As the semesters went on, both in workshops and in seminars, I was shown a plethora of ways that I could play with my text in a way that made my story worth reading and also allowed me to put my own personal signature on the piece; you knew you were reading my work in many instances.

And of course everyone has their own style. Some people lean more traditional while others, like myself, prefer to push boundaries to see how far we can stretch a story before it blows up in our faces. There's no one school of thought on this that's better than another. I enjoy just as much traditional writing as I do experimental writing...if the story is there. Each writer comes to the table armed with their own level of talent and drive and willingness to listen to other writers who may not like a piece for this or that reason. Like the publishing industry, you're not gonna please all the people all the time. That's just how it goes.

So when I hear about programs across the country that seem to have a higher than should-be-normal level of jealousy or snarkiness sneaking through their ranks, it irks the crap out of me. There's no way I can look forward into the future and predict that my books will sell any better than someone else's. There's no way I can tell someone "People will hate this and they won't read it." I think the "Twilight" series is a great example of this; I think the writing and story are complete crap, but the movement off the shelves speaks to a different truth than what I cling to.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that I don't understand a jealous writer. I've seen some people give worthless comments on a piece simply because they thought they were a better writer or they didn't like the author of the piece, which I find more than a little petty. I've read good writing and I've read great writing. I've read bad writing and I've read stuff that I think will never see the light of day, but in each instance, I can always find something that's worth giving positive feedback on. This isn't a "make everyone feel like a winner" kind of mentality, but there should be a balance in a moment of critiquing. For every negative thing you found in the piece, find one positive; at that point, it's up to the writer to determine how they take the critique. The weaker ones that can't take the honest criticism will bow out while others will be bolstered by it and push harder to make the work better.

Bottom line: when critiquing a colleague's work, don't be a douche. There's no reason to act as such and it only makes you look like an uneducated, jealous writer - the worst kind. You might be a better technical writer, but someone else may have the better story. You might get the better book deal, but someone else will sell more books. Once the writing is done, it's out of our hands and up to the public to decide, which can be scary and exhilarating at the same time. And we've ALL got plenty of work to do on our own...


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hum in Kansas City @ The Record Bar (11.04.11)

These cats have been a favorite of mine since I first heard their (only) radio song "Stars" back when I was a sophomore in high school. Densely layered, effects-heavy guitar work mixed with some pretty strange, and often cryptic, space-essenced lyrics made for music more interesting than a lot of what was being played on the radio at the time. I was fortunate enough to be living in a city that got reception from the indie-rock station near the campus of the University of Kansas (R.I.P. 105.9 the Lazer), so I got plenty of Hum, Soul Coughing, Morphine, Elastica, early Deftones, and I think I even remember hearing Quicksand once or twice, which shocked me.

"Downward is Heavenward" - 1998
This album quickly made my top 10 favorite albums of all time. From front to back, this album gets listened to in one complete sitting. No tracks get skipped and all get turned up very loud. Some of my favorite memories are attached to this album, but specifically driving late at night on Highway 10 heading back into Kirksville, MO, my old college town. I'd be driving with Ben and Scott (or even alone sometimes) and we'd put this album on during the hilliest, darkest highway I've ever been on. Perfect album for driving on a star-lit roller coaster of a backwoods highway.

"You'd Prefer An Astronaut" - 1995

Released the year I moved to Kansas City, this was Hum's breakout album. Their song "Stars" was all over the radio at the time and, typically, it's the only one that ever gets played on the radio despite them having a solid discography of songs to choose from. It took me awhile to really get into this album as it was my first taste of them and the style of music, but eventually became a mainstay as well. While I prefer their last album more, this one has some great tracks on it regardless.

"Electra2000" - 1993

I used to cruise the local Best Buy for new music all the time. Every once in awhile I'd find a new album or early EP from a band that I'd just gotten into and this was one I stumbled across during one of my forays through the music section. A very different and earlier style, it's heavy and chunky, but damn good. You can definitely see how the band's sound progressed from 1993 to 1998. They kept the heaviness, but cleaned it up, made it pristine, made it louder and fine-tuned everything from top to bottom. A solid album despite it being less meticulous and more gritty compared to their last two.

