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Tag Archives: creative writing

The Graduate

I don’t have a long entry in me today since I spent most of my evening touching up a creative project that I ended up entitling “The Graduate.” I had originally posted a preview of it here as “The Gambler,” but adjusted the title so as to better reflect some of the themes of the story.

The story is about two individuals reflecting on a college graduation ceremony that they both attended. One has good memories of it, and more generally of her overall carefree attitude toward her college work, reflected in the fact that she never took any notes in her courses. The other person, a man, is more pensive about that same time, thinking about how so little had happened between his own graduation (further in the past) and the current graduation at hand. It’s sort of a fictional version of the non-fictional history I fleshed-out in an entry on here back in January.

I used some of the cut-and-paste and randomization that I have so far used in my other short stories. There are some snippets of poetry, plus an entire mid section that is a lecture that one person is listening to and not taking notes on. The mini sections near the photos, with the text “The notes:” are perhaps the notes that the more pensive of the two speakers (James) would have taken if he had been there (maybe he was there).

About the photos: I took them of my actual college notebooks from 2004 (you can see the date on one of them as 9/21/04 – my first month in college).  I’ve always liked using handwriting in my creative projects, such as for this poem I once wrote in iA Writer on a Mac and then transcribed by hand and filtered through several apps:

tumblr_mjoni4Ngvc1s3wwv2o1_1280

I like the idea of having a dialogue between typed text and written/pictorial text. I had a lot of fun when I used photos of a printed version of the middle section of my first ever short story, “The Loop,” as the actual middle section of the piece (i.e., I didn’t even type it into the Tumblr entry). It lets me put visual art and writing side by side.

With four stories now written, I’m going to do a fifth and then work on self-publishing them as a collection. So far I have enjoyed the no-pressure atmosphere of Tumblr, but I am in love with the idea of collecting them all in a physical volume that I can distribute or even sell.

Stylistically, I feel that I’m still feeling out my limits and preferences. I like the concept of recycling old text, notes, lyrics, and other textual scraps into something that sort of moves like a narrative. Perhaps I’ll settle into more linear narratives eventually but my love of poetry seems like it’ll always pull me back toward making some sort of hybrid.

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Creative projects: “The Gambler”

Finishing a short story collection – with stories in a variety of styles – is one of my goals for 2015, along with reading more books. So far I have three stories published to my Tumblr (“The Loop,” “The Lightning,” and “The Chancellor“) and I am working on a fourth. Below I have printed an excerpt; the idea with this one is to somehow weave in lecture-style writing (which I practiced while doing a Humanities course five years ago) into a narrative. I’ll do a debrief of sorts on my logic in a future post, but for now here’s part of this work in progress.

“Where are you, Lauren?,” James scrawled in the Prentice Hall composition book from his eloped daughter, appending “what should I learn in 2015,” this one with the question mark elided to seem more earnest like a university student taking notes, or a lonely Twitter account mining for at-replies.

Mottled questions, all, written at his kitchen table bearing a bowl of fake fruit under 4pm sunset. The mild winter space was filled out with the sounds of Above & Beyond’s “Group Therapy” and the sudsy sizzle of a Goose Island Mild Winter, leaving its Chicago comfort zone for a green plastic cup.

“Time paints over the truth,” he followed up on the facing page, inscribing these song lyrics with a hope that his chicken-scratch script would with its all of its slicing T’s mimicking the Chicago skyline – choosing “mimic” for its funny sharp-seeming participle, though “panic” would have been a more forceful epigraph – cut ephemeral EDM poetry from an Ibiza, or more dearly for James a Halsted St., scrapbook, and transpose it into this country notebook. The Prentice Hall even still had a receipt in the back: Walmart, Lebanon, August 1991.

“I never take notes,” Lauren told him a few years after that late summer purchase. “I know, ‘why’? Everyone is always pounding away at their keyboards or have their gel-pens out with a legal pad. It’s pretentious. Maybe it’s exercise, like rowing for the hands and I’m some lazy elitist. All I do is circle receipt totals and double-over my too-light writing on rent checks.

“When I was in Philosophy-35, laptops were still like briefcases with screens, but they were good for capturing all the high-sounding ephemera – ‘Aristotle and the Academy,’ ‘substance vs forms’, ‘the rebuttal to Parmenides’ – that would be all musty minutes the second after leaving the class, almost like the whole point had been, from the beginning, only to create something to trivialize years later upon finding and laboring to boot an ancient PC with VGA connectors, or the analog equivalent, heh, like sizing up a crinkled yellow zombie page, aged after its interment in a moist closet…”

James, with his Bucktown beard and Instagram sunglasses, layering Aly & Fila on top of Marion County, Kentucky and reading the Book of Psalms while Burgess Meredith recited it from a Willow-filtered “Twilight Zone” fresh with the glow of the new year.

