Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who Is Jake Yoder???

I'm not entirely sure what's going on with this book, but one of my professors apparently has some weird controversy about his newest one coming out called "Boneyard." Beachy was definitely one of the best writing instructors I've ever had, and I have (had?) a lot of respect for the guy, but watching this video has me a little concerned on a few different levels.


Thursday Morning Blues

Just a little something different today. I got to thinking about what I consider my own personal kind of blues music in a contemporary way. I've been in a funk of sorts since class ended and some of these songs have been playing in my head since then. Enjoy.

Radiohead - "Subterranean Homesick Alien"

Jeff Buckley - "So Real"

Jets to Brazil - "King Medicine"

Sunny Day Real Estate - "Every Shining Time You Arrive"

Coldplay - "High Speed"

Jaga Jazzist - "All I Know Is Tonight"

Explosions In The Sky - "First Breath After Coma"

Temple of the Dog - "All Night Thing"

Slowdive - "Allison"

Self - "Lucid Anne" 


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Craft - Pt. 7 / Writing While Life Happens

I'm having a problem with my social life and my writing life coinciding (or not, as the case may be). There is probably a multitude of reasons why this may occur, but the two are not co-mingling the way I'd like them to, and this will forever be the problem of writers across the world.

 Writing is a solitary act as it forces one inward. Being social is an obviously non-solitary act that forces one outward. Combining the two requires a balance that will differ from person to person. Right now, my balance is 90% solitary and 10% social, which is completely skewed for me based on my past experiences. When I lived in Kansas City, my life was 90% social and 10% solitary. I dj-ed a few nights a week, I was in class most days and I had a steady job that had me going to different bars in the evenings I wasn't dj-ing. That I got any measure of writing done at all during this period is astounding. The distractions were numerous and constant. I was friends with more people on a regular basis than I can count and frequently wanted to spend time with all of them, especially as my time there came to a close during the Spring of 2009.

Now, living in a city full of lit-life and constant (see: positive) distractions, I spend most of my time at home working on new pages. The cost of living in California has definitely put a damper on my social life, as has not having a car for the first time in 17 years. Public transit is spotty at best and getting around the city in an efficient and timely manner is an absolute joke. Once I leave the house, I'm gone for most of the day as opposed to just a few hours. Those are the external factors.

The internal factors are of the utmost importance. In the years leading up to my graduate work, I knew I had more time to work on writing because I'd be in school for at least another two years focusing on nothing but writing. Six of my first eight graduate school choices denied me entrance into their programs, but I knew I was going to get my MFA somewhere far away from the Midwest. I had to get out. I knew I was distracted and my friends could see it too. I had several tell me that I needed to go, sooner than later, because it was obvious I was on the precipice of something that required all of my concentration.

And for the last two years, this is what I've done. I have tried to explore parts of California and enjoyed myself, but I have two books that are near completion after two years and now that I'm no longer in classes, finding the time for myself should be easier, right? It's actually gotten harder. Especially considering that there's a very good possibility I won't have more classes to go to anytime after this. There's the possibility I may not get into a Ph.D program, which means I have all this free-time to get these books written. In order for the books to be written, I have to sit down at the laptop and finish them, which is easier said than done.

It is a discipline that I never had before, cutting off the people in my life in order to get something finished in this manner. I don't enjoy cutting people off or out of my life; I thrive on the face to face conversations and interactions that come with being human. Some of my best story ideas have come when I wasn't even thinking about writing, when I was out with friends doing whatever we may have been doing. The moment an idea hits cannot be explained or pinpointed, it simply happens. Experiences lived outside of the living room or the study (or wherever it is you write) must be engaged in fully. The experiences serve to influence your writing and your writing might reflect them, if even in some small way.

Only you know what balance of solitary vs. social works for you, but don't ever completely eliminate the social aspect in favor of the writing. The writing will always be there for you if you've fostered it properly. Most of my friends understand why I disappear for months at a time, but they may not always be there when I come out of hiding. Those connections need to be fostered as much as the writing does. Your social life is your sanity.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

(Review) Steven Millhauser's "The Knife Thrower & Other Stories"

Millhauser is the guy I should've been introduced to long before I read any Calvino or Bolano or Marquez or even Barthelme. He absolutely falls into that whimsical/playful style of prose and story-telling that appeals to my left-of-center aesthetic, but something kept bugging me while I read the stories in the collection: he wasn't taking the idea far enough for me.

Twelve stories spread out over 228 pages, but only two genuinely seemed to keep my attention rapt, "The Sisterhood of the Night" and "The New Automaton Theater."

In "The Sisterhood of the Night," Millhauser sets up the story in a kind of mock court docket, splitting up certain people's testimonies versus passages like "What We Know" and "What We Assume." Right out of the gate, my interest is piqued because he's given the reader a bizarre and, as yet, unexplainable occurrence. The girls in this particular town are sneaking out at night to meet up with each other. Rumors abound; these midnight meetups are lesbian in nature or ritualistic in sinister, anti-establishment ways. Testimonies are given, members of the sisterhood are named, one commits suicide and stories change again and again.

It's told from the perspective of an adult, which I think gives the piece its strength. As I get older, I view the follies and idiotic nature of my youth in a different light than I did back then. This story's underlying strength is its focus on that dichotomy, that shift of mentality from youth to adult without outright saying it.