"Fillet Show" - 1991

To this day, I still haven't listened to this one all the way through, I'm ashamed to say. We (my friends and I) didn't even know this one existed until we came across a cassette version on eBay. Ben bought it, but I don't know if he's still got a copy or not. The beautiful thing about the digital age is that someone else had a copy, uploaded it, and now the rest of us can enjoy the early works of the band too. I should probably give this one a spin for the flight home this weekend.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Books On Deck / Up Next (Pt. III)

Some new books that have recently come out.

The first, "Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia" is by Blake Butler. Butler has put out some fantastically bizarre fiction in the last few years and has quickly become a favorite of mine despite feeling lost in his stories at times. He's doing some really interesting stuff contextually and conceptually that I dig. This new book of his is his first foray into the non-fiction realm, so I'm really anxious to see how he approaches it.

The second, third, and fourth books are all from professors of mine from the University of San Francisco. Every one of them was a fantastic influence on not only my writing, but how I approach the novels that I read.

Stephen Beachy's "Boneyard" is out. I know very little about it, but I know there's some press out there that calls into question some of the text. I'm pretty excited to read this one to find out what all the hubbub is about.

Joshua Mohr's latest, "Damascus," is the final installment of a pseudo trilogy of what he calls "bar fiction" set in San Francisco. It's not so much that there are the same characters as his first two books ("Some Things That Meant the World to Me" and "Termite Parade"), it's more a trilogy based on place and time and setting. His first two were damn entertaining, so I'm ready to dig into this one for sure.

And finally, Lewis Buzbee's "The Haunting of Charles Dickens." It's been out for awhile (since last October, I believe), but I keep forgetting to pick it up since it's found in the Young Adult section. Buzbee writes for younger readers, but you wouldn't necessarily know it to hear him read from the text. The prose is intelligent and smooth and doesn't talk down to the readership, which I imagine is a pretty difficult precipice to walk.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Musical Inspiration - 10/26

I've had a couple breakthroughs in the writing over the last couple weeks. After reading Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves" and Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern" (a long-time favorite), I came up with 10 new chapter concepts for "Impasto" that I think will really help the narrative out.

Each time I describe the project to people, they inevitably ask "Do I have to know anything about art?" and I reply, "No, but if you did know something about art, you'd probably get more out of the book." I'm incredibly aware of the kind of divide the topic might bring to the readership, which is why I'm so excited about these new sections which kind of break down the tools and the methodology of the artist along with their equipment in an effort to give a little glimpse of this artist world to the reader. It might be successful, it might not, but here's what's been helping me knock out pages this week:

Miles Davis - "Blue in Green"

Miles Davis - "Peewee"

Inverse Cinematics - "Detroit Jazzin'"

4Hero - "Conceptions"

The Noor - "Glowing Desert"

De-Phazz - "Nu Chic"

Diya Al Din - "Royal Mirage"

Dj Krush - "To Be Continued"

Dj Shadow - "Changeling (Transmission 1)"


Monday, October 24, 2011

(Review) Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves" (Pt. 2 of 2)

(cont'd...pages 246-583)

There may be spoilers in this section, so if you have ANY inclination whatsoever to read this book, I'd steer clear of this particular part of the review. Otherwise, feel free to press on.

The original trio of explorers haven't been heard from in several days. Will Navidson, his brother Tom, and friend Reston decide to make the trip into the void that lies beyond this door. A dark spiral staircase has been found and seems to be one of the only parts of the void that remains. It stretches up and down and outward, lengthening and shortening one's journey along it, but does not disappear. It is a landmark of sorts in this place of infinite blackness.

Halloway, one of the original trio, has since lost it. He has shot at his companions, who now cower in one of the hundreds of side rooms that seem to appear on a whim. Navidson and Reston finally find them and get them out of the "great hallway" as they've come to call it while the house seems to devour Halloway, leaving no trace of the man. He is gone.

Karen, Navidson's wife, is now preparing to leave the house. She doesn't want to stay there any longer and for good reason. The marriage is fracturing and splintering even more now. The kids have developed strange and unexplainable quirks. As Navidson, his brother and Reston emerge with the the other two explorers (one of whom has died from Halloway's shooting him), the house lashes out. Where before the house had left its actions firmly rooted behind the appearing door and in the hallway beyond, now it has moved out into every other part of the house. The black closes in on the family quickly, turning the house upside down and inside out and taking Navidson's brother with it. Navidson watches his brother, a man he's finally gotten on better terms with after so many years, get swallowed by the house.

