All Roads

For the past several weeks (predating Christmas, actually, if the born-on date may be believed) I’ve been chipping away at a poem.  I finished it just a few days ago.  It’s not a monstrous thing (just twenty lines, all told), but it involved a problematic process of composition.

I originally sought to describe a common procedure in this post, to explain how a project normally unfolds.  I’ll begin with a situation (I planned to say) and, given the point of view, characters, and setting, see where that situation takes me.  It’s a premise Stephen King describes in On Writing, and it’s extremely generative and often surprising.  Endow a character with enough history and agency and she’s apt to do things you didn’t anticipate.  When I examined my own practice, however, I realized there’s nothing common or normal I can refer to as Standard Wandlessian Procedure.  I come at projects in a dozen different ways, some more challenging than others.

The recent poem was difficult because it had a beginning and an ending from the get-go; I knew the pairing belonged together, and I had to develop a line that would travel the distance between those two points in an engaging way.  Sometimes, however, I’ll have only an ending in mind and no sense of where or how to start; sometimes I begin at a beginning and have to trust that I’m writing my way toward someplace worth going.  Sometimes I use the situational procedure described above, which is a great head filler.  (When I exercise in the morning, especially if the activity is essentially automatic, I’ll think about characters, the lives they’ve lived, and the way they might respond to various developments.)  In the case of some poems, I’ll begin with a well-crafted, satisfying line, even if I have no idea where it will appear in the poem it belongs to.  Sometimes, especially in the case of short stories, I’ll combine two superficially unrelated ideas and see what happens at the site of the collision.  All these methods (and others) work, but each involves a different set of demands.

The next two projects I plan to tackle appear to be hybrid types.  The first, a short story, originated in a context, developed an ending, and gave birth to corresponding characters, yet the elaboration of those characters in my imagination has yielded changes to the context and ending I hadn’t anticipated.  In my first crack at a draft, for example, the protagonist adopted a stray dog, but as I began to understand the father figure in the story I realized that he would never let her adopt a stray.  With adoption off the table, I had to consider the other ways she might come into contact with that dog and map out probable responses from the father.  That may sound like banal business, but the story has become denser and more intense as a result.  The second, a poem, involves a seriocomic inversion of method:  an image occurred to me, and that image gave rise to a corresponding premise, but as I considered the image in light of that premise I knew it no longer belonged–the premise was electric, but the image was weak.  Instead of having brushstrokes to build on, I’ve now got a concept and a blank canvas.  It will involve a different kind of composition.

Perhaps three years ago I would have tabled these projects, turning instead to options with a clearer sense of procedural predictability. This time around, with a stronger commitment to completion, I’m going to go where these roads lead me, by whatever means they seem to require.

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Menagerie Management 101

The spring semester has begun, and I am making an earnest effort to get all my proverbial and professional ducks in a row.  Alas, I fear that duck alignment may not be be my strong suit.

The chief challenge, one that trips me up more often than I care to admit, is contingency.  When I am at my most effective, I attend to the obligations that fall to me unhesitatingly, almost automatically.  This Sunday, for example, I did a great deal of reading, created a Powerpoint presentation, threw in some laundry, oiled the chain on my rowing machine, purchased a few DVDs for use in class, and took care of a bunch of other stuff.   That’s by no means a sprawling catalog of major humanoid achievements, but what’s important is that I tackled each job the moment it occurred to me.  When you pile up such tacklings over time, stuff gets done.

It’s not an impeccable method (the Powerpoint I assembled, for example, may not be critical, but it struck me as useful, and so it got itself did), but it’s a solid, self-consistent one.  One of my ambitions this year is to focus on and deal with all those things that fall to me without worrying too much about the stuff that doesn’t.  I mentioned this in passing to a colleague not long ago, and he likened it to my own variation on the Serenity Prayer.  To my thinking, however, serenity has nothing to do with it–I don’t care if I work placidly or angrily, so long as the stuff I want to do gets done.  Courage, acceptance, and wisdom are fine ambitions; I’ll leave them to better people.  My own bar is set much lower.