"The New Automaton Theater" was one of the few stories I wish had gone on longer despite it already being one of the longer pieces at twenty-four pages long. A society has come so far as to have created entertainment in the form of automatons, or (basically) robots. But these automatons have been worked on and perfected and toiled over for decades by masters and their apprentices. At the time of the story, there are so many automaton theaters that their exact numbers are incalculable. One immediately imagines an entire city of shops and houses surrounded by theater after theater after theater.

Then one day, a young prodigy emerges. His skills are on par with the rest of automaton makers his age, but soon he surpasses them and becomes THE guy to see. He creates automatons that do magic flawlessly and some that do magic that men can't do, which both impresses and disturbs others in his craft. After creating a female automaton, one man weeps at her performance and falls in love with her. The prodigy's talents become world-renowned as he constantly improves upon his work year after year until finally he disappears for ten years.

When he returns with a new show, the product is disturbing to some, unsettling to others, and flat out wrong to most. What Millhauser has done by the time you arrive at this bittersweet ending is embedded you so deeply into mentality of the town that you almost begin to think like them. The biggest problem with this is that it takes him so long in the beginning of the story to set it up that you wonder what the story is actually about.

Overall, Millhauser's collection is an entertaining read. I wasn't overly impressed by it, but his writing is fluid and moves easily across the page. If he's not describing a mall that's become a kind of warehouse selling off bits and pieces of life, he's showing you the possibility of a carnival that goes several levels and several thousand feet below ground purely to keep attracting new patrons. And while these are conceptually interesting, there's something holding Millhauser back. You can almost taste how much further he wants to take the idea, but he never goes over the line - and he should. As it stands, many of the stories end before they get truly interesting.

I have three other collections by Millhauser waiting to be read and I'm hoping that he pushes the boundaries a bit within their pages, but "The Knife-Thrower" is an entertaining collection of stories. I just wish he would've let the weirdness overpower the need for reality a bit more. That's when moments were at their best here.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Artist Album Fiction - Stone Temple Pilots' "Purple"

Lounge Fly
 "I can’t live this way. Please refuel my soul.”

He woke up on the sidewalk again and checked his back pocket. ‘Good,’ he thought, feeling the overfull back pocket. ‘My wallet’s still there.’ His mouth was dry and foul from the previous night’s bender while the mixture of smoke and liquor permeated his clothing. He stood slowly, letting the world stop revolving around his hangover as he stumbled through his own puddle of sick, feeling its slickery feel along the sole of his boots.

Bits and pieces of filaments of memory filtered through the spotty sunbeams between buildings and light poles as he inhaled the diesel-tainted morning air. He felt his throat catch and vomited on the sidewalk again, this time almost hitting sober pedestrians on their way to work. Hunched over, he slowed his breathing down and spat out the last of the bile still clinging to his lips. He felt pressure behind his eyes, pushing them outward as pain shot towards the back of his head.

A quarter rolled its way into his downward view, stopped, and fell over smartly. He followed its path back behind him to a homeless man against the wall. Dingy brown cloth covered his body, but one could see the stink rising off of him in every direction. A beard of spotty black and gray exploded off his face in feathery tufts while his eyes squinted below over-bushy eyebrows. “Keep it,” he said with a grin. “You’ll need some gum.”

Still Remains

“If you should die before me, ask if you can bring a friend.”

We chose a private wedding, one without the trappings of an expensive dress or a buffet of hors d’oeuvres that carried remnants of spicy meatballs on the burp-breath of well wishers. She wore the sundress I met her in, pale yellow now and re-fitted to make way for a third (Michael from my grandfather? Shannon from her great aunt?) on the way. I was ashamed to be wearing the same tweed jacket and jeans ensemble from years earlier, but she smiled true at me anyway as we stood in front of the Justice. It was hot in the air-conditioned room despite it being muggy outside and I remember my hands being clammy and prunish as we spoke through the motions.
This is what I remember when I sat in the hospital beside her. This is what I remember when packing up the unopened onesies to drop off at Goodwill.

I always figured she would be the stronger of the two of us, but she withdrew from everything and I was thankful for a five minute conversation regarding anything. Eventually, I just stopped asking questions about the spare room and disassembled everything over several weeks. I wallpapered over the blue bears and butterflies with non-committal stripes reaching from carpet to ceiling.  I later painted over those with a neutral eggshell. I left the rocking chair in the far corner to stand guard since I was failing at the job.

This is what I remember when I gave her hour long baths. This is what I remember while she grasped at silence while the faucet screamed in her honor.

I stood at the casket, shaking hands and head as mourners lined up to offer heartfelt condolences. My legs were sore at the end of the three hours, but I didn’t want to leave. She looked waxy and content as I removed the thin veil from the lid of the coffin. They had done a good job of covering her wrists with makeup. I kissed her forehead and let my eyes water for the first time that evening. I had her buried in her sundress, but opted for an appropriate suit for myself. A deep purple tie to match a rose the same color placed on top of her lowered casket.

This is what I remember sitting in that empty, eggshell room. This is what I remember when I sit in the rocking chair at night.

Army Ants

“Fall on into those single file lines and complete the plans.”