Throughout all this are the sexual exploits of Johnny Truant and his friend Lude in the footnotes. But it's not the sexual and drug-fueled escapades that become important so much as it is the truth that becomes imperative to Johnny. He's copying every word of Zampano's original notes down and yet finds his life spiraling every downward. He never leaves his home, he loses his job, he stops eating...he looks like death to most people, but eventually goes on a kind of journey to find the house or any of the people involved in creating this whole storyline.

I hesitate to call this book a love story, though that is indeed what Navidson and Karen's story becomes; it is a reaffirmation of their love for each other once their facades have been completely ripped away over the course of the following months during their separation. Johnny Truant's story, however, feels more like that of a monk, designated to copy the story of the house down in an effort to make sure that it remains vibrant and alive despite all evidence to the contrary.

Like I said before in my last entry, this book is a puzzle. After all is said and done, there are some photos of collages that have been put together, a part of which is a card of symbols for (I'm assuming) airline pilots or hikers. One of the symbols is a kind of Roman Numberal II, printed on both the inside front and back covers. This symbol means "require medical supplies." Take from that what you will.

The cover is a beautifully embossed maze convalescing into a golden spiral shape with a compass at its center. The cover is just shy of covering the whole book, which some have speculated is a metaphor for the hallway's dimensions in relation to the rest of the house; they do not coexist in the same temporal space. Their measurements will never become equal.

The deeper I get into the storylines, the more I want of the academic deconstruction of "The Navidson Record." By breaking it down from an almost nearly objective viewpoint, Danielewski allows the important moments to become supercharged with emotion without relying on terrible metaphors or bad descriptions. Keeping it academic approaches the terrorizing nature of the house against the family in a way that actually felt more terrifying as a reader.

And as much as I lost my empathy for Truant the longer the book went on, the writing in his sections was phenomenal. It was like watching a slow burn, a junkie dying a physical death, a man completely losing himself over the course of a year or two. The pacing was just right, as was the introspective nature of many of the passages. You could see that the story of the house, real or fictional, was taking its toll on Johnny. This has led some to wonder whether "The Navidson Record" is even real to Johnny. Or whether Zampano even really exists.

Fun fact: Danielewski's sister is none other than modern rock singer Poe, who created the album "Haunted" based on her brother's book.

Having finished this book within a week, but having not explored all the inner secrets of it quite yet, I realize that my own novel is pathetically anemic. This was Danielewski's first book and granted it may have taken him ten years to complete it, I understand how far I have to go at this point in order to achieve something of this magnitude. The pure creativity that has to exist for this kind of text to happen is through the roof and only makes me want to press harder into my own dark labyrinth of text. 


Saturday, October 22, 2011

(Review) Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves" (Pt. 1 of 2)

This is part one of a two part review. It spans pages 1-245 and pages 584-644 (this will make sense later). 
I'm breaking this review up into two parts for a couple reasons:

1.) This is one of the thickest books I've ever read.
2.) This is one of the most dense, most frightening, most complex books I've ever read.

I'm something of a nerd when it comes to the paranormal. I think there's something fascinating with confronting those things we don't understand, that we can't understand. We, the living, are death-focused. We ponder the existence of life after death and the possibility of death trying to remain in the world of the living. It's provocative and it's interesting; the unexplainable will forever be at the forefront of our collective imaginations.

I saw a show awhile back about the haunting of an old southern prison that people used to call "The Sugarhouse." It was called such because it's where the slaves and prisoners were taken "to be sweetened up" in order to give information to their jailors. Many of these prisoners died from various forms of torture and thus, their spirits are said to still haunt the grounds.

This got me thinking about writing my own horror story, something I had never thought about before as the stories I'd always wanted to tell were on the far other side of the spectrum of reality. But then another show called "American Horror Story" (my review here) showed up on the FX channel and really convinced me that I should give it a try. From my bookshelf, I started looking at various books that explored the world of horror and decided upon Danieleski's "House of Leaves," which has turned out to be a great jump-off point for my next writing endeavor.

