Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zen and the Art of the Catch-22

When I was in college I read a really good essay about writing that included the phrase, "When I read as I ought."  I still remember it for a number of reasons, one of them being the delightful professor, Carla Billiteri, and the other for its distinctive phrasing.

I'll modify it just slightly for today's purpose:

When I write as I ought...

I started by referencing school, and the truth is, as I've been thinking about what I wanted to write today, I didn't have much else positive to say about school.  In fact, there's another phrase that I was mulling: factory of mediocre thought.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I've had a bunch of memorable teachers, but even the best of them always seemed constrained by the invisible chains of mediocrity.  Or rather, to tie in the title I've chosen for these thoughts, Joseph Heller's famous Catch-22, taken from the name of the book where it was first coined.

Catch-22 is the idea is that you lose even when you win.  You just can't escape it.

And how do you end up with a Catch-22 in school?  By always insisting that your students write what you want or expect.  The closest I ever came to breaking from this, the closest I ever came to growing as a writer in school, was from a class taught by Kathleen Ellis.  This was around 9/11.  We were all warrior poets in those days, though.  But at least she had the good sense to have us read the other book eluded to in the title, Robert Pirsig's brilliant Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  The depressing thought was that I was the only student in the class who seemed to get anything from it.

But I guess that's another Catch-22.  You can't force people to read something and expect everyone to love it.

But you can foster better readers, and perhaps better writers, by encouraging them to express their thoughts, no matter what they are.  In fact, have the whole class taught as much by the students as the professor.  Some of my teachers sometimes seemed to get that.  But not enough of them, and never well enough.  And schools in general are all geared toward something far more mundane.  In general, they're factories.

And to say nothing of research papers.  Why are research papers considered so important?  The synthesis of thought should be encouraged from within.  If you want to be a reporter, there might be a different story.  But encourage independent, critical thought above all else.  And don't make it feel like a chore.

The most brilliant orator I ever had in school, by the way, was Welch Everman, who had his students read the most interesting books.  But he was also a little impenetrable.  Because his verbal thoughts were so completely out of the ordinary.  Not to mention the enthusiasm of Randy Howarth.  I had his class too early in the morning.  One of two times I had the privilege of watching Monty Python in school, by the way.  That you always have to appreciate.

What am I really driving at?  When I was reading Roberto Bolano's literary thoughts in Between Parentheses, I was struck all over again with the thought that some nations can have a good sense of their literary scenes.  Smaller ones, like Bolano's native Chile, especially.  That's not the case here in the States.  Not the case at all.  And I think we all suffer because of it.

After suffering through the factories of mundane thought, we're all shuffled into the hodgepodge of luck and ambition known as the adult world.  We're told to make a success of ourselves, and yet we're perhaps more keenly aware than any other country in the world about how fierce the competition is.  Worse than the Chinese.  Worse than Indians.  And those guys worry about occupying the same space at the same time.

It's nuts.  We have no perspective.  Certainly none whatsoever on our literature.  We churn official publications by the hundreds every week.  And the unofficial ones, why they're proliferating faster than rabbits.  And that's not even to cover all of the people who are absolutely convinced that they were meant to be writers.

And what to say of the readers?  I think they're an anemic bunch.

Most of them aren't even good readers.  Bolano spent a lifetime laboring over a comprehensive, categorical appreciation of literature, not only from his own country or region but all over the world.  Most Americans in the States couldn't be bothered looking outside a particular genre, and that's not just readers, but writers as well.

And I find that continually troubling.

And therein lies the crux of this Catch-22.  The products of the factories of mediocre thought are convinced, absolutely convinced that they're entitled to whatever they can dream.  I mean, you've heard the dogma of the American Dream.  That's what it's all about.  And not just in their creative ventures are they're convinced they're unassailable.  Everyone is convinced they're the most clever voice in the world, no matter what they write, and they can usually find more than one eager soul to agree with them.

And most of them are wrong.  Think of it as one of those classrooms.  The whole reason why there are grades at all is because we're a culture obsessed with hierarchies, even though we claim loud and clear that they absolutely don't exist.  The worst and most obvious hierarchies are the ones that claim they don't exist.