Contingency, however, is inevitable, assuming I wish to leave the house or read my email.  People need stuff, and I’m disposed to provide it if I can.  The needs are not as various or as many as they were during my administrative stint, but they still involve  extra exertion, a divestment of energy I’d rather devote to the doing of personal/professional stuffs.  I am, alas, a pretty intense investor when it comes to my cathexes.  (Someday, when you’re all a bit older, I’ll tell you about my unholy fixation on opera cake and how my thwarted desire prompted me to destroy an entire bakery with my mind.)  If I’m willing to put myself on the hook for someone or something–taking some initial step and asking them to take the second so that I might take the third–then I’m in it.  I’ve gotten somewhat better at resisting the urge to overstir (sending follow-up emails, for example, when that second step is still pending after a few days), but I will keep checking to make sure I’m ready to do my bit the moment my turn arrives.  It is, I know, a pointless practice, but I suspect it’s bound up in some essential of my identity.  I conceive of myself as a caretaker, as a fairly reliable critter in a fairly unreliable world, and for that reason I probably overinvest in my portion of the proceedings, whatever they might be.  Those pieces fall to me, after all.

How does this bear on writing? (I’m glad you asked–this post was going nowhere until you came along.)  The same get-stuff-done impulse is, when it comes to writing, a peculiar problem.  The diligent, assiduous facet of the Wandlessian self is pretty good at tackling complex obligations, so I can task myself with a sestina or a story with weird engineering and get it done, given world enough and time.  That facet, however, does not eclipse all the others, so the generative, creative facet is still bursting into the boardroom of my brain, pitching ideas with an enthusiasm that’s hard to resist.  The get-stuff-done impulse is not a great deal of help when multiple, equally-appealing stuffs line up in the cognitive queue.  Diligent Bill understands that the Flamingo of Fecundity is is among the lovelier bêtes noires to have in the mental menagerie, but the temptation to tend to her is one he needs to resist.

Ultimately, if I wish to get stuff done, the same principle that informs my housekeeping habits also needs to inform my menagerie management:  one cage at a time.

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The Force

Most of the time when one sits down to the keyboard, one knows in advance what one will type.  This is not one of those occasions.

The inspiration for this post, if inspiration is a fair name for it, is twofold.  First, I have not posted a thing since December 31st, which suggests that the time to post a thing has come (or passed, or nearly arrived).  Second, I am attempting to adopt better, more regular work habits, which means that sometimes I will need to forgo the pleasures of inspiration and simply make prose happen.  It mayn’t be pretty, but I assure you, it’s necessary.

Inspiration–which to my thinking combines a creative prompting with a corresponding felicity of execution–is on most occasions a consequential artifice.  When we are ready to write (when an idea has been formulated, thought through to some degree, and some of the conventional problems of where and how to start have been resolved), then the writing comes easy, or seems to.  When we are less prepared, we may have to turn to gruntwork, whatever keeps the keys a-clicking.

When I’m writing poetry, the gruntwork normally involves trying out lines for sound and sense, building on and around whatever images I’ve already committed to pixels.  (For a variety of reasons I think these uninspired stretches are a bad time to revise; if I’ve only got a few lines more or less polished, I’m apt to rethink and refine them so much that they get disconnected from the impulse that got me started off.)  That process is not apt to yield fully realized verse, but it may leave me with new images or language I can hammer out later.  It prevents me from starting from the same sticking point day after day.  Prose is a little easier, insofar as revision-as-expansion is an option on the table.  I avoid trimming and whittling at such junctures, but if I think I can augment what I’ve got by adding depth, dimension, and detail, that seems like a fair and wise use of my writing time. If I’m writing my way toward a known (or guessed-at) ending, I can at least line up some of the incidents I’ll need to arrive at that destination; if I’m writing based on a situation–if I have a notion, a character, and little else–then the gruntwork is a little chancier.

I’ll exemplify, because there’s no lack of situations I’ve yet to develop.  Here’s a pitch from my monstrous File of Unwritten Things:  a story called “No Outlet.”  All I know at this juncture is that the story will feature a twentysomething heading home (or elsewhere?) on a late-night drive, that he or she will take an exit ramp off a highway, and that something will ensue.  That’s not much to go on, I know, and it smacks a bit of Sartre’s No Exit, which could be problematic or profitable.  Were I to start on it tonight I’d probably need to do a bit of research, since I don’t think the signage I have in mind actually occurs all that often in highway contexts.  I’d also need to do some mulling, since our era of technowizardry might make the premise of sketchy mapping rather quaint.  The opening incident is an actual one, however, and potentially promising:  I was once awakened (as a passenger, I should probably note) by a panicked driver who was pulling off the highway to get gas but in doing so spotted a sign that implied we could not return to the highway…ever.  I am vaguely persuaded that such signs exist (in rare cases when the off ramp is in one place, for example, with no mirror-image ramp to get back on a given highway), but if they don’t, I could shift contexts without much trouble.  Getting a story like that started strikes me as manageable: a lone driver spots the sign, or a passenger is awakened by the anxious driver, who fears he’s about to make a major mistake.  The bigger question is, of course, what happens next?

