Some Important F-Bombs, Zef Songs

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My teacher tells me that I “write well as a way to hide, as a way not to tell a real story.”  Apparently my fiction sure sounds nice, but it means nothing.

This is our last conversation for the term- spoken over the most recent draft I had given him of a story.

And now I’m bitter, competitive, sensitive, angry, and I also know that he’s right.

As a student who doesn’t study English, maybe I miss out on a lot of this “meaning” business: the deep philosophical mantras I’m supposed to explore, the human condition I’m supposed to uncover. Instead, I study media. I like experimental films. Maybe this makes my work feel less like a story and if I’m not telling stories, what am I writing?

I have this thought that I can’t avoid, that every time in class when we get into something so meaningful and deep, I just think– construct. The whole world is bullshit. We make up stuff to explain other stuff, when everything actually just kind of is. Human beings are smart, but we’re not evolved and we’re not any better, if anything were worse off, than nature. This could just a young, immature perspective, which I’ll soon regret making public.

But it does make me think about why I’m drawn to the abstract. I think meaning develops for me in disorganization, in putting together ideas that don’t belong and meanings that don’t make sense- regularly. Sure it means nothing, but isn’t that awesome? Isn’t that exactly how life works? Or, okay, this is might just be existential rambling that does not bode well for a future career in literature.

But this also reminds me to listen to advice in some important f-bombs. One, I heard from my art teacher and I absolutely love it. He told us, as his last remark, to “question fucking everything.” Question fucking everything!

So okay, I question what my fiction writing teacher said. I question what it means, what it means for me, how I can use it, how I can subvert it. Is he just a total jerk? Is he my greatest teacher? Or do I just need to let it go already?

And the other if from my current obsession, Die Antwoord, the South African zef hip-hop group that I cannot escape. I just keep listening. My roommates are sick of me blasting it, but I don’t care. Anyway, the lines are, “I freak you the fuck out, cause I choose to be free.” And I’m down with that.

For example, I’m down with doing performance art that is absolutely bizarre. And I’m actually proud of myself for doing with weird thing, because I am always so concerned with what everybody thinks of me that even putting the word fuck in this post makes me nervous.

I don’t have a good way to end this post. I just have more questions. I don’t have a grand epiphany to share or some cathartic moment to give to you, and I’m sorry. So instead, here’s a picture I took on my trip to Dog Mountain,

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Winner, Winner

For our advanced fiction writing midterm, our teacher asked us, “Why are you in this class?” His request was that our responses contain no bullshit. (He says that writers need built in “bullshit detectors” while everyone else is “bullshit shovelers.”)

The first part of my response was this: “Why am I in this class? I make everything a competition. I want to win. I want to be famous. To get good, I need to learn from those that are better than me.”

Sometimes or first thought is our worst thought. Sometimes our first thought is also our most honest.

I was never competitive in school. I hated sports and to this day, I try to avoid even card games. But academics I’ve always considered a challenge. School is something I need to beat.  I am consumed by this desire to do well. Doing well gets me high.

The reason I’m thinking about this is that our class is competing for five spots to be included in a local reading at the downtown bars this upcoming Tuesday. And oh, man, do I want to be included. I’m working my butt off on the piece of fiction I’m going to use. But, will this be enough? I don’t know.

Why am I competitive about one of the most subjective arenas there is? Something to think about, and something I’m not sure I don’t have a “no bullshit” answer for yet. Instead, I’ll just include the rest of my response,

“Writing classes are a “fuck you” to those who tell me to do something else. Every time I have a paper that does well, there is a hint of bitterness in the responses of those that I wished I was a doctor. I enjoy that. When I tell someone what I study and they say to me, “how are you going to get a job?” I feel some sick pride for not conforming.

But, more importantly, writing is something that makes me feel like I have control. It’s always been an outlet for me. I act, a lot, all day, but I can’t get away with acting when I’m writing, even when I try to. Writing classes force me to learn something about myself, which is what I avoid, but also what I desperately want.”

Detention

Girl tells me about meth. She tells me about how her mother told her never do to it. “Don’t do what I do,” her mother said. But that’s why she’s in here, why she’s trapped in this cement detention. “You always become your parents,” Girl tells me. She has cuts like birthday confetti strands spanning her arms. She has her sleeves rolled up.

Boy needs constant attention. He does anything to get it, including punching the other inmates. He is going away to treatment until he his 18. Four years. Will his family come and see him?

Girl’s favorite holiday is Christmas. She says people are nicer then. She draws a Christmas tree with one big present underneath the tree. “What’s inside the present?” I ask her. She won’t tell me.

Boy’s been in here the whole six months I’ve been teaching. Whenever he talks to his PA, then comes to class, he actively tries to avoid paying attention. Almost more effort than it’s worth, right? I sit with him and he tells me he can’t think of anything. “Anything?” I ask him. He doesn’t even shake his head, afraid that ideas might come out of it.

They doesn’t understand why it’s bad to sell weed. They calls it prescription. They is a doctor, who says these kids don’t have any other way to get help.

I walk in the classroom that’s covered in art and I have no idea if what I’m saying to Boy and to Girl and to They will make any difference. I ask them to write. Write about whatever you want. You don’t even have to share it with me. But if you do, then I’ll type it up and respond. In every response, I remind them that what they’re writing matters. I tell them I’m listening, and I hope that’s something to them. I don’t know if it is.

(I volunteer at the Juvenile Detention center every Thursday and do a lesson in creative writing, then we work on producing works for “The Beat Within” magazine. I’m not sure what this post is, a reflection maybe?)

Recombination, Remix, and The Writer

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What is the point of saving language when there is no longer anything to say?

-Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production.

I haven’t blogged in five months. I checked, which means I counted the months from my last post to March on my fingertips. And I just did it again to make sure I wouldn’t look like a dingdong who can’t count. So let me correct myself: I haven’t blogged in about five months.

But… doesn’t “I haven’t blogged in five months” sound stronger than “about five months”? Without specifics and concrete information, we lessen the power of words. Right? It pays not to be vague! Right?

This brings me to the article quoted above. In this essay, which I’m going to shorten to “Utopian Plagiarism” for brevity, we look at how plagiarism is the vehicle in culture through which new ideas are created. And no, this is not the plagiarism you learn about in school. Not copying word for word, but stealing: sealing form, style, technique, theme. In our modern digital society, “new conditions have emerged… [making] plagiarism an acceptable, even crucial strategy for textual production. This is the age of the recombinant: recombinant bodies, recombinant gender, recombinant texts, recombinant culture.”

Marcel Duchamp. Fountain, anyone? Re-purpose an object, put it in a new content. Ala YouTube.

My art teacher, who showed our class this essay, also showed us this series: Everything Is A Remix. Worth a watch, but here’s the main point in relation to what I’m trying to say: copy, transform, combine.

When you learn, you copy your masters. Copy the work you admire.

When you start to produce, start to transform what you’ve copied.

The icing? Combine it with other work that you admire. Mash up different styles, techniques, ya-da and boom- you’ve got your own unique voice.

(Also sounds a lot like Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist. I keep this book in a newspaper rack in my bathroom.)

This same teacher, what an awesome guy, told us to stop thinking that a great artist is some cave-dweller where ideas descend from the muse and fill his entire body and thus it is his duty to share his masterpiece with the fools in civilization.

Okay great. But why am I writing all this? Well, I’m concerned. So we’re in a technical society that is excelling too fast for outdated copyright laws to keep up. My media are not mine. When I give a piece of “art” out, I’m giving it to a culture that’s going to plagiarize. (You can argue this, right? Maybe you have another opinion.) When I scroll through the news, I only click on articles I think are going to benefit me intellectually, something I can use. And then, on the other hand, I’m also the type of person who reads to learn, and doesn’t read for entertainment. I analyze films for a degree.

Where does all this leave the fiction writer- the writer who’s story is her baby? If I saw in an art studio that someone took a picture of a paragraph from one of my stories and blew it up and claimed it was theirs, would I be pissed? Or would I be flattered? I don’t know.

I could flip through Robert Pinsky’s work and take out the best words I see and recombine them. Is this remix culture too? Or is it different in the creative writing world? Again, I don’t know. Maybe my recombination would suck. Maybe it’d be awesome. Does it fall under fair use? Or does fair use even matter anymore in our culture?

Maybe we can’t claim our ideas. Not anymore. But then why- when I set up my portfolio (which you can click on the tab at the top right of the page) did I put my initials on one of my pieces? What do I care if someone else takes it? Why should I need to claim it as mine when I learned how to make the eye on a fucking Google tutorial.

This leads me to another point discussed in class. “Loss aversion” means that we hate losing what we have. We’re okay with copying others, but become furious when our work gets reproduced.

I’m thinking this has to change. I’m thinking we need to learn how to share. I’m thinking I’ll write “Plagiarize Me” all over my body in sharpie.

This is a topic too big to cover in one post. And maybe it’s too complex for just little me to discuss. So, what do you think? Is this just some artsy-fartsy perspective? Not how it is in “the real world”?  I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Boss Fights

In games, there always seems to be that battle. It’s the one that catches you off guard, the one in which you have to spend hours leveling up or figuring out the right method of attack. Maybe it’s that level you have do over and over again until you get it right.