Lauren, with her Queen of Hearts paleness and Facebook neck, shunning the prefabrication of any antiques to rival Egypt, instead seeking a Future Sound of Queens in her job as a content marketer for an AV firm, peddling Shure and Kramer to the integrators

“…I mean, how would I know months later, on the eve of the final, wtf ‘Physics section on change’ means? There is the issue of me thinking the Physics important, granted. Notes – the pre-ripped jeans of the academy. The reinforcement of the workmanlike original as something for prelaw dabblers to gawk at and laughily mention during Thanksgiving break.”

Unmoved by James’ kitchen-table micro philosophy, Lauren chewed Bazooka Joe in her apartment, which had no room for a kitchen table. The space was tight enough to force food preparation on unlit burners and in an unfilled sink. She thought back to a lecture that was lively in her head, even if scribbled on the page only as “10/8/04 religion as labor”:

“One of the best arguments against religion is that it gives people bad reasons to do good deeds when good ones are readily available. I’d like to propose a corollary to that, namely that religion also gives us bad reasons to do bad deeds when better ones are out there.

Let me explain the original first. Say you go to Africa to provide relief for a famine – so that you can ascend into heaven after you die. Why not just do the deed because you want to help? Why the dark bribery of religion?

Now, let’s think about bad actions, and bad men.

James’ poem, somewhere els:
The Bad Man: A black-booted Persian Gulf cowboy,
With a James-like Anglo-Saxon beard,
With a silhouette cast across 1990s local TV news;
His profile is gray – “pic upon request”?
No account activity since 1991.
Can we make it slightly easier?
We’re out in a desert, stuffing our briefcases.
Yes. Filling up on trinkets bought in Jerusalem,
Look at these stockings we have on for gathering sand
And bringing it all back home.

In this case, say you attack another country’s embassy with rockets and suicide bombers – so that you can be magically transported to a 7th century bordello and escape the tortures of a fallen angel. Why not do it (if you had to do it) because of political or economic grievances?

Many in the West realize that the latter reasoning is more palatable, even if they don’t acknowledge it. See, they will respond to every terrorist bombing, every hostage situation, no matter how cynical, with remarks about how the imperialist regimes of Europe and North America had it coming, how fanatics were simply evening the geopolitical score.

But in taking this line of reasoning, they tacitly signal that they regard strictly religious motivation – that pining to escape hell and reach heaven – as too absurd to explain the actions at hand. This is the logic of people who don’t know what it’s like to really believe in the high stakes of religion, where eternal life (and, alternatively, damnation) are on the table. They haven’t spent Valentine’s Day fearing eternal damnation for the mere thought of ‘adultery.’

No economic or political prize can compete with religion’s various promises and threats. Accordingly, we find actions, motivated by religion, that have an intensity totally out of sync with whatever perceived slight they are retaliating for. So we get beheadings, massive civil unrest, and threats of worldwide domination – for the desecration of a book. Or sham trials and executions – for giving off the air that one might be a fictional creature, let’s say a wizard or a witch.

High-stakes drive people crazy. That sounds like an oversimplification, but consider the herd mentality of Wall Street, or the surge pricing of Uber, and all of the attendant fierce arguments, justifications (“supply and demand”), disregard for the non-wealthy, and general ego-feeding that goes into these enterprises.

Now, imagine that even the billions or trillions of dollars at stake here were dwarfed, and you brush up against religion’s dark world.

Religion’s stakes are eternal. It would as if one could win a game of poker and the victory lasted forever, never having to worry about the next hand. Meanwhile, the losers would be tortured endlessly.

The metaphor becomes even more instructive if one considers that the randomness of poker is a pretty good stand-in for the madness of religious dogma – not eating shellfish, ensuring that women are covered head to toe in clothing, believing in the virgin birth of a Jewish prophet.

Or maybe a slot machine gives a better idea of the motivations of religion. I have gone to many casinos with relatives who play slots despite all the evidence – plus their own experiences, of losing hundreds of dollars – that they are impossible to crack and will destroy you.

The default mindset here seems to be, in an unspoken way, one of “yes I am going to lose, but wait no, this time, this time I’m going to get lucky,” with both that tacit acknowledgement – like a certain stripe of Westerner toward radical Islam – that madness is at play and, yet, a stronger feeling that, no, the universe makes sense and so madness can’t possibly win (right?). Religion is like compulsively pulling the slot on a slot machine, except its unique brand of pulling is praying, adhering to ritual, and persisting in dogma.