The sun hasn’t even been given his wakeup call before there is a rush of commerce in the morning. The smell of lattes and espressos filters from the top of coffee lids held by hands attached to bodies clip-clopping along in polished black shoes. Slacks pressed and ironed, skirts the same but with high heels attached. The mixture of colognes and perfumes is an aromatic abortion left to linger for the next batch of suits at the intersection of Bigger and Better. We built up and out to fill the coffers so that we could keep filling the coffers so that we could keep filling our own coffers.

Her strides eclipsed the slower tourists of the morning as she spoke sharply into her earpiece. She stepped into traffic with ease, unconcerned for the taxis barreling towards her at lunatic speeds. Squeals of tires praying for a quick stop accosted her from the right, but she walked on, oblivious and practically screaming into her phone as she crossed over to the other side of the street and filled another coffer.

He couldn’t believe how close he’d been to hitting the woman in the red skirt. ‘Would’ve served the bitch right,’ he thought. ‘You can’t just not pay attention in this city and hope someone does it for you.’ He threw his hands up in disgust as she walked by, not even bothering to look at him. The passengers in the backseat screamed at him, wondering why he was driving like an idiot and he screamed back in kind through the Plexiglas separating them.

The man threw a cluster of green at the driver through the small sliding tray and grabbed his fiancĂ©e, exiting the cab quickly as the cabbie screamed back at them that it wasn’t enough. He was out of earshot by the time the couple made it halfway down 47th street. It was close enough to their destination that they didn’t mind, but they scurried around the next corner anyway, giggling in that new love kind of way couples on the cusp of forever seem to have. They found the furniture store after several blocks and walked in clutching each other’s hands. A lady in a red skirt passed the recessed doorway as the couple stepped into their first living room purchase.


Artist Album Fiction - Tool's "Undertow"

For awhile, I was picking some of my favorite albums and choosing songs to write about. This was purely for writing exercises to get me out of a non-writing funk and turned out to be quite fun. Not all the pieces were as successful as I would've liked, but I ended up doing a few albums:

Stone Temple Pilots - "Purple"
Miles Davis - "Bitches Brew"
The Clash - "London Calling"
The Mars Volta - "Deloused in the Comatorium"
Smashing Pumpkins - "Siamese Dream"
Portishead - "Dummy"

and finally, this one - Tool's "Undertow." The idea, like writing based on images or photographs I've come across, was to expand upon the lyrics or emotional tone of the song. Obviously part of the problem was interpreting someone else's words or music into something they most likely didn't intend. But here is, what I think, my most successful batch of writing from this little project.

Crawl Away
 “What you try to say is that you don’t wanna play.”

 I can hear her kicking in the trunk. Her bare feet on metal keep a rhythm with the tires on the pavement. Another cigarette gets thrown through my window, left to die out on the side of the country road as we leave the outskirts of the last small city for some 50 miles. It is muggy and heavy outside, but I keep the A/C off anyway. I don’t have to move much to know there is a long stretch of sweat up the middle of my back, sticking me to the seat as we continue on our midnight drive.

* * *
“So what do you do?” she asks, feigning interest.

“Insurance claims. Not as interesting as I’d like,” I reply, sipping my tea. We are the only two in the diner, so the conversation feels obligatory but makes the meal more enjoyable anyway. I am a stranger to her, but I’ve been hunting her for weeks. Her picture is buried inside my wallet.

“What would you rather do?” she asks with a subtle grin. I smile over my mug. She doesn’t want to hear my real answer.

“Globetrotting. Travelling the country and not worrying about work or money. You?”

“I like yours. Let’s do it,” she said, and we left. She seemed like the kind of girl who lived moment to moment and rarely thought things through. The more she talked, the more I drove. Eventually she stopped watching the road until I pulled into a boarded up gas station across the county line. It took me five minutes to get her duct-taped and thrown into the trunk.

* * *

I pulled over at the first secluded spot I could find. I parked the car beneath a large willow tree and sat on the protruded roots to have a smoke. She would tire of banging her limbs on the roof. Her adrenaline would continue to pump through her system, so waiting for her to pass out was absurd. Exhaustion was the goal.

I made sure to cover the car in the unlikely case that someone else drove by before I went walking along the fence line beside the highway. I could hear cattle in the far fields mooing at the oncoming sunset and the cicada buzz above provided a calming soundtrack. After a half hour of waiting on the fence line, I sauntered back to the now silent car.

I rapped on the hood twice. “Here’s the deal. You fight, you die right now and I’ll skin you alive and feed you your heart. You relax, then you get to live for a while longer. Knock twice if you understand me and plan on behaving.”

Two knocks muffled the sound of her sobbing from inside. The sun had disappeared now and it was even darker underneath the overhanging foliage. I could see the stars peppered through the limbs of the thick willow as I dug the keys out of my pocket. Her feet were on the passenger side of the car; rather, they had been. I stood off to the side and opened the trunk quickly as a foot came flying out of the car. Truth be told, I prefer them a little feisty, so I grinned in the dark.

Neither of us moved for several long moments as she realized I wasn’t right there. This cover of darkness had worked to my unplanned advantage as she gingerly brought her head up to look around, getting her night vision straight. I slammed the trunk down on her, hard enough to hurt, but not knock her out. She grunted and fell back, lopsided and raggedy, legs dangling out of the car. “Why are you doing this to me?” she whimpered.

“This is my love for you,” I mumbled as I slid her legs back into the trunk and slammed the lid down with a satisfying thud on her skull. 