The nice thing about video games is that once you beat the boss, it doesn’t come back. Well, unless it does, and it’s even harder the second time. But the game always ends… unless it’s one of those games that doesn’t.

So maybe my example here is a little rough, but the point is that we tend to fight our emotions like they’re boss fights. One of my battles is with anger.

I’ve thrown a few phones, been a cabinet slammer, a mess. I try but I don’t always express it healthily, so I always wonder, how the hell do I beat it? There’s supposed to be a top to the hill, you get over it, and you roll back down. There’s always that voice that says, “can’t you just snap out of it?” which then results in an amplification of the rage.

Unfortunately, it’s not something you beat. It’s something you manage, same with all your other feelings. It’s a response. But, crazy enough, we’re allowed to feel. It’s alright to be angry. It’s what you do about that emotion that matters. It’s not fair to others to let it out on others; that’s something my partner told me when I was snapping at him once, and he was right.

So what do I do with it? Managing is much easier in theory. And I struggle with it, alongside plenty of other issues. Everyone carries their boss fights on their back. One thing I do when I’m frustrated is write about angry people, the curmudgeons. It allows me to step out of my own head and think about my emotions from a different perspective. Everything you feel is a tool to help you learn. By teaching my characters a lesson about themselves, a little epiphany moment, I learn a little bit too. Our stories give back to us.

Body Language

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I’m sitting here eating ham out of its packaging and thinking about the film I watched the other night. Mt. Hood was out the window, glowing red in dusk, and with my partner’s grandmother I watched Buster Keaton’s 1926 The General.
I have a soft spot for silent film that started with a course German expressionist cinema. I think I was one of a few people in the class who watched Metropolis on the edge of their seat.
Anyway, The General was a hoot, to use one of my favorite colloquialism. Most impressive was perhaps a scene in which a locomotive crashed on a burning bridge and fell into a river. There were no tricks, it was a real train that collapsed on a real bridge, filmed in 1926. They had one take.

As it says underneath the video and on a few other sights, it was one of the most expensive stunts of its time. Wow.
Anyway, I always pay more attention to silent films, and maybe because I need to. Maybe it’s because I can’t skim by on the dialogue and the narrative cueing. So much is told through body language and I think I forgot that sometimes in writing that those physical actions can say a lot. They can enrich the text. They can complicate characters, who may say one thing and then do the other.

There are many ways to enrich the experience of a story. And how lucky we are to have all these angles to tell it from, how every voice is different, and how our slant perspectives build worlds.

Learn Everything

Some of the best fiction writing advice I’ve ever received? Take a poetry course. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said, “A sentence is like a tune. A memorable sentence gives its emotion a melodic shape. You want to hear it again, say it—in a way, to hum it to yourself. You desire, if only in the sound studio of your imagination, to repeat the physical experience of that sentence. That craving, emotional and intellectual but beginning in the body with a certain gesture of sound, is near the heart of poetry.”

Poetry can transform your prose. In fact, any subject of study can better your writing. Find inspiration in economics, in physics, in psychology, in other languages. I never wanted to pick a major, but I had to, (and my university doesn’t have a creative writing major), so I got into film.

Why? Filmmaking techniques are powerful. they change your perspective on media. I watch films differently, thinking about cuts, and framing, and mise-en-scene and in doing so I study culture. It also has beautiful parallels to writing.

Consider the Kuleshov Effect. An audience was first shown a shot of a bowl of soup. Then a shot of a man’s face. Then a girl in a coffin. His face. A woman on a divan. His face. The audience thought that the man’s expression was different between each shot, but they were actually shown the same image of the man each time.

The audience perceived emotion based off the connections between two visuals. The way we put images on top of each other matters. It’s the basis of Soviet montage theory; meaaning exists between images, in the collision, within editing cuts. It’s easy to think about in poetry. “A continual click of a pen. / The spring in a leg. /The gnaw. The rubbing rows of teeth.” We get the sense of neurosis through the specific images.

When we say something like, “The couple walked by. I crossed my arms.”

We get the meaning in the white space between the sentences. We’ve learned about the narrator through two images put together. How amazing is it that the spaces between our sentences can help us tell our stories? There’s merit to learning how other media function. So no doubt there’s value in learning alternative writing formats. If you write poetry, research some fiction techniques. Fiction writers, practice poetics. Take technical writing. Learn color theory, learn ray tracing, learn price discrimination, learn reality television. Learn everything.

I’ll Take My Stake Rare, Please

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Give me five seconds to sell you. Take this hook and jam it in your mouth, let me reel you out of the water and cook you; let me do it in one sentence because this first sentence is critical to your story’s success. In Clark Blaise’s “How Stories Mean” he says, “More decisions are made on the basis of the first few sentences of a story than on any other part . . . the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified.”

My creative writing teacher put it this way, “What’s at stake?” Our first sentence shows us the risk. It reveals what John Barth called the “unstable homeostatic system.” In his essay “Incremental Perturbation: How to Know whether You’ve Got a Plot or Not” he describes this term as a “ground situation: an overtly or latently voltaged state of affairs preexisting the story’s present time . . . [it] is essentially less than stable.” Basically, it’s the trouble. Events before the story takes place which drive the plot, whatever is boiling in the background that will be complicated throughout the story.

So that first sentence expresses the friction, what could be gained, what could be lost. What a load of pressure. Crafting this sentence takes the right combination of spices and marinades, and how long you leave it on the grill (depending on your style and tone.)

Here are a few of my favorite first lines, and little bit on how they look when cut open.

Aimee Bender, “The Rememberer”
“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.”

This instantly puts us in a type of magical reality, in which the events aren’t allegorical but physically happening. We know the narrator and the subject of the story, and that it’s going to go from big elements to small (reverse evolution.)

Stuart Dybek “Paper Lantern.”
“We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs.”

The time-machine isn’t quite as literal as reverse evolution in “The Rememberer,” but it sets up a tone of going back into time through memory in the rest of the story. This also an example of a great hook in general.

Raymond Carver “They’re Not Your Husband.”
“Earl Ober was between jobs as a salesman but Doreen, his wife, had gone to work nights as a waitress at a twenty-four hour coffee shop at the edge of town.”

We know the main character’s personality instantly. He’s between jobs so he is out of work, but his attitude and his outlook on the world is like a salesman. “Edge of town” suggests isolation, and likely a shabbier area. Setting indicates situation.

David Quammen “Walking Out.”
“As the train rocked dead at Livingston he saw the man, in a worn khaki shirt with button flaps buttoned, arms crossed. The boy’s hand sprang up by reflex, and his face broke into a smile.”

This is quite possibility my favorite story. It describes the man (the boy’s father) through his clothes and how the flaps of his shirt are actually folded as if they usually aren’t, and his arms crossed suggests fear of socialization. And boy’s reactions “by reflex” and “broke” show how word choice shows his emotional relationship to his father.

Think of how you’re going to cook your first sentence. Consider what’s it’s going to look like when you cut it open to see if it’s done to your liking.

What are some of your favorite first sentences, written by others or ones you’ve written yourself?

Don’t Fall In

We care about the edges. When we approach a hole, the most important thing to know about it is its outline. That way, we don’t fall in. Our eyes use a process called “lateral inhibition.” The cells increase contrast between light and dark, making those edges even darker than they actually are.

I always think it’s interesting to consider how other subjects compare to writing, how different vocabularies can transfer and blend. In this case, maybe we can consider how to focus on the edges in our writing.

One moment, one description, can define a larger part of a character. A part illustrates the whole. And the most important part of the (w)hole is the edge. So when writing details, we must think about what why that small piece of information is so important. What does it bring out, what theme does it bring contrast to?

Another way to think about it, consider the clique “tip of the iceberg.” You tell your reader one thing, but that one thing has all this important information underneath. But you don’t want that one thing to be a random point along the iceberg. No, you picked the tip. And that says you’re paying attention to what you’re writing.. We can look at subtext in this manner. There’s a great lettuce moment in Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana” in which the story’s couple discusses lettuce on sandwiches, but the underlying truth is the tension in their stranded relationship. This adds complexity, layers. You’re showing instead of telling. Of course, there’s a lot of problems with phrase “show, don’t tell.” I think we can tell. We just have to tell the right things, tell enough so that we don’t fall in the hole. Or if you’re telling, think of how those images you’re creating can complicate the characters and their situations.

Our eyes are in motion. Small eye movements refresh our view. They stop desensitization. If our eyes never moved, through for example the process of retinal stabilization, images would shrivel into one shade of gray. We don’t want our stories to be uniform. We want them to change perspectives, put stale objects in motion and refresh our view of the world. It can be as simple. Make sure your sentences aren’t all the same length. By varying them, you keep the reader thinking; help them try to define the shape. Make patterns. Break patterns.

In George Saunder’s essay “Rise, Baby, Rise” he discusses Donald Barthelme’s story “The School.” When talking about rising action he says, “Barthelme is going to fling us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is going to be introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us.”

Surprise. Embellish. Delight.