Sitting at a lofty 709 pages, the text and formatting make it closer to a 1400 page book. We start off in the perspective of our first narrator (there are multiple), a tattoo artist named Johnny Truant. His friend Lude shows him the apartment of a man who died. In this apartment they find pages upon pages of the former occupant's writing which is essentially what the actual book is; it is the documentation, in a scholarly style (a thesis or doctoral research paper) of a collection of footage called "The Navidson Record." In this apartment, they also find several locks on the door, fingernail scratchings in the floor, and all the windows shut lock-tight with no way of being opened. The former occupant, a man named Zampano, has compiled these pages and notated them with quotes from books that don't exist or cannot be found.

From this point on, we're essentially reading "The Navidson Record" at the same time as Truant. "The Navidson Record" turns out to be the video footage, spliced and edited post-trauma, of a family moving into a house. One day, a door appears in their hallway that wasn't there before and, upon an initial inspection by the father (simply called Navy in most instances), the hallway extends for miles...out through where their backyard should be. It is an impossible situation that logic cannot deconstruct. The halls should not exist since the backyard is still there, but they do. The door should not exist, but it does. 

While we get the very academic deconstruction of the video footage (through quotes from books about the incident and scientific explanations of echoes and mythology in regards to labyrinths), we also get to see the slow fracturing of not only the Navidson family, but of our main narrator, Truant, as well. Truant's prose becomes more grandiose and lofty as each page passes. The more he reads of the document, the more he feels like he's "losing it," at one point even imagining that he leaves his apartment only to be hit by a truck, flung on to the top of his car, which is then run into by the same truck, which then spills gas and the possibility of an explosion. In fact, this moment is pure hallucination on his part. These moments come more and more often the deeper we delve into the text.

When Navidson realizes that he has a serious issue with his house, he calls not only his brother (with whom he had a rocky relationship), but also later calls in a team of outdoorsmen who are well-versed in traversing new and unexplored areas - people who have experience in intentionally getting lost. This is where the book starts getting wonky.

At first, I didn't much care for the strange formatting; footnotes ended up sideways on the upper parts of pages, bits of text were turned backwards in their own little boxes in the middle of the page (see above photo) and often contained a litany of names and places that seemed to have no real bearing on either of the two storylines running at that point. But I realized soon that, while the explorers were getting lost in this new cavernous and unexplainable hallway (for 8 DAYS!!!), the text itself was mimicking the kind of shape-changing effect that the hallway had for those involved. Nothing was static, everything was up for grabs. Stability of anything could not be counted on. Everything about these passages was psychological terror and it worked. 

There are a few appendices in the back that are referred to in this first section, one of which are the letters Truant's mother sends him from a mental home while he's bouncing around from foster home to foster home. I absolutely cannot ruin my favorite letter, one that I spent an hour decoding by making words and sentences from the first letter of each word in the nonsensical text, but suffice it to say that it wasn't the first time Danielewski uses the text in an incredibly effective way to bring about more terror on the part of the reader in an effort to empathize with the characters. The process of the decoding was slow, agonizing, drawn out, and absolutely powerful. I felt my chest constrict as I realized what the hidden message said.

I have stopped at page 245 to write this because the more I read, the more engrossed I become. The explorers are lost in the cavernous hallway, which has itself produced a downward-spiraling staircase into an unimaginable black depth and more hallways and rooms for them to explore. Navidson and his brother and their friend have gone in after the explorers, knowing that something terrible has happened to one or all of them. I know that if I don't stop now, I will have finished this book by nightfall and I almost want to relish the delicious terror that is building up at a grueling pace. 

Despite some very tangential movements in the storyline, both in the academic deconstruction and Truant's interludes and commentary, I'm thoroughly engrossed in this book. It's taken some serious patience to get through some of the initial chapters, but it's absolutely paying off right now. I have zero idea as to how this will end and there are very few clues leading me on. The book is a puzzle to be solved. So much so, in fact, that there is a web forum devoted to picking apart each little clue that Danielewski leaves scattered throughout the book. Like a vision of something truly terrible and unimaginable, I can't take my eyes off it for fear of losing it altogether...