There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which an old man, fittingly for our book here with a strong vaguely religious moral opposition to gambling, tries a slot machine once on a whim and then ends up losing everything to it – his money, his spouse, and finally his life, after a delusion that it is invading his hotel room. What a feast for anyone trying to break down religion:

  • Just like this man, the true believer has a certain buy-in cost. For him, it was his first coin into the slot; for her, it’s accepting Jesus as her personal savior, or acknowledging that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.
  • The stakes at play are so high that they almost have to cascade into view. For the average casino-goer, the idea of winning tens of thousands (or millions, depending on the promotion/location) of dollars with no effort is so abstract, yet so overwhelming in its potential energy, that it almost demands a type of effort, no matter how mechanical and fruitless, to justify its promise.
  • It’s like there is a certain labor – no matter how tedious and useless and insane – that is needed to justify, in the laborer’s mind, the enormous prize that seems (and is) too good to be true. In the workplace, this approach may be called the delusion of hard work (i.e., putting in long hours will automatically get me ahead), in the casino the sucker’s bet, and in religion a dangerous dogmatism that inspires highly physical action like jihad or corporeal punishment for imaginary crimes, all of which are insane actions toward an insane goal – but they seem less so when broken up into small chunks like making strange requests (“I just want a new car”) to a god conceived in the Iron Age Levant.

Then there’s…”

Email as a normal person problem

A problem manufactured to create solutions
Email is overrated as a normal person problem. But you would never know it from the coverage of tech journalists or the dramatic rollouts of email “solutions” like IBM Verse (18 years late to the webmail party), Google Inbox, or the recent Gmail for Android redesign. For upper-level managers and VP/C-level executives, email is almost all there is. In June 2006, Paul Graham wrote:

“If you ask eminent people what’s wrong with their lives, the first thing they’ll complain about is the lack of time. A friend of mine at Google is fairly high up in the company and went to work for them long before they went public. In other words, he’s now rich enough not to have to work. I asked him if he could still endure the annoyances of having a job, now that he didn’t have to. And he said that there weren’t really any annoyances, except—and he got a wistful look when he said this—that he got so much email.”

The real lesson here is not to be eminent, but the more obvious one is that email is a tax on “productivity.” The latter term has become so overloaded over the past century, to the point that it is now meaningless. To have email is to have problems, and to have problems is, increasingly, to have no time at all. Cue Quinn Norton:

“We multitask, we update, and we conflate status with long hours worked in no paid overtime systems for the nebulous and fantastic status of being Too Important to have Time to Ourselves, time to waste. But this incarnation of the American dream is all about doing, and nothing about doing anything good, or even thinking about what one was doing beyond how to do more of it more efficiently. It was not even the surrenders to hedonism and debauchery or greed our literary dreams have recorded before. It is a surrender to nothing, to a nothingness of lived accounting.”

Ok, so the plague of productivity, often borne by the rat of email, is obviously entrenched in U.S. workplace culture. So why did I say email was “overrated,” if it has such depressing consequences?

Because it’s just an amplifier, rather than the source, of the problem. If email didn’t exist, Facebook or Slack or something else would pick up the slack. There would be tons of clients for those services, made by top developers and designers who would have no choice but find a replacement for email. “Solving” these new media would become the topic of numerous Medium posts and Verge articles – and a key indicator that the writer/user was serious and busy.

There’s the problem. Plenty of us have already “solved” email simply by not using it. I get maybe 5 personal account emails, tops, each day, most of them auto-generated or promotional. I understand that this admission disqualifies me from being an Eminent Serious Person, but it also relieves me of a constant “problem” of sorting through stuff that by and large doesn’t matter.

Even at work, where I may get 20 emails a day, 19 of them usually require no action. I could reply to some – i.e., with “Thanks, I’ll keep this in mind” – but a lot of those responses would be political exercises. Email is a lifestyle choice, not an intractable force.

Moreover, I think a lot of people don’t care about email, in the same way that they don’t care about calendars, maps, or Microsoft Office, as Benedict Evans pointed out in a recent tweet. Through the lens of the tech press, you’d think that email was one of the top problems facing humanity today. Through the lenses of my eyes on the subway, I see every phone on Snapchat, Facebook, or a Web browser, not an email client.

So what is email good for?
Email is the price of admission to a certain segment of the culture, meant to exhaust workers and ultimately preserve the status quo. Which is too bad, since it’s a powerful enabler of thought – as long as you’re writing in drafts.

In high school – probably the peak of my email usage, since it was still a novel tool for me back then, plus it had no competition at the time – I wrote a lot of long emails that contained small plays and novellas in them. I have since found this behavior hard to replicate outside the inbox, no matter what writing tool I use.

I think the magic of email draft writing is that it feels important. This feeling is the same reason, I imagine, why so many tech writers and business executives fall over themselves about email – even when it hurts, it feels good to humblebrag about getting hundreds of messages a day and signal the status that comes with that admission. Email is literally going somewhere, after all.

Other writing media have less obvious routes to dissemination. Even a blogging CMS carries with it the implication that the post may never be read in its entirety or at all. Emailing almost guarantees an audience. That’s what makes it good for writing and excellent as an enabler of anyone hungry for attention and imagined prestige.

Writing my second short story: What I learned and what I would do differently now

This week I completed my second short story, a 7,000 word piece called “The Lightning” that I posted to Tumblr, along with some original artwork and photography that loosely correspond to the narrative. It’s the second story I’ve published to the site – I prefer Tumblr for its relative anonymity  and informality, as well as its artistic community – and I plan to add at least 3 more over the next several months. Once I get to 5, I’ll think about self-publishing an actual book of them.

The story itself is a reporter’s chronicle of his investigation of a local tall tale, about a man who is repeatedly struck by lightning. I didn’t go into the story with much of a plan – only an idea of “lightning in a bottle” that was cycling through my head like a cliche during a walk back in September.

Stylistically, I drew upon three major sources:

  1. Will Self’s Umbrella – a multi-consciousness, stream-of-consciousness novel that seamlessly moves between World War 1 and later eras, all the way to 2010.
  2. The Serial podcast, a massive hit series narrating a reporter’s revisiting of a 1999 crime
  3. The Counting Crows album “Across a Wire,” which reimagines the band’s early songs with lyrical snippets from other songs, b both their own and others’.

I’m still very much a novice short story writer. My first one was written back in the summer, called “The Loop.” I’m still getting a feel for narrative and characterization – in this one I took the first-person perspective, despite Jonathan Franzen’s recommendations against it, to try and get inside the investigator’s head. I also presented different layers of narrative. The parts in quotes are meant to be newsy/reporter-y, while the unquoted parts are more free-form, going between poetry and free association.  The piece started as a someone walking around in the woods thinking about the Union Jack (I began right before the Scottish independence referendum) and ended up with that as just a passing detail.

There are some details about my hometown in here. The Lebanon Enterprise is a real newspaper, just as Proctor Knott Avenue is a real street. The whiskey distilleries, lakes, and forests are all real characteristics of the area in and around Lebanon.

I published it once and then took it down to do some rewrites. With this story, I rediscovered what I had once learned but forgotten (perhaps since I did so with a different medium, the academic paper): trying to substantially revise an old work that you haven’t gone back to in a while is painful. I probably let 1.5 weeks slip between the first draft and doing substantial edits, which ended being harder than facing down a blank page had been. I’m not going to put off the edit cycle again.

I used iA Writer for Mac to write the whole thing in Markdown. I took the photos with an iPhone 6 Plus. The artwork was done with acrylic paint on a sketchpad.

For the next short story, I’m going to read something more straightforward – maybe some Stephen King and Hemingway – and then tailor my style accordingly. I’ve already got a title: “The Chancellor.”

How cutting and pasting can work for creative writing

“Somewhere, out in America, it’s just starting to rain”

I didn’t get much reading done today, but I heard that lyric in a live version of a Counting Crows song from 1998. The words are originally from  1996’s”Have You Seen Me Lately” and in this were inserted into 1993’s “Round Here.” The former song is a decent cut from the band’s sophomore album, Recovering the Satellites, while the latter is the stormy opener off of their debut, August & Everything After, which I mentioned in my previous entry about “One for Sorrow.”

Copying that line from a good song and pasting it into a great song made me hear the poetry in a fresh way. The image of rain just starting – “somewhere,” perhaps out in Nebraska or elsewhere in rural America – amplifies all the small town ennui of “Round Here,” where the townsfolk described in the lyric aren’t merely bored or suicidal (as in the original album version), but now confronted with overcast skies and downpours. The verse found a new home, better than its original one.

What struck me about the lyrical transplant here was the continuity of the band’s songs (even across albums and styles) and how it was a literal literary cut and paste that worked. The idea of lifting portions of one’s old writing – an email, a draft that never really worked out, or even a nonsensical piece of business writing – and dropping it into a creative piece is hardly a new idea. Entire novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (described by one reviewer as “Eisensteinian“) and Will Self’s Umbrella seem predicated on cut-and-paste logic, with sequencing only barely mattering and scenes of violence and alienation opportunely cutting through the head-in-the-clouds narrative.

I’ve tried this technique before, throwing around passages from traditional folk songs, early versions of white papers, loosely transcribed podcast monologues, and lightly rewritten website copy. It’s hit or miss for me, but it’s a lot of fun trying to write around the insertion so that it (kinda) makes sense. I think cut and paste can work if you let yourself be led, rather than trying to lead and find the perfect quote/passage-to-imitate. Basically, it’s the opposite of doing research, which is good enough for me.