But there are grades to prove to someone that at least a select few are better than the rest of them.  And that's what we all believe because the dirty little secret is that it's true.  The problem, the Catch-22, is that the person doing the grading normally skewers on a curve so warped it's an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.  Because everyone's happier the more simple and stupid something seems.  Even though everyone claims they're always looking for the best.  Catch-22.

When I write as I ought, I am always questioning myself.  I never trust myself.  I don't even trust myself this very moment, as I'm writing this sentence.

When I read as I ought, I'm doing the same thing.  That's the whole idea.

But the Catch-22 is, we're constantly told not to do this, even as everyone claims that they're saying exactly the opposite.

The sorry truth of the world is that it's full of people who are absolutely convinced that everyone will always believe what they're saying, even the people saying whatever it is they're saying, when the reality is that you should rarely believe what you hear, even when you trust the source.  You should not listen to anything you're reading from me right now.  In fact, I know you're not.  It makes everything so much simpler that way.

When I write as I ought, I'm saying things I know people will ignore.

And you can never control the message anyway.  It's not a matter of not trying, but of being aware that you're constantly opening the door to the opposing view, whether you're aware of it or not.

If I could have written like this, if I had been encouraged, in school, I sometimes wonder where I would be today.  I don't know if the education was much different for me, in Lisbon and Erie and Orono, than what they teach in, say, the ivy leagues (where the schools sport fancy ivy, and that's the ridiculous truth of it), if they let students read and write the best things as soon as humanly possible.  I don't begrudge my education, because I like to think I'm doing those things now, perhaps to make up for or at least continue the work of the factories of mediocre thought I knew when I was younger.

Anyway, that's the Catch-22 of it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sending queries

I just sent off a new query for Modern Ark.

This is significant for a number of reasons.  A few years back I went through a long period of sending queries for this manuscript, and didn't get anywhere with it.  I was as frustrated as you can get in this process.

It was the first manuscript I'd done this with, the first book-length story I'd completed after the three NaNos that produced The Cloak of Shrouded Men, a superhero story I had less faith in finding a home for than something that featured vampires.

I completed the first draft of Modern Ark in 2009 (which seems like a lifetime of several lifetimes ago now).  Since that time I'd gotten to think of it as the first of the yearly manuscripts I've managed to complete to date, but it's also a particular baby of mine, no matter how difficult it's been.

It was supposed to be a simple story, and yet it became what remains my most elaborate and complicated one.

And that has made it difficult for me to sometimes think of in the simple ways that are necessary to make it seem attractive to publishers.  If they can't understand it, they will find it all the more difficult for readers to comprehend.  Who wants to look at a book in the store that they don't get on a basic perusal?  Me, I like to choose the books that come with praise I can respect, the careful cultivation of trusted writers.  But that's just not the way most people choose their books.

The first readers are always the ones you have to solicit.  Not the ones who are potentially glomming onto a phenomenon, however big or small.  You need to capture attention with the work itself for those initial readers.  And only so many of them are doing it for the sheer love of reading, of discovery.  Only so many readers approach a book like the most discerning critic.  Here I imagine Anton Ego (so brilliantly voiced by the ever-evolving Peter O'Toole) in Ratatouille.  These people are hard to impress.  These are the readers I imagine as my best audience.

But I can't even begin to imagine facing them if I can't get the thing published.  And so I face rejection with fortification.  I try to understand my own story.  And that's something I've tried to do with Modern Ark for years.

It's perfectly possible to overthink even a complicated plot.  The thing any writer always needs is the ability to see even their own work with clarity.  Especially their own work.

I'm not talking about interpretation.  Interpretation's another bag entirely. 

Clarity is the first mark of inspiration.  It's why you want to write a story in the first place.  Except that story can sometimes evolve into something else as you're writing it.  That happened every other chapter in Modern Ark.  And so I needed to rediscover the clarity of the work, not in broad idealistic strokes but for what it was, what had never changed despite everything that ended up in it.

And so that's how I ended up writing this latest query.  Even if this one also ends up going nowhere, I'm starting to see real progress in this process.

And I'm starting to feel good about Modern Ark again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Ode-athon is coming

Coming November 2 is my first ever blogfest, the Ode-athon, a celebration of favorite writers.  The target date is a Saturday and the day after NaNoWriMo begins.  For this reason I'm affording participants plenty of wiggle room (and there's always the chance you'll write your post ahead of time anyway), plus the option to wait a few days later.  The Ode-athon officially closes on 11/9, one week later, with a full recap post.

The idea is to write about your favorite writers, one or as many as you want, the authors you've treasured and read the most, who have impacted your reading experience, and you wouldn't bat an eyelash to recommend.

Here's the sign-up:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Musings of a savage detective

I'm currently reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, which is a fictional account of the late author's own literary life experiences.  Bolano died a decade ago this year, but it wasn't until about four years back, with the publication of his masterpiece 2666, that I took notice of him, and the Chilean writer subsequently became my all-time favorite novelist (supplanting Herman Melville, no less).

Bolano spent most of his time as a novelist musing on his own experiences, much as aspiring writers are always told to "write what they know."  He considered himself first and foremost a poet, and it was in this mischievous form that he existed for the events depicted in Savage Detectives, the tenuous heart of a whole movement that never really happened although still accomplished its goal of being honest about itself, which was the whole point.

It's gotten me thinking about a number of things, both about my own experiences in literary communities and how I tend to write my own stories, if I indeed "write what I know."

As far as communities go, I've never quite been a Bolano, but to a certain extent maybe I have, if not quite a charismatic center then certainly the enigmatic figure who drifts in and out of writing circles.  In college I was part of the poetry scene that coalesced around a couple of acquaintances who stumbled into some of the same classes together, which eventually led to the short-lived Hemlock literary journal.  Since I wasn't part of the inner circle of that group, more like the narrator of the opening section of Savage Detectives, I would never be able to give a truly definitive account of those days, but it's still nice to look back on.

The Hemlock experience was something I enjoyed quite a bit, which led to the abortive Dead Letter Quarterly several years later, the product of acquaintances from a comic book site I wrote at for awhile, which led to the more successful Project Mayhem anthology I put together for my budding Mouldwarp Press imprint (if you're interested, you can still consider contributing to a follow-up).

In recent days the idea of a writing community has shifted to blogging buddies such as yourself and even former coworkers.

Part of what's made this such a roundabout experience for me is that I spent all my budding years as a writer not actually writing.  In middle and high school, I developed my tools for world-building rather than writing, I guess believing that knowing a story is the first stage to writing it.  By the time I started writing stories in earnest it took my some time to integrate the world-building, but at least gave me time to work on my storytelling.  I knew I was a writer before I did any serious writing, which is perhaps why I exist much as Bolano did, as a literary romantic, and don't necessarily view it the same way that others of my ilk tend to, as something they do rather than something they are.  I tend to shout at the opposition like Bolano, and this can sometimes make it hard to find kindred souls (people don't generally liked to be shouted at for some reason), whether or not they exist at all.

As far as writing trends go, I'm different from Bolano in that I don't tend toward extrapolations of my own experiences in the same literal sense so much as drawing from elements.  For Modern Ark I imposed my relationship with my sister on a vampire story.  In the current Pangaea plans, I've been modifying characters to be a bit more like Bolano, although the framework remains very much my own.  All my stories are reflections from my perspective and aims for literature.  Where Bolano tended to look at the world from an intimate vantage point, I lean toward expansive, which opens for more fantastical opportunities, although he's a writer who shares my need to represent myself in a more obvious way (once you know it's there) than I find in others, although certainly in some like Melville it's clearly there and adds layers of depth to the storytelling and for me defines what being a true writer is all about.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Kennedy Curse in my hands!

Today I received in the mail my complimentary contributor's copy of The Kennedy Curse, which features my short story, "The Cuban Exile Crisis."

Needless to say, excited!

The most exciting thing for me, as I've said a few times before, is that this marks the first time someone other than myself has published a story from my Space Corps saga.  Space Corps is my sci-fi magnum opus, spanning an entire series of books, starting with a manuscript I completed earlier this year, Seven Thunders, which I will be shopping around starting as soon as I can muster the courage to do so.

The thing about "Cuban Exile Crisis" in particular is that it continues a curious impulse of mine recently to begin fleshing out a part of the saga that I'd previously left more or less alone, being the first human-Danab conflict.  On my Space Corps page over at my writing blog, there are two others already, "Use Both Hands" and "Seventy-One and Counting" (it's also worth noting that both "Who Killed Iron Joe?" and "George Jackman and the Monastery at Burnside" both provide prelude material to Seven Thunders, the latter of which helping to inform elements of the story that I hadn't considered before).  Heroes and incidents from the First Danab War keep popping up in these tales.

I figured in an anthology dedicated to the legacy of the Kennedys there was bound to be room for a future descendant who could find room to contribute.

You can purchase The Kennedy Curse here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Insecure Writer's Support Group October 2013

I've spent a long enough time not participating in this thing, so I figured I'd finally join.  And such good timing!  The IWSG now has its very own site.  It's the brainchild of ninja captain Alex Cavanaugh and meets on the first Wednesday of every month.  As for the purpose?  It's the porpoise, of course.  (He's in the water across from the lighthouse.  He took the picture.)

For my inaugural post, I'm going to talk about clarity.  Recently I've been exchanging thoughts on the film Immortals with A. Lee Martinez on Facebook.  Why I'm talking with Martinez, the author of such books as Divine Misfortune, is because of Pat Dilloway, who has latched onto the author.  Martinez recently saw Immortals presumably for the first time, and thought it was a hot mess.  The film, from visionary director Tarsem (best work: The Fall), was originally released in 2011, and is a more recent version of the sword-and-sandal epic resurrected by Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000 and also exemplified by Zack Snyder's 300 from 2007.

Now, even though Gladiator won a Best Picture from the Oscars, most people these days still think of 300 as the definitive modern example of this genre of movies, even though Gerard Butler, the star of the film, is equally considered by most people to be merely a more histrionic version of Russell Crowe, who starred in the Scott picture.  Immortals was Henry Cavill's first big role, but chances are people were thinking then and will still now and for the foreseeable future consider this past summer's Man of Steel (where he played, y'know, Superman) for that distinction.

Immortals is one of many, many films that were released in the wake of 300 to adopt a similar aesthetic presentation.  In fact, most people seem to have assumed the whole reason it was made at all was to capture the very same audience, and perhaps for studio bosses that was exactly the case.  And yet, knowing Tarsem as I do, I could never view it that way.

The film, as Martinez suggests in his vehement and negative opinion, can easily be said to be a hot mess, in one viewing.  Even though I have an abiding love for Tarsem, that's pretty much how I saw it myself the first time.  It was virtually impenetrable, or in other words lacked clarity.  Cavill isn't nearly as striking a presence as Butler is in 300, and he's rarely in a position as Crowe is for the majority of Gladiator to command attention.  The roles are very different.  If anything, Cavill is far more like Sam Worthington in Clash of the Titans, a reluctant hero who has to crawl all the way to the top (besides being a generally heroic and capable kind of guy to begin with).  (Given that few people seem to like the Titans remake, this is not such a great allusion.)

No, the big star of Immortals is Mickey Rourke, who approaches the villain role much as Butler does the hero role in 300.  There's also John Hurt, who has one of the most distinctive voices in film today, who acts as narrator and one of the guises of Zeus, as well as the lovely Freida Pinto in one of her early post-Slumdog Millionaire roles.  (She is was and always will be the best thing about that movie.)  The fourth and fifth leads go to Stephen Dorff and Luke Evans.

The gist of the story is that Rourke is a power mad monarch who wants to declare war on the gods by unleashing their ancient rivals (who just so happen to be...the Titans).  Naturally Zeus isn't too keen to see this happen, so he gently nudges Cavill into position to stop this from happening.  The problem is that in the chaos that follows in the wake of Rourke's maneuvering, Cavill ends up further from his goal than is convenient.  By the time he's ready, it's too late and the big battle at the end of the film has already provoked tragedy, including the deaths of several gods, which finally forces Zeus to break his own vow of noninterference.  It is indeed Cavill who stops Rourke, thus being the hero Zeus thought he could be, but the catastrophe remains.  But then again, the original war between the gods wasn't so great either, and once the Titans, like the kraken, are unleashed there's only so much damage control possible.

The visuals do indeed evoke 300, but there are the telltale signs of Tarsem all around.  (He began his career in music videos, but called greater attention to himself with The Cell, in which Jennifer Lopez traverses a surreal landscape.  In fact, Tarsem is always immersing himself in those.  It's the story he tells every time, and like a great storyteller is always finding new ways to do so.)

As far as clarity goes, however, there's not so much of that going around, at least initially.  For this reason, it can seem unsatisfying and even a gross case of bad filmmaking in general.  In such cases it's easy to extrapolate that the story simply didn't work or was executed poorly, or that characters behaved stupidly.  All these things are the reaction of someone who failed to connect with the presented experience.

So why am I going on and on about this in a post that's supposed to be about my specific writing experience?  Well, for one thing I recently had another look at one particular chapter in my manuscript for Minor Contracts, one of three I have floating in the air.  I was unsatisfied with the way I'd written it.  And I went back to reservations I've had about the opening chapter.  And I started to think, maybe I have to write the whole thing over again.  Generally, I hate even the idea of doing that.  I will sometimes have to start over again, but I've never even thought about doing that with a whole manuscript.  With the Modern Ark  manuscript, I haven't thought about doing that sort of thing too much, because it's a whole house of cards, almost every chapter doing something entirely different.  If I move one piece, the whole thing could collapse, and I've already monkeyed around with the opening chapter of that one several times.  I'm of the idea that what was going through my mind when I wrote the thing in the first place is more than likely the best version.  Anything else is just another version.  If the due diligence was performed in the original conception, you should be fine.

Now, certainly editing is a key thing to consider.  In movies editing can affect everything.  Oliver Stone has four cuts of Alexander (my favorite movie, and another sword-and-sandal epic), for instance.  Studio heads used to chuckle wildly as they hacked apart Orson Welles' work.  With someone like Orson Welles, you change the shape of his work and you most definitely change the whole thing.  (I'm not claiming to be Orson Welles, mind you.)

And I'm just talking about things I've already written.  Twice now in the past month I've already radically altered the course of the next manuscript I'll be writing, In the Land of Pangaea, even thinking of alternate titles (which happens to my stories frequently anyway, even years after I've completed first drafts).  Thinking of those changes and the changes I could make to Minor Contracts doesn't even begin to take into account clarity.

Because I'm always wondering how clear my stories are.  Most of the writers around me strive almost single-mindedly for clarity.  Sometimes I've taken that to patronizingly calling their work simplistic.  And yet most stories are like that.  When it's anything but it's either quickly forgotten or a classic.  (And no, I'm not going to say I write classics.  That's for history to decide.  And here you understand that I'm speaking in the voice of Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  Which reminds me, bears are terrifying.)  

When I'm looking at my own work and not even considering clarity, I can understand why I look at a movie like Immortals differently than A. Lee Martinez.  Clarity is clearly one of his priorities.  Me, I can deal with a little mess.  This isn't to say that I'll accept anything.  There's really is such a thing as a hot mess, when someone's reach has exceeded their grasp.  I don't think that's the case with Immortals.  It would be hard for someone like Tarsem to do that after nailing something as brilliant as The Fall.

So when I look at my own writing, and worry about specific elements or passages, I'm worrying less about how they will ultimately work and more about how they fit into the greater tapestry.  There's got to be a unifying imperative.  In Immortals it was always John Hurt and and my belief in the abilities of Tarsem.  Did I convince myself the movie worked because I wanted it to work?  That will always be the counterargument.

But I don't think so.
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