Friday, October 21, 2011

The Cremaster Cycle

The Cremaster Cycle...where to even begin with this. These art installations/videos/mind-scramblers are the brainchildren of Matthew Barney, husband to Icelandic Queen of Pop, Bjork. I have yet to watch all of them all the way through (I believe there are some 7+ hours worth of footage/storyline spanning the different cycles). Below are some teaser/trailers for each one and a description. If you've got nothing else going on and want to take a drug-free trip, have at it. There's not a whole lot else to compare these to. Think Shakespeare meets mythology meets Hunter S. Thompson meets Pan's Labyrinth meets LSD and you've about got the jist of things.

Nancy Spector has described the Cremaster cycle (1994–2002) as "a self-enclosed aesthetic system."[2] The cycle includes the films as well as photographs, drawings, sculptures, and installations the artist produced in conjunction with each episode. Its conceptual departure point is the male cremaster muscle, the primary function of which is to raise and lower the testes in response to temperature.

The project is filled with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: Cremaster 1 represents the most "ascended" or undifferentiated state, Cremaster 5 the most "descended" or differentiated.

The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during early sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown — in Barney's metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology.

The films were not made in numerical order (1–5), but rather in the order 4, 1, 5, 2, 3 – precisely, 4 in 1994, 1 in 1995, 5 in 1997, 2 in 1999, 3 in 2002. The numerical order is the thematic order, while in order of production the films increase in production quality and ambition, and they can alternatively be viewed in any order, as different views of a set of themes and preoccupations.

The films are significantly different in length; the longest (and last-made) is #3, at over 3 hours, while the remaining four are approximately 1 hour each, for a total of approximately 7 hours – #3 itself is almost half the total length. There is precious little dialog in any of the films; only #2 features significant dialog.[3]
An important precursor of the Cremaster Cycle is Drawing Restraint, which is also a biologically inspired multi-episode work in multiple media, also featuring the field emblem.

Part One of Cycle One

Part One of Cycle Two

Part One of Cycle Three

Part One of Cycle Four

Part One of Cycle Five


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flash Fiction - "Weather Vain"

I hate dinner parties, the ones where I’m the odd man out and everyone else seems to know each other. I know nothing about these people and they know nothing about me, so the obligatory “getting to know you” conversations occur every half an hour. Someone new shows up and I’m introduced again and again, putting my most current biography on repeat and everyone falls asleep at the same part.

‘There are 50 of us,’ I say, trying to make it sound glamorous and special at the start. ‘One for every state. We have our own offices away from the rest of the building. They are air-conditioned and made to look like a small home away from home and that is where I work for 24 hours a day.’

At this point I’m usually asked if I have my own home. ‘No. Once you have this job, you never really get another one,’ and they will ooh and ahh as if I’m the most exciting thing to have stepped in the party. ‘Once hired, we move into these separate office-homes, pre-fab and already furnished with utilities paid.’

Their eyes will widen and their mouths will form o’s in wonder as they hang on to my every word. ‘What IS it you do?’ they ask, now more curious than ever and I will explain that my work touches everyone on a global scale and this excites them even further until I’m almost afraid that they shall eat me instead of the appetizers beautifully laid out on the kitchen counter.

‘I manage anywhere from 20-40 video cameras in my living room at any given moment, keeping a constant vigil on the weather. When you see the weather channel, I’m the lone person doing that. I AM the weather channel,’ I say as confidently as possible and then sipping my drink so I don’t see the disappointment in their eyes.

I see it in their lips, the hesitation and the halting of an upturned nose at this news. Suddenly, their canap├ęs don’t taste as good and they need a refill of whatever drink had been their friend that night and I am left to wait around until the next curious person makes to shake my hand.

Sometimes I get lucky and a new person will come around who has yet to be briefed by the rest of the party and I pretend to be something else. I will shroud myself in faux secrecy and hopefully keep someone’s attention long enough to get past my occupation and into conversation I am lacking at home. I’d stop coming to these dinner parties, but I have no one to talk to at home but my equipment.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Books On Deck / Up Next (Pt. II)

One of the newer sections of "Impasto" is being told in stage-play/screenplay format, so I'm getting back to reading some old plays by more contemporary writers. I'm also trying to read more of the super experimental stuff to get my mind moving again as I feel a little stagnant creatively. I'm hoping to jar a few ideas loose over the next month and a half, so here are a few things on my to-read list: