Archive for August, 2008

It’s as simple as that sometimes, a single word.  I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and he talks about his writing journey and how he’d been sitting his butt down and writing every day for a decade before he sold his first story at 22.  It’s called showing up.  Not by him but by others, and it’s instructive to realize not only the truth of this idea of sitting down and dedicating time to what you do, but that over time it really is the only way to get anything done.

So brother Ray has 20+ years on me figuring this out.  But does he stop there?  No, he rubs my face in it with another simple exercise that he also happened to chance upon.  After he’d written a number of published stories he wrote the titles down as a list and discovered they were all nouns, all based on things that he was curious about as a kid, all general enough that they could be about anything but for him they were specific triggers for memories.

In unpacking things into my new office space I finally had almost all (there’s one missing!) my screenplays in one place on a shelf.  Spine out, with their titles handwritten on the bluntly bound pages, I stacked them in order of when they were written and studied them from my reading chair.

The Resort.
Pumpkin Thieves.
The Death of Chris and Jenny.
The Book of Isabel.
(the missing Helena would go here).
Peace of Mind.
Come and Gone.
Tips for the Dating Impaired.

What did these titles tell me about my writing?  They begin as concept stories, a mad dreamscape about a movie being made in the space between this world and another, between life and death, followed by a pseudo-political story concerning government-controlled and -funded criminals.  Next come a trio of character studies that explore (or attempt to) the underground youth culture.  These are followed by a weak attempt to write a Hitchcockian thriller, that actually was read by an agent who was kind at pointing out that I was still having problems with grammar.  Two autobiographical stories follow, then a What-If fantasy based on an idea tossed away by a film director in an interview (“What if I pretended to be the interviewer and you pretended to be the filmmaker and we see how many people we can fool…”), and lastly my epic homage to Victor Hugo concerning the professional street people who occupy our urban centers.

And those were the finished ones.

Many of these stories were built off ideas, or collected observations, but not around those ideas and observations.  I wasn’t telling stories as much as I was trying to stitch ideas with tenuous narrative threads and borrowed styles.  Even the biographical stories seemed to be missing the target emotionally, and that’s why they failed.  It’s why they all failed.  The titles don’t do what they’re supposed to — trigger memories — because the stories they represent come from the head.

I can’t tell you how this pisses me off, because lately everyone’s been talking about emotion in writing.  Emotion this and emotion that, and what are these characters feeling, and, crap! Why don’t I know?

Well, according to brother Ray, it’s because I’m not stepping on my own landmines.  I need to blow myself up, tear myself apart and find out what everything’s really all about.  And then there’s my advisor, Margaret, who’s pointing out that I’m not letting the boys in my story get into enough danger, that I’m protecting them too much.

Why.  It’s a no-question-mark question, the kind where the answers are questions in and of themselves.  Why am i protecting my characters?  Why won’t I let them feel?  What part of the world that I’m a part of am I protecting them from…

Ah.  The world.  I’m trying to protect them from the world that didn’t protect me.  Is that a statement or a question?  Do I really feel like the world didn’t protect me?  Or is it because I never learned the langauge of the emotions, that I can’t pass them along to my characters because, like passing on bad genes, I don’t have them to pass along?

Freakin’ Ray Bradbury.

So I sat down and wrote out a lit of nouns, titles to future stories, triggers for ideas that I may or may not write about one day.  Each one of those nouns has more intrinsic meaning than any of those titles above.  Some have stronger emotional centers than others, and some strange things came out of the exercise — like the eerie early memory that links cult-like religious indoctrination with soccer.  But as personal stories they underscore moments where I (the main character) encountered a strong emotional experience that I don’t think I ever really understood.

Nouns.  Word association.  Emotion.  It reads like therapy.

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so i’ve been doing three things for the last month: sleeping, moving, writing.

okay, moving involved painting, packing, unpacking, building furniture from ikea, all that good stuff.  and writing included reading, so i could write essays.  and sleeping should technically include things like showering and eating and occasional breaks to go to the corner store for a lovely beverage or some chocolate.

but today i turned in my first packet and could decompress.  today i have nothing else planned but decompression.  lounging around (and feeling like i should be doing something), maybe reading a magazine to see what’s going on in the world (shouldn’t i be reading for my next essay?), maybe check out some tape-delayed olympic coverage of

what the hell is this team handball thing?!!

it looks like soccer. only with hands. and they can bounce a ball, like basketball byt they can’t dribble.  and there’s a goalie, and a goal area that looks like it takes up one fourth of the indoor field.  indoors!  and the ball is like a volleyball.

what is this sport?  who plays this sport?

this sport is weird.  this sport looks stupid.  this looks like some kid invented it one day at P.E. where they had a free period

dude, it’s like team soccer and dodgeball…

i guess there are folks who will scoff at BMX racing at the olympics so i gues i better shut up.

i get one day to goof off.  you’d think they’d at least have trampoline or something…

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It’s as simple as this: I miss corny American nostalgia.

And I think the last great hurrah of corny American nostalgia comes during the Bicentennial in 1976.  The 1970s seem like such an innocent time, though like most innocence full of itself as the most progressive and culturally hip.  Like teens who have all the answers only to grow up and laugh at their hubris, the 70s can only look back at their leisure suits and avocado-colored kitchen appliances and laugh.

But in the early 70s, in the years leading up to the Bicentennial, there was a sense of this country looking back and saying “Wow, look at how far we’ve come!” with a certain blind amazement that really felt like it had a national consensus.  And, yes, that meant a certain level of tackiness with regards to folks trying to capitalize on the event.  There were Bicentennial tea towels and shot glasses, everything began to take on a red, white and blue color scheme, and all our most cherished myths of history were reinforced.

This Romance of the Revolution took some pretty odd turns.  Everything old was new again, and television was a hungry medium looking for the next old thing.  I remember a Saturday morning cartoon vividly set during the turn of the century that seemed aimed at the same vibe that brought about the creation of Country Time Lemonade.  Okay, all that I vividly remember without the aid of Google was a Saturday morning cartoon that attempted to look like a version of The Waltons, and that it didn’t last long, but that looking-back nostalgia was very strong then.  The cartoon was called These Are the Days and ran for only 16 episodes before someone realized that the adventures of a widow raising three kids during the days of outdoor baths and volunteer bucket brigades wasn’t selling sugared cereals.  But if you’re ever playing the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and need to find a bridge with Jack Haley, June Lockheart, or Mickey Dolenz this is your link.

Another piece of corny American nostalgia aimed at kids was a daily newspaper cartoon called Yankee Doodles that featured fractured colonial history.  It ran from 1973 through 1977, no doubt running on fumes after fives years of jokes about Franklin, Washington, Revere, Native Americans, and turkeys.  But I remember reading it  religiously and would love to see those strips today just to see how well they hold up.  I know memory is a funny thing, often turning a dull turd into a burnished nugget of gold over time but I suspect this one might not be so faulty.  One of the strips creators, Ben Templeton, had a hand in the daily strip Motley’s Crew and when it was good it was both well-drawn and politically astute.

Growing up on the West Coast meant that I actually had a physical distance as well and an emotional one from much of this American history.  Boston, Lexington and Concord, Salem, Plymouth, Philadelphia, all these places where the history of this country actually took place, they still existed.  And the history books in school and the shows on TV showed me an America that was, to an extent, still preserved and culturally alive.  There was a longing for this very palpable sense of history, to see the coastal homes with their widow’s walks, to see the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall as if, somehow, standing in their presence would convey some mysterious link to history that could only be experienced in person, through osmosis.

It wasn’t all national.  In my home town the junior and senior high orchestra and chorus put together a musical program, compiled for the event by enterprising arrangers of school music, that featured a history in song and narrative of America.  And to document the event a company was on hand to make recordings and press them into LP records to sell to patriotic families.  For two nights we sold out the Robert Lee Frost Auditorium and played our mediocre program and felt good about it all the same.

But as corny as it might seem, there was something very heartfelt about a home painted white with blue trim and a red door.  There was nothing ironic at the time about the bell bottoms I owned that were red and white stripes with blue stars down the white.  And in a strange way there was a pride in watching those televised Bicentennial Minutes on TV every night and seeing that American politics had always been messy, and that as were were recovering from Watergate there was a hope that we could — would — one day be a great nation.  Tall ships and fireworks and the idea that the great experiment in democracy in America was celebrating its 200th birthday was a big deal, and even the cynics had a hard time denying it.  The crass commercialism — try “bicentennial” on eBay to see all the items adorned with the official government logo for sale — yes, one could be dismissive of those items, but the very idea of a national movement, that was hard to put down.

And that’s something I also miss, that sense of a national anything.  There are top rated shows on television, and number one songs, and bestselling books, and it’s entirely possible to be ignorant of all of it because of an absolute deluge of information coming at us.  I’m nostalgic for a time when there was a book everyone was at least aware of, even if they had no desire to read it.  Or music that found itself into so many homes that you couldn’t go to a yard sale or thrift store without seeing copies — still in shrink wrap — in the bins.  I’m not talking about a Cold War area monoculture, just a sense that we had something shared as a nation.  Something that didn’t necessariy rely on a rah-rah isn’t-America-great jingoism, but something worth looking back on down the road.

I want a New Corny America.