 “Twice as clear as Heaven, twice as loud as reason.”

I come to in the dark. It wasn’t the jostling that did it so much as it was the radio cranked to full blast on a country station. I tried mentally mapping out our travel, but got lost after the third or fourth long curve. The trunk would illuminate from the brake lights at the start of these curves, but there was nothing to see. It had been stripped down to the metal and all I could see were bolts and rusted sheeting.

He had taken my watch and my hair pins, thinking they would probably help me out somehow. My skull pounded in the dark and I grimaced with every rough patch of road the tires dined on, perpetually jostling me. I imagined him smiling that creepy smile as he drove, hearing me tumble in the back. It was entirely possible he was doing it on purpose. 

I felt a rivulet of wet crawl down the side of my face and instinctively wiped it away. Immediately, I could smell the copper and knew I was bleeding. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

I rested my head on the trunk floor and began to sob quietly. I knew I was going to die tonight; I couldn’t envision any solid escape plan and he was much bigger than I was. He was in control and I would just have to pray for a tiny moment of clarity, that sliver of immediacy that would give me the upper hand long enough to get away. The car stopped after awhile and I could hear him cough as he got out of the car. His footsteps headed away from the car across some gravel and then faded out of earshot. I figured it for another trick until I heard him coming back in slow measured steps across the gravel again.

The trunk opened. He stared at me as he exhaled on his cigarette and he nodded for me to get out of the trunk. It didn’t take long for my eyes to adjust as the moon was high in the sky, but he didn’t give me a chance as he pressed something into the small of my back, forcing me to move. I walked until we came to a ravine filled with water. Cement steps leading down had been washed out forever ago and it was a rocky, almost vertical trek. A canoe rested on the bank below. “You want me to climb down there?” I asked, hearing my voice crack in fear.

“Nope,” he said evenly. I felt myself falling and tumbling, hitting rocks and dirt while my hands reached out for anything to slow my fall. Head over body over head over body, until I reached the muddy part of the shore and stared straight up. I heard him cough again and turned my head enough to see him. As I blacked out, he threw a rope ladder down, attached to one of the trees, and began a slow descent.

 “Soon the water will come and claim what is mine. I must leave it behind and climb to a new place.”

 The half-moon shone down across the uncovered parts of the swamp as frogs croaked their dedication dirges. The canoe sliced silently through the moss hiding the dangers below the surface and he paddled with a steady rhythm, listening for anything. Dip, whoosh, thrust, drip; the four note oar medley for this trip settled him and he paddled his way into a grove of low hanging branches for a smoke. He ducked his head and felt the leaves tickle the nape of his neck as he reversed the canoe and paddled in backwards. A soft thud told him the boat wouldn’t move much as he decided where to dump the body.

He left her in the boat and fumbled his way onto shore, feeling his boots press deep into the firma. Water drowned his toes as he walked and found himself staring at a small lagoon-like area away from the main river thoroughfare. He paced the entire circumference, searching for a long tree limb to gauge the depth of the water and found a rotted ten foot length. It slid into the murk quickly and damn near soaked the entire length. Satisfied, he tossed it in and headed back to the boat.

He heard a commotion, then a splash. He sprinted as fast as he could back to his makeshift dock and found her body absent. Large streaks of blood ran down both the inside and the outside of the now wobbly boat, rocking from side to side. His eyes scanned the black water and found no movement other than the ripples from the boat. No noise from the underbrush, so he figured an alligator must have gotten to her; smelled the blood on the boat and crept up quiet. Either way, she would never make it out of the swamp in one piece, much less alive.

He got back into the boat and pushed off with his oar, stroking slowly. Dip, whoosh, thrust, drip. Another two hours and he would be home.


Prologue to "Rise"

"Rise" is the second full novel I started during my time at USF. Based off the image below (a real image/not doctored to appear that way), the story of how the church came to be submerged in water and how the people involved with it went about their daily lives after became an interesting anchor for me to explore thematically. I was reading a lot of Marquez and Bolano at the time, which I think helped facilitate a more Latin-esque aesthetic for the story. Both in setting and in mentality, I think the approach is the right one. It feels natural, despite possibly being not quite original in conception. I have the ending already in mind.

This was one story where the ending came almost immediately upon seeing the picture. I started this book late last Spring and the ending hasn't changed one iota. It's still exactly how I want the book to end and my current work on "Impasto" in regards to expanding upon character will really help to make the ending to "Rise" one worth reading.