If I were working on a novel, there’s all sorts of flesh I might stick to those bones.  In a short story, however–and that’s how I envision this project, an intuition I’ll trust for the time being–the need to arrive at some sort of happening in 5000 words or less makes the gruntwork much more troublesome.  I can’t just start adding description and character features willy-nilly.  Anything I opt to include needs to add up in a hurry to produce the payoff, to give the reader something fully realized and complete.  Any forcing of the story I do is apt to be experimental, leading me down avenues which might (ironically enough) prove to be dead ends.  A good line of verse that pops up in the wrong poem can always be salvaged and set aside; a thousand words of prose that don’t tend toward a satisfying end are far more difficult to repurpose.  With short fiction the gruntwork might well produce a complete draft, however, one that might be set aside and revisited down the road.  That, I think, is far better than an unstarted project, much as these 871 words are far better than the blog post I never attempted.

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Make It New

Here we are, on the brink of 2015, and the festivities have begun in good earnest here at Wrackwell Abbey.  I’m halfway through my first mug of cocoa, and I may have a second.  This is why I’m apt to wake in the backyard on New Year’s Day, splayed out among the unraked leaves and miniature marshmallows.

According to my watch it’s resolution o’clock, or else it’s pointedly-note-that-resolutions- are-bunkum o’clock, depending on your time zone and/or denomination.  No matter how one approaches such determinations, however, most folks do consider the arrival of a new calendar year as a call to plan and prepare, to set their sights on objectives great and small and head out toward them.  It’s a fine trick of time, that sense of anticipation that attends a satisfyingly sharp demarcation, a feeling that “something ere the end,/ some work of noble note, may yet be done.”

Can we really make it new, in a substantive, meaningful way?  Probably not, but I offer that sentiment in the least cynical sense possible.  When Ezra Pound urged his Modern comrades to “make it new” he was himself just pilfering a good idea from an old source, and when we attempt to effect change in our lives we tend to renovate the self in similar ways, authoring new biographical arcs with phrases we already have on hand.  What’s new, or at least newish, is our way of orienting our reflections on the materials of life.  We take a look at where we are and where we’d like to be in the coming year, then we see what we have on board that will make the journey possible, what we’ll need to leave behind if we want to make good time, or what we lack and we’ll need to pick up on the road.  The success of the enterprise generally depends on the frankness with which we take stock and identify needs and superfluities.  That’s doubly true when the journey ahead seems long but we’ve gone too far to turn back.  (Road metaphors are sobering like that.)

The not-very-cynical sense of the sentiment arises from an awareness that what we have, need, or wish to leave behind are all products of perspective and self-determination.  The same person who resolved to eat more home-cooked meals in 2014, for instance, might build on the aptitudes acquired over that stretch in several ways, finding ways to cook better, to trim the bills, or to lose weight.  Rather than starting from scratch we instead only need to consider what we think we are and think we can do in a new light.  Then we can act on what we believe.  Like the good book says, “Time is the mind, the hand that makes”:  the conceptual gives way to the instrumental, and intentions yield behaviors.

It’s not the newness itself, but the making that matters.

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Thinning and Sinning

As most well-bred connoisseurs know, I am an avid consumer of highbrow culture.  Today, let’s talk about that Masterwork of American Horror Cinema, Friday the 13th.

It is, in my modest reckoning, a very good movie. Its sequel, Friday the 13th Part 2, is even better.  I feel qualified to offer you these summary judgments, for I’ve seen the wreck that is Friday the 13th Part III. You would think those Roman numerals would confer a certain dignity to the proceedings, but you would be wrong.

The first two films are not flawless, to be sure.  The original has some clunky dialogue, a few pointless scenes, and some logical and ethical problems.  (How and why does wee Mrs. Voorhees hoist and throw all those corpses around?  And why would she murther poor Brenda, who was behaving in precisely the way a good camp counselor ought?  These are mysteries for the ages.) The sequel, perhaps in an effort to protract the business of the final sequence and the big reveal, plays fast and loose with action heroine hysteria, though it does so to fairly good effect. What makes them fine movies, however, are the unexpected touches of characterization, the dynamics that emerge as the dramatis personae interact on screen.  These are not the tormented souls of art house cinema, I freely concede, but the actors and directors take a moment to make each life matter.

In Friday the 13th, Steve is clearly into Alice, and his manifest failure to connect with her seems to weigh on him for much of the film.  Alice plays a doe-eyed innocent for the most part, but she evinces a thinly-veiled interest in Bill that helps to clarify her feelings for ol’ Steve.  Ned, the eminently killable jokester/prankster who doesn’t know when to stop, has a moment of quiet reflection when he witnesses a tender exchange between Marcie and Jack, a poignant reminder of his own failed efforts to connect.  Even Enos, the truck driver who drives Annie the cook to Camp Crystal Lake, leavens his irascible contempt for foolish young kids with a moment of admiration for her pluck and gumption.  Friday the 13th Part 2 has its own share of telling gestures, from the awkward boss/employee/lovers dynamic between Paul and Ginny to the efforts of the wheelchair-bound Mark to retain his agency to the revisited jokester/pranksterism of Ted, who (unlike most members of that class of characters) manages to survive the film.  I don’t think the cast was ever in danger of death by a pelting of Oscars, but a gaggle of young and veteran actors turn in creditable, earnest performances.  Their one-note characters, many of whom exist primarily to die in colorful ways, sometimes verge on two, even three notes.

Friday the 13th Part III, especially when viewed right after its successors, is painful to watch.  Some of the pain is a result of the special effects, amped up as they are for 3-D whizbangery (there are wires, wires everywhere); some of the pain is a consequence of glaring continuity problems, an oddity given that the same feller directed the second and the third.  The majority of the pain, however, comes from a cast of paper-thin, half-note characters.  They are, at bottom, victims-in-waiting; everyone involved in the production seems resigned to that fact.

What makes it really hurt is that the filmmakers clearly know what they are doing.  The opening sequence, for example, makes beautiful use of a windy night and a clothesline to develop suspense and hint at the horrors to come.  The effect is utterly undercut, however, by the bland interactions of the Stock Harridan and the Stock Henpecked Husband (White Trash weight class), who galumph through a schticky, implausible ten-minute routine some cocaine-addled writer must have thought was hilarious.  Over the course of the next few minutes we get to meet the subpar stoners (low-rent Cheech and Chong knockoffs), the worst biker gang in the history of cinematic biker gangs, and, alas, Shelly.  The actor who plays Shelly, is, I think, a gamer, a fellow who’s turning in an earnest effort, but his part is written by someone who clearly thought the “jokester/prankster is crying on the inside” subtext was just a little too subtle for the teen demographic.  The characters in the film are caricatures, by and large; the hockey mask is the star.

The takeaway lesson is significant for anyone who writes:  it doesn’t take much to make a character substantial, but it takes something.  The pretexts for slasher flicks are generally slim, but the makers of the best ones tend to remember that even a mere hint of depth or complexity will make the action matter when the Man with the Machete comes to call.

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Sublimation Games

During the week of final exams I re-reread Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ll be teaching in the spring.  The book is a good’un on both technical and practical levels, but what caught my attention this time around were the paragraphs in King’s “CV” section, in which he talks about a number of formative experiences with his characteristic candor.  The segment includes what for me is a heartening reassurance:  that for some people (like King and myself) the past is a half-remembered landscape, not a long, linear list of perfect recollections.  Some are more perfect than others, of course–King describes the lancing of his eardrum as a boy with unflinching clarity–but many of the sights can only be seen through a fog. With all that said, King perceives in his writing some meditative, expressive, and perhaps restorative work.  Without getting too gruesome, I’ll meditate myself on that topic today.

I received a couple of kindly missives from readers about my post from a little while back, the one in which I reference my unwillingness to attend weddings.  Their supposition was that I was perpetrating foolery–surely I’d relent if invited to one.  Au contraire, mes frères et soeurs.  By way of explanation, let me offer you a glimpse of my Shamescape.

Imagine for a moment a giant, awkward bald man attending his first adult wedding as a best man.  He is asked to deliver the best man’s toast and, since he has no understanding of the genre (only of toasts in principle), he fucks it up.  Flash forward several years, when he attends the wedding of two sweet-natured, well-to-do friends.  Living on student loans, he attends in the finest clothes he owns, which are the shabbiest of all at the church in the ballroom, a conspicuous fact of which he becomes increasingly conscious as the evening wears on.  Let’s slide forward a few more years to another wedding, one at which he was asked to read a passage.  Though he leaves with plenty of time on the clock, and though he is only a passenger, not the driver, he arrives quite late, fouling what should have been a flawless day for the bride and the groom.  I’m offering only glimpses here, as you might imagine; I could give you 10,000 words on the toast, the clothes, and the tardiness without breaking a sweat.

Do I have any fond memories of such affairs? One or two, I think, and perhaps I’ll dredge them up some other time.  But the moral of the story is that, given such experience, I associate weddings primarily with shame and humiliation, a keen awareness of my many deficiencies as a social creature.  Are these feelings entirely rational?  Nope, but they sure as hell are real.

What we do with such feelings is a complicated bit of business; much depends on the viability of the choices we might make and the sophistication of our processing.  Let’s make another quick trip to Shameville.  I recall receiving an “Unsatisfactory” on my very first report card and, keener that I was, I essayed to address it.  I can recall with unusual vividness a painstaking effort to outline an apple with a red rim so thick that I couldn’t possibly color outside the lines.  This prompted my impatient father (God rest his surly soul) to snap at me.  “You’d best get inlining,” he snarled.  The consequence of those events?  I’ve forsaken artistic endeavor altogether–I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t even doodle.  Those gates are barred to me, though I’m the one who barred them.

Were I a visual artist, I might be able to transform all the ugly stuff into something lovely.  I work with words, however, and that work involves a kind of peripheral processing that King describes very well with all the benefit of retrospect.  Misery, for example, is an outgrowth of and response to of his drug use.  It’s not a personification, dramatization, or anything quite so simple.  It’s a transformation and articulation, a creative act rather than an adaptive or allegorical one.  We can visit sites on the Shamescape at different times, in different lights, with different eyes and refurbish or repurpose whatever we find–whatever we’re willing and able to claim.  It’s pretty heady stuff when you think about it.

And with writing we get the chance to come back again and again until we get the words we want in the spots they belong.  Some things, unlike sites on the Shamescape, we can change.

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The Pleasures of the Test

Yes, it’s 5:45am.  Yes, I’m riffing on Roland Barthes.  No, I’m not going to eat that danish.  Please, help yourself.

We’re in the thick of exam week, which accounts in part for the static on the radio.  By Friday I’ll remember the last two weeks as a caffeinated blur during which final essays were evaluated and exams were written, administered, and graded, but I quite like the exam week feeling on the whole.  Instead of fretting about mid-March, I’m fretting about the next hour or the next ten minutes.  It can be a pleasant reprieve from the self.

The week also brings out some of my vestigial humanity, and it’s nice to see that critter from time to time.  It’s a stressful stretch, doubly tricksy when students are overloaded.  Some will pull double shifts the night before and trudge into their exams bleary-eyed; some are trying to meet grad school application deadlines and cramming for exams at the same time.  A little extra kindness is called for, and I try to be kind when I can.

There are horror stories, too, but those probably call for a post of their own somewhere down the road.  Since I’ve got exams to grade, I should perhaps zero in on the point of this one.

From a writerly standpoint, what always delights me most about exam week is discovering how students have been reading over the past sixteen weeks.  One gets glimmerings in class discussions, but the good stuff always appears in response to essay questions.  I’ll see the work of a student who really wanted to know what happened to Dido’s husband and accordingly hunted down more information on Sychaeus and Pygmalion on his own; I’ll see the thoughts of a student who really, really didn’t like Northanger Abbey and who, in outlining the reasons for her distaste, has more or less intuitively recognized free indirect discourse.  Most often, however, I’ll see really novel and intriguing examples, connections, applications, syntheses, and cross-references, students revealing what they saw (and not what I suggested they might see) as they worked through The Odyssey, The Old English Baron, or “The Call of Cthulhu” on their own.  Those insights and impressions are powerful proofs of intellectual engagement, and they’re also reminders that a readership is a many-headed beastie, one that brings countless eyes and myriad minds to bear on the provocations of prose and poetry.

Those insights and impressions are also a strong corrective to that authorial attitude that frets about reception, that hopes to control what readers will take away from the page.  I’m sometimes the rider (or pilot) of that particular dinghy, and any reminder that all one can do is commit the best words one commands to the page and trust the rudder to the reader is pretty darned life-affirming.

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