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essay on the fly

So earlier this week I began working on the essay I had wanted to work on since residency.  I mean, I was all fired up over this thing.  It was about the intersection of montage theory in film and elison in graphic novel panels and how it applies to writing and…

Okay, so when I got back from rez and found the book I discovered that I remembered it sort of wrong.  There was the example of building scene details and guiding the reader/viewer, and that was still good and usable, but it wasn’t all I thought it was.  Okay, so my memory was 18 years stale and there’s a lot I’ve probably fogotten since then.  So sue me.

But, hey, I can work with this.  I can talk about recombining the narrative and the rule of three in building details and all that.  But it wasn’t coming easy so I set it aside to work on my second essay. That took me three days to wrangle, but I’m at a point where I feel I can make my points.  All I need to do now is edit it down.  I always overwrite these damn things.  I can make these ten pages into a solid seven.  Six on a good day.

Today was not a good day.  Nothing to do with that second essay, oh no, today I decided to go back to the first essay and start tightening up those quotes and…

Damn!  Where’s the book?

Yup, since I last had that book in my hand I’ve been able to unload four dozen boxes of books into our new shelving system.  The shelves look great, and all the kidlit is going to be in one place and organized by genre/age groups and…

Where’s that book!

It’s okay.  It’s okay.  It’s okay.  I can do this.  I’ve done this before.  My entire creative life has been about adapting.  There was that film, my senior project, where we ran out of film with only 40% of the script shot.  I worked around it.  That time I made a giant bee for a theatre marquee using Fed-Ex mailing tubes, papier mache, and chicken wire.  Yeah, that worked.  That end-o-year wrap-up show for the film review program where I couldn’t transfer the mix and wound up editing eight hours of tape with a raxor blade over the course of three straight days.  Uh huh.

I’m going to have to write a different essay.  I’m going to have to dip into the well and pull something else out of nowhere.  I can do this.  Three days?  No sweat.

I’m good.




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well, the month of july began with a holiday, a rush to get the kids off for the summer, my residency for school, and then a relocation to a (much) larger home just a few blocks away from the place we’d been sequestered to for the last four years.

a lot has happened, and there’s no real way to address it all at once, so it’s just going to come as it bubble back up to the surface.

during the residency louise hawes had us do an exercise during her lecture (you’ll forgive me for not expounding on the lecture, the notebook is still in a box somewhere in the office) where we imagined a number.  not any old number like a conjurer’s trick, but the age of ourselves back at a specific point in time where we can go back and assure our younger selves that everything will be alright.

now before i go any further, just to show how perverse the universe is, when i came home i was catching up on some reading and i realized i hadn’t finished reading a new twilight zone graphic novel coming out this fall that i hope to co-review (sort of) with little willow over at guys lit wire. but the point of the tz story was a man goes back in time to his younger self to tell him that these are the best days of his life, that as an adult he can see that.  but his father (!) ends up telling him (in all his fatherly wisdom) that you can’t tell your younger self things like that, it’s something you have to learn.  well, duh.

but for the purpose of louise’s exercise we’re all picking numbers and i first write sixteen then cross it out and write eleven.  we spend a few minutes writing to ourselves and i find telling my eleven year old self things is sort of silly.  i mean, i don’t want to scare him that in five years the family goes through some major upheavals, and that school and whatnot are going to get a little crazy and that he’ll finally have a real girlfriend and…

five years.  eleven plus five is sixteen.  and then it hits me that all the stories i want to write feature protagonists or are aimed at kids, mostly boys, either eleven or sixteen-ish.  and the stories i want to tell for each are appropriate to the sort of things i would tell my younger selves, both of them.  i’d be telling the eleven year old me to keep having fun and not be afraid to do all the things i think about, and i’d be telling the sixteen year old that, yes, it’s all crazy, and then i’d lay out a scary fake future to make me do things differently and change the fabric of the universe.

but, whoa.  louise sprinkled some pixie dust and all of a sudden it’s as clear as day who i’m writing to and why.

i’ve always known i was writing for myself, and not just the “for the pleasure of it” writing for myself but the actual writing to the younger me.  or the both of me.  i’m not writing period (because, honestly, the 70’s have been made cliche) but it doesn’t matter because the issues i’m dealing with are pretty much unchanged.  boys behaving like boys and learning their lessons the hardest way possible, because they can be stubborn and have some pretty confused priorities.  that’s basically the difference between boys and girls, everything else is just detail.

so the settling in will still take some time, but the boxes are in the right place and slowly each is getting opened and finding a new home within a new home.  the writing is happened apace, each page like a box being opened, words finding their homes, a story settling in to become a new version of an old me in a new location.

and it feels good to be back at the keyboard.

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