Marisa thought it didn’t seem to have a purpose, floating there amongst the bugs and fallen leaves, other than to spin slowly. The lazy current of the river spun the dead woman’s body like a slow-motion pin-wheel in the afternoon sun. The right foot, the left foot, the left arm, her head, the right arm and back again – each part of her body touched shoreline as the current carried her to its eventual end. Marisa was entranced and stumbled after the body. Never in a hurry and certainly not anxious to get home for more chores, she let the dead woman be her guide.
“My name is Marisa,” she said to the body. “It’s nice to meet you, too. Oh me? I’m just out finding food for my family. Are you enjoying your swim? It’s a beautiful day to be in the water, I’ll bet. I agree – it’s nice to finally have sunshine instead of rain all the time. The next village? Oh, I’m not sure. Maybe around the next bend? Oh look there, you’ve gotten yourself stuck.”
Marisa put down her basket and searched for a tree limb in the dense forest foliage that ran parallel to the river. Once found, she skipped across the dirt path and fumbled through the high reeds to find herself face to face with the old woman. She seemed familiar, as if Marisa had seen her before, but she couldn’t remember.
The woman’s body had decayed deep into an unrecognizable state. Her silver hair fanned about and swirled beyond her head in the murky river like strange metal snakes. The eyes had milked over and the skin appeared to have shrunk about her skull. Her bluish skin almost glowed against the brown water. Marisa stared at the woman’s face and tried to count the folds of crinkled skin around her eyes. She realized she couldn’t count that high. “Mama says the more crow’s feet you have, the luckier you are. Do you think that’s true?”
Unsatisfied with the woman’s answer, Marisa “hmphed” and dug the limb into the woman’s stomach, pushed the body gently back out into the current and grabbed her basket up off the ground. “Of course I’ll still keep you company,” she replied as if the notion was ridiculous. The old woman was emaciated and skeletal, yet Marisa continued to follow her, making conversation. Wherever the body stopped and got stuck, Marisa found new nuts or berries to gather. When the old woman’s body stopped for too long, Marisa would find another branch from a fallen tree and give the body a soft shove. This went on for awhile until the body floated out of her reach. Marisa waved a sad goodbye to the woman and headed back up the path.
The way home was not steep, thankfully, but she had lost track of time. ‘I seem to be lost, or at least farther away from home than I should be,’ she thought to herself as she hiked up the trail along the river’s edge. Her eyes widened briefly before a smile broke across her face. “An adventure!” she whispered into the serene valley air. She gripped the basket tight in her hand and sprinted towards the highlands, letting only a few of the nuts and berries tumble to the ground below. She ran for several long minutes before tiring and fell to her knees in the dirt along the quiet river’s edge. She could feel the sweat beading on her brow as she caught her breath.
“Mother is going to be so angry with me,” she said to a small group of flowers nearby. She plucked one, deep violet in color, and pressed it to her nose. She could still smell the rain deep inside its blossom. She rubbed the petals across her cheek and giggled before placing it behind her ear.
Marisa saw more flowers closer to the river and crawled to them, leaving her basket behind. She marveled at the petals - blues bluer than the noon sky, lush and edible greens, yellows like the gold in Papa’s stories and there in the back, a bright and lonely pink thing poking up from between a garden of rocks. Marisa cooed as her eyes drank it in. ‘I should pluck that one and give it to Mother,’ she thought as she reached out for it. She leaned over the other flowers, careful not to crush them, and reached out her hand.
She wrapped her fingers around the stem carefully and tugged. ‘Strange,’ she thought as it wouldn’t budge. She lifted her other hand over the flowers to steady herself and tugged harder. Still, the flower wouldn’t come. The shore was littered with rocks and this flower, this pink thing of beauty, sprung up from beneath them all. Marisa imagined the flower to be strong, but not this strong. She tugged and tugged and dug her fingernail into the flesh of the stalk to cut it loose, but the flower remained, unplucked and perfect. She tried with the right hand, she tried with the left – nothing.
‘One extra tug, no more,’ she thought, panting in the coming sunset. She reached out and overcompensated. Her body fell forward. Her arms flew out to find support, but slipped on the grass and she tumbled over the edge of the river to the rocks below. Marisa’s head connected with several clustered together, opening up a bloody gash in the side of her forehead. Her body went limp and splashed into the ambivalent water below. Her body bobbled just below the surface before righting itself, her face pointed skywards and her eyes closed to deep slumber. The current had picked up since the afternoon and she floated quickly down the river’s edge, picking up bits of grass and leaves in her hair.
Her forehead wore a glossy red that dripped down the side of her face as she floated. She didn’t seem to have a purpose, floating there amongst the bugs and fallen leaves, other than to spin slowly. The lazy current of the river spun the young girl’s body like a slow-motion pin-wheel along the river bank. The right foot, the left foot, the left arm, her head, the right arm and back again – each part of her body touched shoreline as the current carried her to its eventual end.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Some Late Night Inspirational Music

Maybe a bit off the wall for most of you reading, but this is what's getting me through my current writing session at the moment.

Henry Mancini - "Lujon"

Grover Washington Jr. - "Loran's Dance"

Miles Davis - "I See Your Face Before Me"

Dj Cam - "Mad Blunted Jazz"

4Hero - "Conceptions"

Jazz Liberatorz - "Loop Prisoner"

Flying Lotus - "Galaxy in Janki"


The Truth in Fiction

I wanted to start off with this quote from "V for Vendetta" because I believe, at the heart of it, is something very real and tangible:

"My father used to say artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up."

But instead, I think this one from Albert Einstein sums up what I'd like to talk about in a much more poetic and honest way:

"... knowledge must continually be renewed by ceaseless effort, if it is not to be lost. It resembles a statue of marble which stands in the desert and is continually threatened with burial by the shifting sand. The hands of service must ever be at work, in order that the marble continue to lastingly shine in the sun. To these serving hands mine shall also belong."
Even people without a background in philosophy know the idea of "Know thyself," but what I've found over the last couple of years is that so few people ever really sit back and deconstruct themselves or willingly have themselves deconstructed by others. Every author has an almost thematic (though not always intentionally so) approach to the stories that they weave. Some write about zombies, some write about relationships, and some write very intentionally from personal experience.

It was pointed out to me a few months ago that much of my writing is about loss, either of things, self or of love. It is mostly the latter and it's never been intentional on my part, but looking back on most of my work (both in poetry and in fiction) I can see that this is definitely the case. As I've said before, I refuse to write about my personal experiences outright, but I will say that I've had some rocky times with past relationships. This isn't to say that my experiences have been more unique than others, simply that they are unique to me. The intelligent person approaches the love life with a certain kind of tabula rasa every time; no lover is ever like another and they shouldn't be treated as such. Likewise, no book should ever be written with the same mentality either.

But ultimately, these moments from my life seep into the work without me realizing it. It is a subconscious decision, but one that is apparently inevitable. I've heard time and time again that writers should "write what they know," and I believe that to be absolutely false. If something fascinates you to the point of writing about it, then do the proper research and make the book as true-to-life as possible. I currently have 9 books that are sitting at different levels of completion. Out of those nine, I've done research on five of them purely to flesh the story out in the best possible ways I can. A story absolutely cannot be its best without some truth being the cornerstone of its foundation.

Saying that truth is necessary in fiction may at first sound like an oxymoron. After all, fiction is made up and constructed from the imagination on a whim or from the briefest scent of a moment. At its worst, it is a trite and cliched fabrication. At its best, fiction is a magnifying glass turned upon ourselves as readers, picking up on the minutiae of who we are and what we're made of. I've read books that have made me misty-eyed and I've read books that have made me want to throw the book across the room in anger. This visceral reaction is one of the many powers of truth within a text.

This entry has become something completely different than what I originally set out to write, but it's no less honest than the idea that sparked it. Either that or the scotch has done a quicker number on me than I expected. If you are writing, write what is true for the story and the real, the tangible, will often bubble up to the surface organically. The substance of a piece (be it music, art, writing, whatever) will be firmly planted in the real. It's foolish to think that you can write about an emotional moment without finding out how others (or yourself!) have experienced that same kind of moment before. Every ounce of concentration should be focused on making that moment as true as possible or it will fall flat when others read it. 

On the other hand, it is not foolish to write about other moments you know nothing about. There's no way you'll ever be able to experience the nauseating moments leading up to the storming of the Normandy beaches, but that's why the act of researching should be not only mandatory, but approached from a less academic way and a more personal way. I know nothing about astronauts or low-orbit space travel, but that's what one of my books is about, so I dig in and do the research. I knew next to nothing about art or museums (only that I loved both), but I can't even tell you how many hours I've spent researching for "Impasto" over the last year and a half. 

The truth in your fiction is important. If nothing else, aim to make the reader feel exactly as you do for every moment you put on the page. I swear they will stand by you if you can make that moment on the page as real as if they were truly living it, no matter how experimental or sci-fi your book may be. Once you figure out how to do that, you will be unstoppable.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

(Review) Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"

I had never heard of Selznick before two weeks ago. I typically spend an afternoon (usually Saturday or Sunday) watching the trailers for new movies on the Apple site. For one, I like to see what kind of ideas are being produced by Hollywood and for two, it's a good way to figure out if the stories I'm telling (and will continue to tell) are relevant. I stumbled across the trailer for this movie (directed by Scorcese), which I found out later was based on the book. I was fascinated by the idea and bought the book immediately.

The movie looked like your standard kid's movie with a bit more whimsy. The book, however, was a 525 page beast filled equally with text and pictures. Some of the pictures were huge charcoal drawings of more complex scenes. Others were video stills taken from old silent movies like "Modern Times," "Safety Last," and one that plays a crucial role in the story, "A Trip to the Moon." Every picture is beautifully rendered and is important to the overall narrative.

Hugo Cabret, a boy living alone in the walls of a train station, fixes and keeps up the clocks in silence. His father and uncle both died or disappear early on the book, leaving him to fend for himself. In order to survive, he turns to thievery. Bottles of milk from the cafe, day old bread from the trash, and machine parts from the toymaker's that Hugo uses to repair a man-like doll called an Automaton that used to be his father's. This automaton, when in working order creates pictures and writes poetry. Magicians used to use these to impress and astound crowds. The idea of magic in general becomes a very central theme early on.

While a kid's book, I found myself completely engrossed. I had sympathy for Hugo's situation, but like most kid's books, many of the problems put in his way were simply unrealistic. Barring that, the story was engaging. The automaton seems like it plays a very important role in the first half of the book, but then becomes nothing more than a device for a larger story that seems more interesting, but less fleshed out by the time we get to the end. The concepts of movies and magic, both separate and together, become the focal point. I believed the book to be a more fantasy-based (see: a state of unreality or surreality) text that never manifested itself.

I know that Selznick has another book coming out this month called "Wonderstruck." The synopsis from Amazon has me interested, but it will probably look exactly like this one with different, nuanced changes. I'll still pick it up, regardless:

"Ben is struck deaf moments after discovering a clue to his father’s identity, but undaunted, he follows the clue’s trail to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City. Flash to Rose’s story, told simultaneously through pictures, who has also followed the trail of a loved one to the museum--only 50 years before Ben. Selnick’s beautifully detailed illustrations draw the reader inside the museum’s myriad curiosities and wonders, following Ben and Rose in their search for connection. Ultimately, their lives collide in a surprising and inspired twist that is breathtaking and life-affirming."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein

Here's a great little essay I found in the NY Times Book Review section written by Pamela Paul. It talks about the impact of the authors we read as children and still read today.

The stylistic eccentricities of Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Theodor Geisel, a k a Dr. Seuss, are so much a part of the childhood vernacular today that it’s hard to imagine their books were once considered by some to be wholly inappropriate for children.

Yet these three authors — who each have a new book coming out this month in what can only be described as a Seussian coincidence (“But, see! We are as good as you. Look! Now we have new books, too!”) — challenged the conception of what a children’s book should be. And children’s literature, happily, has never been the same.

Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior. They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be, and the children in their pages were well behaved, properly attired and devoid of tears. Children’s literature was not supposed to shine a light on the way children actually were, or delight in the slovenly, self-interested and disobedient side of their natures.

Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre — defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated. Rather than reprimand the wayward listener, their books encouraged bad (or perhaps just human) behavior. Not surprisingly, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, a woman who once declared it her mission to publish “good books for bad children.”

Theirs were books that taught the wrong lessons and encouraged narcissistic misbehavior. In “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963), Sendak’s masterpiece, a child chases his dog with a fork and yells at his mother — only to be crowned king and served a hot dinner. “I developed characters who were like me as a child, like the children I knew growing up in Brooklyn — we were wild creatures,” Sendak said recently in a phone interview. “So to me, Max is a normal child, a little beast, just as we are all little beasts. But he upset a lot of people at the time.”

These were books that glorified absurdity and made children laugh at the wrong things. “There’s too many kids in this tub,” begins one Silverstein rhyme, “I just washed a behind / That I’m sure wasn’t mine / There’s too many kids in this tub.” Even the grammar is wrong.

Nor were these books especially childish. The Little Nemo-esque dream world Sendak concocted in “In the Night Kitchen” (1970) was inspired by the Holocaust of all ghoulish things. Its cheery bakers wear Hitler-esque mustaches and try to stuff a young boy named Mickey into an oven. Mickey, moreover, is brazenly naked, his genitalia accurately depicted alongside what some deemed “phallic” milk bottles and creamy baking ingredients. Was it a masturbatory fantasy sequence or an innocent dream about baked goods? The book predictably landed on the American Library Association’s list of the “most challenged books” of the 1990s.

But in 1970, Sendak became the first American to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for excellence in children’s book illustration. Still, his books didn’t sit easily in everyone’s idea of the nursery. His next big book, “Outside Over There” (1981), a not-so-cloaked parable of sibling rivalry, tells the story of a gang of goblins kidnapping a baby girl from under her sister’s watch. The book contains mysterious sexual overtones, with the older sister made rapturous by the proceedings.

“Can ‘Outside Over There’ really be a children’s book?” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asked in The New York Times. “Is it appropriate for a children’s book to be raising such questions?” The book, he wrote in a largely laudatory review, had the “quality of nightmare,” and intimidated his “somewhat withered” inner child.

Shel Silverstein was similarly suspected of being child-unfriendly. In 1964, Silverstein had trouble finding someone to publish “The Giving Tree.” He had already sold one children’s book, “Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back,” but editors thought “The Giving Tree” fell into a nebulous and unpromising noncategory between children’s book and adult literature. “Look, Shel,” William Cole, an editor at Simon & Schuster, later recalled telling Silverstein, “the trouble with this ‘Giving Tree’ of yours is that . . . it’s not a kid’s book — too sad, and it isn’t for adults — too simple.” Another editor was even more dismissive: “That tree is sick! Neurotic!”

“Whimsical” was one word used to describe Silverstein. But it came with a B-side adjective: “weird.” This was a man who had drawn cartoons for Playboy, and who wrote the lyrics to Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue.”

Yet “The Giving Tree” went on to sell 8.5 million copies. It was embraced by Christians as a parable of selflessness and has been denounced by feminists as a patriarchal fantasy in morality-tale clothing. Ellen Handler Spitz, the author of the classic study “Inside Picture Books,” wrote that the story “perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother who exists only to be used and the image of a male child who can offer no reciprocity, express no gratitude, feel no empathy — an insatiable creature who encounters no limits for his demands.”

With “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1974) and “A Light in the Attic” (1981), Silverstein turned another commercial noncategory — verse for children — into a bonanza. Like “The Muppet Show,” both books were a hit among grown-ups and children alike; “A Light in the Attic” spent 182 weeks on the New York Times general nonfiction best-seller list, including 14 weeks at No. 1.

Sendak and Silverstein had roots in the counterculture, but a deeper forerunner is another contrarian children’s book author, Theodore Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. The son of prosperous German immigrants, Geisel studied at Dartmouth and Oxford and had a successful career in advertising promoting insecticide and Standard Oil (don’t tell the Lorax!) before turning to cartooning and then children’s literature.

His first effort, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937), a story that describes the wild fabrications a boy plans to tell his father before he ultimately tells the truth, was rejected 27 times before finding a publisher. He went on to Bartholomew Cubbins, Horton and the Grinch.

But the full flowering of his subversive genius came with “The Cat in the Hat” (1957), inspired by lists of words children could be expected to read. “How they compile these lists is still a mystery to me,” Seuss complained in an essay in The New York Times Book Review. The books recommended for young children, he complained, were far beneath their intellectual capacity.

And so “The Cat in the Hat” used only 223 different words of near monastic simplicity, showing that one could achieve the sublime under absurd constraints. The Book Review, in a typically glowing response, called it “one of the most original and funniest of books for young readers,” adding, “Beginning readers and the parents who have been helping them through the dreary activities of Dick and Jane . . . are due for a happy surprise.”

Today, Sendak’s, Silverstein’s and Seuss’ books define what we’ve come to think of as children’s literature. Their new books are no exception. “Bumble-Ardy,” the first picture book Sendak has written and illustrated in 30 years (it is based on an animated segment that appeared on “Sesame Street” in 1971), tells the story of a rambunctious pig who has never had a birthday party. Naturally, the one he gives himself — absent caregiver! dirty stunts! guzzled brine! — devolves into a mess. “Every Thing on It,” the fourth volume of collected verse from Silverstein, who died in 1999, contains poems about snotty pasta (“Betty, Betty, / Sneezed in the spaghetti, / Made it icky and gooey and wetty”). And “The ­Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories,” a collection of Dr. Seuss stories that appeared previously only in magazines, features the kinds of nonsense that blend right in with the Stinky Cheese Man and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Books by Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein are now the classics we reach to when building our children’s libraries. They exemplify the traditions we defend. As Sendak put it at the end of our conversation, “Thank God we have grown up.”


Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

There are few television shows that I flat out love and there are even fewer writers for television that I respect, but Aaron Sorkin's work has always impressed me. Whether you like the guy's politics or not, he knows how to write a damn good show and with his normal director, Tommie Schlamme, they are unstoppable as far as I'm concerned.

Sorkin and Schlamme made their presence known with the 7-year-long series The West Wing, which turned what should have been incredibly dry political drama into absolutely compelling television. Once I finally watched a few episodes, I was hooked. I've probably seen every episode three times if not four or more. I own every season on DVD and frequently go back to certain episodes when the mood hits. The writing, like with Studio 60, is sharp, witty, on point, and at an intellectual level that jives with me. The writing of both shows doesn't assume that the viewing audience is stupid, which is the assumption I think most television programs make these days (see: reality tv).

(President Bartlett and Governor Ritchie Debate, The West Wing - Season 4)

Part of Sorkin's magic is that he puts the right actors and actresses together. The casting for both shows was immaculate in so many ways, but I'll focus on Studio 60 as it was the dark horse of its time. Sorkin likes to cast the same people over and over again, but they work. In this most recent inception, he brings back Bradley Whitford (West Wing), Matthew Perry (supporting role in The West Wing), and Timothy Busfield (The West Wing). Many of the other characters in the show have had supporting roles on The West Wing and/or Sports Night, another Sorkin show, but one I never watched. 

Now, when I first heard about Matthew Perry being involved in the show, I was incredibly skeptical. I had seen some of his movies post-Friends and his comedic timing is pretty damn good, but I had no idea how much of a range he had. After watching the first two episodes, I completely forgot about his role on Friends and only saw him as his character, Matt Albie. The rapport between him and Bradley Whitford is astoundingly good. They make you feel as if they have actually been friends for years.

(from Episode 1 - crank the volume)

The guys have just found out that they're getting to come back to the old comedy show (akin to SNL) that they used to write for before they got fired or quit (the reason is ambiguous until later episodes). If you watched the clip above, you can see what I mean by not only the writing being quick and smart, but without having seen any other parts of the episode, you can probably tell there's a good history between the characters of Matt and Danny, which Bradley and Perry play off very well.

One of the big problems this show had was that it came out at the same time as 30 Rock, a show many people seem to love these days that was also a behind-the-scenes look at late night comedy. Both struggled with ratings in the early days, but Studio 60 cost significantly more to produce, which left NBC with a choice to be made as to which one got to stay; Studio 60 got the bump after being on for only a year.

My point is this: in an era that seems to lovingly languish in reality television programs, good writers don't seem to be getting the same kind of respect from the viewing public that they used to. Viewers are more interested in watching a drunken Snookie on The Jersey Shore than they are in seeing how Diablo Cody complicates her characters on The United States of Tara, another brilliant show that got the axe after a short couple of  seasons. I just started watching Studio 60 again last night...I end up watching the entire solo season once or twice a year because it's genuinely just that good. Yeah, I'm not surprised by anything that happens in the show anymore, but the writing and the acting are still phenomenal and I get to thinking this show could totally work if it were done today. I'm not sure you'd be able to get all the same people back for it, which is unfortunate as the entire ensemble really worked.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Books On Deck / Up Next

I like to keep a hefty stack of books ready for reading next to my bed, which itself has a bookshelf for a headboard. There are a couple hundred different books that sit perched above me as I sleep, and though I'm not as naive as to think there is some kind of osmosis of great writing that filters into my dreams from them, it's a nice scene to wake up to.

I'm constantly being told by people that I need to read such and such because I'll "fall in love with it," which is usually untrue because I'm pretty picky about my reading. There are only a few people who understand my particular proclivities when it comes to style and story and one of those people recommended that I check out some Millhauser, so I bought a few of his books and a few others and my reading list (see: below) has changed and morphed a bit because of it. While I'm still working my way through a couple others, I find it's always good to have five-to-ten picked out to choose from once a book is done. In no particular order, here's what I've got planned for reading over the next month or so: