Thursday, September 30, 2010

Love: William Goldman

I've been spending a lot of time lately revising my thesis for the first round of workshop (which I hope somewhat explains my absence). In the days since I sent it to be printed, then, I've been thinking about the next thing I'm responsible for in workshop, which is to choose a book for the class to read that has somehow influenced or impacted my writing. The idea is to give ourselves a head start on our thesis introductions, which have to discuss our evolution and our influences in some way. There's a sense, too, in which the books chosen so far have been a sort of codex for the work of the student who chose it--often it's the premises and ideas of the books that we end up reading as the influence, in part because naturally people's work has departed in style, language, tone, etc. from the author they once emulated or felt inspired by. So Mike, for instance, chose Breakfast of Champions, and while the style and arrangement really brought little to bear on Mike's book, the ideas surrounding writing and "main character syndrome" were still present in Mike's approach to characterization, which is, overall, a pretty important key to appreciating his style. So we were able to read it as a playbook, in a sense, rather than a full-fledged model.

But now I have to choose a book, and it's hard. Really hard. And in part, the problem is that I have written, basically, an adventure book about psychics. So I feel like I have to give people a way to understand how I came to write about that, and why one would want to, as well as a "playbook" for how I approach writing in general. To my thinking, it should be a book that really matters to me, as opposed to one I have enjoyed or admired just once. Which makes me feel like I haven't read enough, or like I haven't read rightly who I've read (should I have read twice?), because there's only one book that comes to mind.

The only book I truly love is The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

Everyone knows what The Princess Bride is, but few in my experience, especially in the MFA, have any clue who William Goldman is. It's kind of hard to explain to them. William Goldman started out writing great books that fit pretty nicely into mainstream literary fiction, and seem (retroactively) to have been very popular, judging in part by their re-release as super-cheap paperbacks later in his career, and in part by the accompanying reviews. Reviewers tended to compare his characters to Holden Caulfield, making him the Salinger of his generation, an author gifted with the insight to depict life accurately, with characters whose rough edges were always rubbing up against each other. At some point, though, he made a hard break with those books and started writing thrillers (if you fear dentists, it's probably his Dr. Christian Szell from Marathon Man that you're thinking of) as well as screenplays, many based on his books (including Marathon Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but many others not--I think even now he is hired to punch up scripts that aren't working yet.

Naturally, he wrote the screenplay for The Princess Bride too, and though his is one of the very first credits--"Based on the book by William Goldman"--it seems to me that very few people who admit to loving the movie have seized on that credit the way that I did. There's more? I thought. I could have this story, but for longer? I checked it out at the library and never checked it back in until about two and a half years later, when someone else finally came calling for it. I left them a note in the pages telling them to take care of it and that I hoped they would enjoy it as much as I did. I kept a piece of that book with me--literally--the laminated corner of the cover, which had fallen off in my long stint as caretaker. There is still, mounted to the walls of my childhood bedroom, a reproduction I drew of the cover--my cover, the one I think of as the right one 15 years and two anniversary editions later.

What I think had happened to me was this: What I had found, at age 9, in the movie and the book was not a wonderful story, though it is a wonderful story. I had found a wonderful writer. This was not what I had been into reading for, previously--I liked series and classics and the kind of junky stuff that's always being made to be crack for kids. Youngenings of Robin Hood, stories about beloved dogs, and the like. And there wasn't a sequel to The Princess Bride--only a promised three-page reunion scene, which is "excised" from the book with the reason that S. Morgenstern didn't write it (and which I mailed in for, receiving in response a very funny form letter that felt very disappointing at the time). So it took me five or six years to try out his other books, which looked so dark and so not my thing by comparison. But they were good too. Because he was a good writer. I read Brothers (the sequel to Marathon Man) four times, even though at 16 I think a lot of the sex and violence in it warped me just a little. In just the past two years I've found Boys & Girls Together and Temple of Gold--entries from his earlier, literary period. William Goldman's is not a story of the classically trained artist who abandons traditional forms for more satisfying and risque work. Both of these, too, are really good. I think he wanted to write them. And then, after a while, he didn't want to write them anymore. And it was okay.

He taught me, I think that writing and making art for people is never about deserving it, about reaching the point of "good enough." It's about doing what you have to do. It's about Wesley finding a way to rescue Buttercup--screw his limitations. (Being recently dead is a big limitation!) It's about Inigo finding the six-fingered man, not about being good enough to beat him. For years he's been good enough (though it helps the story that he doubts, that he's beaten by the man in black). It's about him finding the strength to keep up the search.

So if you have to write an adventure novel about psychics even though you don't believe in psychics, at all, and you've never written an adventure novel...

What was my goal? Why did I think this was worthwhile? How does this reflect my training, my learning? What did I hope to accomplish through these characters?

I don't know. I loved them. I wanted them to exist.

And what's hard for me to explain to an MFA crowd is exactly how William Goldman is the key to me loving things, including writing, and to me thinking much of anything about books instead of just devouring them with a mindless hunger. He made me think of books as moral things, and the writer's act as a moral act. In The Princess Bride, he takes upon himself the responsibility of telling a good story, yes, but also the responsibility of telling a story that doesn't go all right, where, as the line goes, "Life isn't fair. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something." We don't get what we deserve. We get what we get. So it's all up to us, and it's not all up to us. This advice is freeing, and it's also a charge. You have to care to get everything you want, but you don't have to get everything you want in order to care.

As a writer, William Goldman's lesson to me has been that you should care and care and care about what you do, realizing that the world owes you nothing for doing it--not publication, not praise, not love. You may, at any time, have your chances and assurances ripped away, and under that misfortune, you'll have to do what you can with what you can rebuild. William Goldman's characters are the best in the world at what they do--the most beautiful, the most handsome, the best hunter, the finest swordsman, and even they have no guarantees against this kind of loss. But as it turns out, you can do a lot in the face of it. You can keep going. 

Characters like these are important. Stories like these are important to tell.

I guess that's what I was shooting for.

Great Mustaches of the Twentieth Century Part 1 of 5: The Power Stache

Good facial hair is the ultimate sign of masculinity. Strength, intelligence, and success are all for naught if a man can’t grow a good swath of hair on his face. Growing just a mustache is a distillation of one’s facial hair growing abilities.  To quote a Russian proverb, “A man without a mustache, is like an egg with no salt.”

In the twentieth century, the men in power who had mustaches were either dictators or progressive republicans.  The progressive republicans were really a pre 1920s North American phenomenon, where as the dictators pretty much ruined facial hair world wide for holders of high office.

Vladimir Ilych Lenin

Led the Russian Revolution with his well groomed mustache.

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin

Stalin successfully alienated every intellectual in the world from a once popular Marxist philosophy and did it with a great mustache. Originally Stalin was good friends with another famous mustache, Adolf Hitler. They later battled it out on the eastern front over who had the better mustache and who could be the evilest dictator.

Adolf Hitler

A demonstration of how one man can ruin a particular style for all of history.  Hopefully the next evil dictator will wear hipster glasses.

Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti

The fact that Saddam had a great mustache is often overshadowed by his participation in genocide, and by ‘participate’, I mean orchestrated as a dictator.  His beautiful lip hair is also overshadowed by his disheveled appearance after being yanked out of a hole by the US military.

Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy is known for his uber masculinity as a hunter and leader of the Rough Riders. His mustache on Mount Rushmore is likely the world’s largest sculptural depiction of a mustache.

William Howard Taft

Usually associated with being the fattest president, Taft was the last president to have facial hair, thus ending the facial haired precedent started by Abraham Lincoln.  On a sidenote, Charles Curtis, the 31st vice president, had a nice silver haired mustache for Herbert Hoover.

Venustiano Carranza de la Garza

Technically a goatee, Carranza’s mustache is hands down the best mustache of all twentieth century world leaders.

Consolation (the Cuban connection):

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz

Rocked a stache as a youngster but conquered Cuba with a beard.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Typically went bearded, but it was so shitty looking, that it can be easily mistaken for a mustache.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I have been experiencing, for nearly a week now, the first real attack of nostalgia in my young life. It was set off, hilariously, by Smashing Pumpkins. Remember them? I guess they exist again, but, whatever -- nobody liked that album, and especially nobody liked the way every goddamn retail outlet on the planet had their own version with its own bonus tracks. It was Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was in a bar playing pool. I felt lonely the way I do in any gathering of friends (especially men [I am the official gay friend of several ladies on campus, this is not surprising to me at all]) and it felt good to hear a song from the old, bad days.

I did not like being a child, a tween, a teen, or a putative adult. I did enjoy some music while I was doing those things. Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was -- be prepared to be staggered at my disgusting youth -- the first really good album I ever heard. I think I was seven. From the beginning I knew there was a lot of crap on those twin CD's (which we called, in my household, Happy Baby and Sad Baby respectively), especially the latter. I also knew, from the very beginning, how utterly absurd were the lyrics to "Bullet with Butterfly Wings." I didn't understand instinctively what a douchebag Billy Corgan probably was. That took seeing his clothes. None of it mattered. If you're going to wallow -- and teenagers will, and so will I -- it might as well be to something pretty. And if right-thinking individuals find songs like "Bullet..." ridiculous, they should at least be able to admit the simple joys of "Tonight, Tonight," "Jellybelly," "An Ode to No One," and even the equally ridiculous "Zero." ("Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness and God is empty, just like me." [LoL!])

I was surprised to feel nostalgia not so much because I haven't enjoyed most of my life as because I see nostalgia as essentially a form of identification; identification with a phenomenon or a fan base, identification with a past self. I am not very good at identifying with anything. My admiration for certain writers is the closest I get, and usually I try to keep them at arm's length so I can go on liking them (people tend to piss me off, especially artists, when I actually know how and what they think/believe). I don't identify with my MFA class or program very well, sometimes because they (like everybody) piss me off but mostly because I assume they wouldn't want me as one of them. I don't identify with any movements of writers (I assume they don't want me either) or social circles, or, well, much of anything. I have a vague sense of identification with other atheists (we're embattled!) and with the Democratic party (not because I'm proud of them, but because I feel like now that I'm a party-line voter and apologist I've got to own up, take responsibility, live in shame, etc.).

Since this attack of nostalgia began, I've dug out my Nirvana albums as well, and proven nostalgia transferable by somehow branching out from there to the collected works of Led Zeppelin. (I don't know either. But "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is a really great song.) Nirvana's unplugged album is my favorite of theirs, in part because I just really love the way the production sounds and in part, no doubt, because it was the first album I actually owned (a Christmas gift, I think, from my Grandma). My brothers and I used to sing "Lake of Fire" pretty often.

This post has a lot of parantheticals. I could be happier with that but I'm not going to change it.

What makes you nostalgic? Is it like identification for you, or another feeling? Does it make you happy? It actually mostly makes me sad, but a good kind of sad.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

8.35 Million United States Dollars!

I realize it's sort of banal to write about the accidental poetry of spam but I can hardly resist typing about one I received a few weeks back. Aslin Roger of the "Royal bank of Scotland" wrote:

I am getting in touch with you regarding the estate of a deceased client with similar last name and an investment placed under our banks management.
How sizable was this investment? 8.35 million United States dollars!

This spam makes me melancholy because I wish I lived in a cartoon world in which it was feasible that Aslin Roger of the Royal bank of Scotland would write to me regarding orphaned bank accounts, even if they were in the amount of $5. Even if they were in the amount of -$5.

Of course, the 8.35 mill would be even nicer. I'd swim in it like Scrooge McDuck. I'd actually swim in a lot of things. If I were at home now I'd take some photos and illustrate this post with images of me swimming in old issues of literary journals, or library books, or unused cat litter, or old drafts of stories, or jars of spices, or . . .

I also wish people named Aslin would contact me. Aslin! What a name!


Maybe I'll start writing under the name Aslin. I've certainly considered lots of false names but was turned off to pen names during my time working on lit journals, when the most ludicrous and purple bylines came swimming in atop overwrought poetry and fiction.

I've also considered changing my name entirely. Neither my fiancee nor I love our names but we can't decide on a new one we both love. The closest we've come is this: Roboto.

Other strong options: Flightdeckduo. Noodles. Bonecracker. Tremens.

Amber Sparks was kind enough to include me in her Ancient City project at Necessary Fiction, and you can see my contribution here. The other entries are wonderful and they all take unique angles of approach to the shared subject matter. Gabriel Blackwell wrote earlier about the project, and will contribute to it, and Roxane Gay contributed something a few days ago.

Minecraft, Little Big Planet, etc.

When I was a teenager and still home-schooled I spent most of my time screwing around. Luckily for me, my chosen forms of screwing around -- mostly doing things and then writing about them, or imagining things and then writing about them -- tended to be at least somewhat educational. Yes, I had homework, but really I mostly read and learned about what I wanted to read and learn about. (This is also, unfortunately, why my math is so poor.) I could write a book at the beginning of the day and then read a book and then draw for a while and listen to music and then write about the music and re-watch a movie and then work on my book some more, and I could play just about every video game that caught my interest, because I had a job and very little else to spend the money on.

These days I have to spend my time a little more carefully, so I don't read as many books as I used to, and I don't finish anything that bores me. I do still feel a need to keep up with things, though -- to read about the bands I used to follow even if I don't care about them anymore, and to read something like six articles about Freedom even though (in fact because) I never plan to read the behemoth itself. I don't play many video games either, in part because I can afford so few. But I do watch videos of other people playing them, or read what they've written about their experiences. Often this lets me extract what I really wanted from the book or the music or the game with a much smaller investment of time. What am I extracting? Learning, sometimes. Sometimes a mood. I'm not sure where Minecraft lies in that scheme.

What I like about videos of people playing Minecraft is how soothing they are. This one above in particular. Minecraft is, I guess, a game about gathering resources and building things. I guess that in one mode you just build for fun all the time and then in the other mode there are creatures that want to kill you, to break through what you've built. Both modes sound pretty cool. I am increasingly attracted to games that focus on building, though.

A few observations about this video in particular: the music is nice. It makes me feel good and relaxed. I wouldn't listen to it alone but I will listen to it while I look at a miniature version of the planet Earth. I love the idea of building a model of the world one brick at a time. I love the way this game lets you build with cubes, and only cubes -- which is to say, with 3D pixels. Limitations make the game world manageable. I like that he walks across a bridge to get to the planet. What's outside the world? I guess, in this case, other things built by people, including others. The best part of the video is where he goes up inside the world from underneath and it turns out there's sort of a clubhouse thing going on there. Imagine if the Earth were hollow. Imagine if it was your playhouse inside.

In this video a guy has built the framework of a 1-to-1 model of the Starship Enterprise (I'm guessing Enterprise-D). He would like some people to come and build the individual decks with him.

In the video above, you can watch a time-lapsed 24-hour period of building on a server. This video explores some other nice architecture from the inside, and there's some nice music too.

Sometimes when I look at games with a focus on user-generated content I feel guilty about Little Big Planet. The game was a gift for a friend. If you're not familiar, Little Big Planet is a platformer for you and up to three friends. You jump around, sort of like Mario. It's really simple and usually pretty laid back. What sets the game apart is that the users can make levels just as good as (or better than) the ones that come packed with the game, using a series of extremely powerful tools. I could easily make levels for this game. I've had a few ideas for levels, even, that seemed pretty cool. I doubt I'll ever get around to it. I'll probably buy the sequel at some point after it comes out, and marvel at the levels other people made, and then go on not contributing anything myself, though I like to think of myself as a pretty smart dude, fairly capable, etc.

The thing is, though, that there's not much point in playing Little Big Planet levels apart from the fact that you could have, given sufficient time and skill and energy and planning and so on, perhaps maybe made them yourself. Tracy makes sounds of genuine delight when something interesting or cute or exciting or unexpected or innovative or clearly difficult-to-make happens in a level she's playing, and often this is followed by verbally congratulating the maker of the level for what he or she has done. There is a sympathy, a meeting of the minds, that reminds me of the pleasure I feel in reading a book I feel I could have maybe someday, given sufficient time and skill and energy and planning and talent and luck and so on, maybe kind of sort of written myself. I would be happier if I had really written it, perhaps, but there are other books for me to write, and I feel a profound connection to the one that did make it. I feel gratitude, delight. I feel as if I've extracted some of the joy of the making. When we play Little Big Planet, we are constantly engaged with the joy of the making as well as the thing made.

The joy of that experience is often diluted by the fact that most people apparently prefer recreating movies and other video games rather than creating their own original levels. It seems so lazy, so unimaginative, so depressing -- given the opportunity to make practically anything they can imagine, they make a Castlevania knockoff.

But this impulse is cast in a more charitable light by the painstaking recreations of major architecture in Minecraft. To rebuild Notre Dame in Minecraft is probably less difficult than to recreate a Mario level, especially if you do anything witty or interesting in your interpretation of the Mario concept. You also generally cannot perfectly reproduce a Mario level, while in recreating architecture one might actually use the blueprints: the interpretation is, at least potentially, terribly literal. But I instinctively respect the effort of those rebuilding already-existing buildings.

Part of it is the visual austerity of the buildings, I imagine. Part of it is their apparent solidness. Probably it's mostly a highbrow/lowbrow thing. In any case, it makes me feel that one might remake a Mario level for the same reason one might remake Notre Dame -- to drag one's fingers over its texture and its curves very slowly. To roll it on one's tongue. To imagine what it might be like to build the thing oneself. To participate in architecture, in building, in making. To remake Mario is to imagine making Mario, just as I love to imagine building that model Earth, but do not want to take the time to do it now, or just as I want to make fun of Freedom, but without having to take the time to read the thing I laugh at. But nobler, I guess, than that.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Robert Alan Wendeborn is our newest contributor.

A few months ago our friend Robbie started posting sentences about fathers to Twitter. They were from a book about robots -- he had taken the word "robots" and replaced it with "fathers." Some of the sentences were very funny. Some of them were very sad. I told him to make the sentences into a poem or a story and we would publish the results. He worked on it off and on for a while. Yesterday he sent me a draft. It's very good. I felt we could announce that Robbie would be in our first issue.

Robbie is more widely known under the super-classy moniker "Robert Alan Wendeborn," which is, as far as I know, his real name. He blogs about food with our friend Carrie at Master of Fine Eats. He's published poetry with PANK, with PANK again, in Strange Machine, and probably in other places I  forgot about. His poetry is often sweet, sad, hilarious, painful, lovely. I'm proud to call him a friend. Hopefully he'll be writing posts for us soon -- he promised me one last night about mustaches.

To your left is a super-classy photo of Robbie reading. As NMSU student and photographer Josh Bowen says, "Black and white makes things serious."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Our lovable "Focus the Clown"

If you’re tired of blaming your lack of writing on bullshit like fake distractions, why not buy a more effective distraction remover? Why not try ū—? Available for Windows, OS X, Linux, iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, and Moleskine.
Merlin Mann is my hero.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reading Eula Biss

Today my class was supposed to read Blake Butler's story "The Copy Family" and the prelude to Eula Biss' book The Balloonists. "The Copy Family" did not work out -- I screwed up on the tech side of things and my students are apparently not so eager to please me that they'll google a story if I fail to post it properly -- but it turns out Eula Biss's slight prelude was more than enough to keep us busy for the hour.

I had originally chosen to include the excerpt because I wanted to spend at least one day on works that blurred genre. I'm not sure how Biss would describe her own work, apart from the fact that her website says she "teaches and writes" nonfiction. When I first read her work I somehow hadn't heard the term "lyric essay," which might be one reasonable point of consensus, but poets seem to have adopted her as their own, and some people describe her as a poet. One of my students today described her as something like "a poet who writes prose." Other students compared the excerpt to a play, or a screenplay. I suggested a documentary that used the conventions of interviews and stock footage.

We didn't worry about classification so much as the formal operation of the text. We spent pretty much an entire hour slowly reading over one segment and discussing how each piece related to the last piece, and what it made us think of.

Here is the section we read, from pages 9-10:
Mother: "I couldn't stand his friends from medical school. They were all pompous and awkward. They knew how to memorize but they didn't know how to be human. Rochester was cold and ugly. Everything there was the same color. I was incredibly lonely."
She had her first child that year.
Malcom McPherson recently collected a book of transcripts from cockpit voice recorders called The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents. It is the updated version of a 1984 "classic." On some of these flights, there were no survivors. only voices were salvaged.
Mother: "If your father got his residency in Iowa I would have gone to graduate school there. I was already accepted. He was sent to North carolina instead."
The transcripts in malcom McPherson's book were edited by the National Transportation Safety board before he published them. Any emotional material was deleted. The curses and apologies that were yelles out just before the crash were deleted. Only material useful to the public in determining the cause of the crash was retained.

Mother: "I'm amazed that more people don't commit suicide. They just keep on living. It's so hard and they just keep doing it."

Useful to the public?
This section was initially brought up by one of the students, and I immediately realized this was the section t discuss. We went through it one paragraph at a time. I would read the first and the second paragraph, and then we would talk about how their juxtaposition made a larger thing. I would read the second and third paragraph, and we would talk about the same. And so on.

The combination of different formal elements and subjects creates a larger narrative and argument without ever actively arguing: the reader finds an extremely satisfying experience in imagining what happens in the gaps between paragraphs, why element X is in this position and not that one. This encourages active reading. I made them go over every single thing that came to mind about this process in order to make them more conscious of it, and at the end of class, I argued that everyone's work operates more or less like this -- that the gaps are usually less explicit, but always there, and often very productive. I suggested they try making the gaps in their own work a little bigger -- not puzzling, but sometimes, in some ways, a puzzle.

I think it went pretty well! I would suggest this book, or a similar one, to anybody teaching CW, in any genre.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How to make a mix CD.

I've written about this previously, but that was for a different blog and you can't even find the blog anymore, so this is going to be like new! For most of us, anyway.

I spent several years as one of those writers who really wanted to be a musician. I even put it in my bios when I found publication: "Mike Meginnis blah blah blah. He realizes, once daily, that he should have been a musician." The rare instance of success as a writer only seemed to make me feel more acutely my original mistake, possibly because it was in these moments that the reality no one would really read me finally seeped through. (And of course that isn't reality: people do read things, no matter what Franzen says.) I wanted to be a musician in spite of any lack of marked ability or natural talent, and also in spite of the rather sharply crooked pinkies that conspire to make most complicated manual tasks rather more difficult. (Come watch me type sometime: I invented a system!) It was my belief for a long time that I could, with sufficient effort, train myself to do anything. This is the strange, unwarranted confidence of autodidacts.

What I can do, however, is make mix CD's. I'm pretty good at it! In this post, we will discuss the art of the mix CD, and I will also demonstrate it, by way of some YouTubes. (YouTubes!)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I tend to get unreasonably upset when faced with blind encouragement as a writer, and with seeing other writers blindly encouraged. When people say to writers this'll be the bestseller and well of course you'll get published and I know you'll win the contest, I get mad. Not because it's so far-fetched or hard to do these things, I don't think, but because it seems to equate generalized talent/effort/good behavior with rewards, and if someone's going to lift me up, I guess I want it to be based on them actually reading my work.

It's not that I don't understand where the praise comes from. Good-hearted, well-meaning, smart-thinking people are often surprised at the wishy-washy way I talk about publishing and shopping myself around--surprised, because they always thought of me as a good-hearted, well-meaning, smart-thinking person, and their feeling is that I deserve to get published and succeed at what I'm doing. So why the lack of confidence? Coupled with the fact that I'm in a graduate program and to most people of my acquaintance this means I must be a pretty advanced practitioner, I get a lot of general encouragement when I talk about my pursuits, and a lot of faith that I'll simply succeed--why wouldn't I? I've succeeded at pretty much everything else they've seen me do. I've, you know, graduated well from things. I've held down a job.

This logic even makes sense in a lot of other disciplines. If you've done well at school and you've excelled at all your business classes and you've always had a real knack for leading people, you'll probably do well in your field. It's not that writing is harder, but that everyone who wants to can kind of do it, and a whole slew of people who did and didn't go to graduate school can do it pretty well, and then more people are really pretty great, and who knows how that happened. Who knows how you "earn" it. Then there's editors--people whose jobs are assessing your work for all sorts of factors like greatness, yes, but also for appropriateness to venue, and style, and length, and all those things. And, also, for liking it, personally, and wanting other people to read it. The system for success is different. Success in writing is a very private measure until it is very, very public--accepted, printed, sold, reviewed. You can feel very confident in your work and have very good reasons for being confident, but never get published once.

So I guess I get a little peeved at the assumption that if I'm working up to my admittedly exacting standards, everything should work out. And I don't like seeing people artificially inflated to believe that they are assuredly publishable--because they work hard, they do well. The fact is that you're not in the equation at all--not really. It's not like getting into college. Your work is in the running. It wins the race against totally unknown odds or it doesn't. That's the attitude I want to have, anyway; naturally I don't always succeed at that either.

But as a teacher of young writers, I wonder about my position on this. I'm a profuse encourager of my students. And I have a reason: I don't think it's worth teaching a writing class from the perspective that every student wants to become a writer by profession, and I don't think it's useful to harp on imperfections and certain definable missteps from a publishing perspective (one almost certainly limited by personal tastes and experience with publishing) when you have no idea (at least at the outset) where the students want to take their writing. I've heard tell of professors who take it on themselves to tell students whether or not they've "got it," whether or not they can realistically go forward in writing. I think this is very dumb at the undergraduate level, and pretty dumb at the graduate level, where hey, if there's a talentless hack in your program, you're the one who put 'em there.

I think encouragement is the way to go in teaching writing--but is that the best way to serve students? How does one best be a teacher of creative writing, as opposed to an editor, a critic--or, on the other side, a blind encourager? Is it our duty to warn students of the unpredictability of the process, or do we simply hold them personally accountable for the gradeable quality of their work, as in most other college classes? What's more fair to learners who do mean to go on as writers: teaching tied to ability, teaching tied to performance, or teaching divorced from both--teaching that emphasizes the product over the person? I think there's potential pitfalls with each. Certainly I don't want to falsely buoy my students up just because I like them and they work hard, but it seems foolhardy to discount that work, to downplay it as something that doesn't matter when, over time, such work can in fact make the difference.

I think there's a peculiar nature to our work that requires a bizarre mix of roles: teacher as encourager of young sensitive writers, teacher as source of book knowledge and field experience, teacher as gatekeeper to the professional practice of writing. How do we navigate the role of teacher while acknowledging and teaching to the realities of our field? Should we try?

These clocks, by the way, really exist, if you feel like you're not currently getting enough encouragement from your office supplies.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not how you do it.

There are a couple things I've wanted to some degree of intensity for most of my life so far: more people reading better books, and more people taking video games seriously as an art form. This, by attempting both, will definitely fail to accomplish either. I mean, watch the trailer:

With all love and respect to everyone involved, this is asinine. The main form of interaction this thing advertises is shit getting in the way of the words you're supposed to be reading -- flies crawling all over the words, the words moving and dancing around, the words cloaked in shadow until you wave a virtual match around over them. In other words, the primary form of interaction this thing offers is that it will make it hard for you to read the damn book, which has been up to now the only form of interaction good books tend to require.

So it's a bad book. As for whether this will be a good game, that's a little harder to say, but my guess is that no it definitely won't. For one thing, waving a little virtual match around is not an exciting experience. For another, neither is jabbing at animated flies. Video games shouldn't be literary, they should be games -- the most artistically successful games so far have aggressively eschewed language in almost every case, and there was a reason for that.

I don't know. This stuff only pisses me off to the extent that it reduces my faith in humanity's ability to learn anything at all from experience. Gimmicky bullshit mixed media never works, and if you're the sort of person who thinks we need to "save reading," you might want to consider the possibility that doing so by tarting up and obscuring language only reinforces the idea that reading is not fun.

In fact reading is fun. In fact it is about the most fun possible. In fact, it need not look like a twenty year old PC-CDROM version of Murder on the Orient Express, which was, in fact, not as fun as the book either.

Notes on Shadow of the Colossus

There are maybe three games generally considered great art in the history of the medium, and most people haven't played most of them. One is Out of this World, which I, despite my best efforts, haven't played. One of them is Ico, which I did play -- it was great. Another is Shadow of the Colossus, a sort of follow-up to Ico by the same team. One imagines that when the studio's next game comes out, it'll be Capital A art as well. There are maybe too many things written about these games, but predictably I want my say too. We'll start with Colossus.

The premise of the game, for those of you who don't know it, is wonderfully simple. You're this guy. He is I guess called Wander -- I don't remember this being mentioned in the game, but people call him that. You've come to a temple in a forbidden holy land, dead woman in hand. You were riding your horse. You put the dead girl on an altar. A large voice tells you to kill the colossi. The implication being that she can come back, this woman, if you do as you're told. You find them. You kill them. Each time you kill one your body becomes more sick. It is clear this will not end well. You look at the woman on the altar. You go on killing.

In some ways Colossus is extremely old school. There are basically three mechanics in the whole game. One is the exploration mechanic. When it's time to kill a colossus, you hold your sword up in the air. It reflects a beam of light that shows you the general direction of your next victim. So you hop on your horse and explore the holy land, where there are some lizards, a few birds, a few trees, some hills, some mountains, some bodies of water, and so on. The environment is gorgeous in a sort of gray, understated way that sometimes also seems to be dead, or dying. The music is quiet when it is present at all. Your horse behaves much like a real horse, which makes it a pleasure to ride -- it won't run head-on into things, it will not leap blindly off a precipice, it walks or runs according to the traditional inputs (your heels, your voice). This is an exploration mechanic. There are no collectibles. (Well, there are two, but the game doesn't tell you that, they don't matter, and you should probably ignore them. Anyway they don't look like collectibles, which is the main thing.) It's really simple and easy and mostly stress-free. You do this for maybe twenty minutes at a time. It's nice.

The second is the climbing mechanic. This works pretty much like climbing in most games these days; you look for a ledge or other grippable surface, you jump up, you grab on. Now you can jump again, or crawl around, or whatever. The difference is that in this game you can climb on the colossi. They tend to have a lot of fur or other grippable surfaces on them so that once you get up there it's not tremendously complicated how you make your way to their weak points. Sometimes getting onto the colossi is pretty difficult. Sometimes you have to jump around on them like Mario for a little while. That's pretty crazy. Sometimes they try and shake you off. You have to hold on. It looks awesome.

The third is the attack mechanic. Here's how that works: you get to the part you want to stab. You press the square button to charge your attack. Your guy holds his sword up and clenches his muscles. You put the sword in. Black blood like ink squirts out in these horrifying torrents. After you do this a few times you probably have to find another weak point. There's also a bow and arrow, which mainly serves to annoy the colossi, and to make you feel like the guy from Princess Mononoke when you aim your horse in a general direction, send him running, and then focus yourself on the important business of aiming and firing while he gallops. It looks awesome.

That's the game. The mechanics barely feel like mechanics at all. There are long stretches, both in the calmest moments and the most intense, where you are barely pressing any buttons at all. What the game has done is give you a series of contexts in which you can exist.

One of those contexts is riding your horse through the environment. This looks very calm. It is calming. There's also something about the snatches of natural sound, the small, brief washes of music, the colors of the environment, that feels very poignant. You want to cry a little. You think how beautiful things are, and how sad. The save points in this game are stone monuments at which you can pray. You can pray for as long as you want. This makes you think, if you are me, "No wonder I'm sad. I'm preparing for battle. I'm preparing to die, or to kill. This may be the last time I see such beauty. Perhaps I do not deserve such beauty." And so on.

Ico also used save points brilliantly: they were couches. You could sit on them with the girl you were trying to save from the palace. You could hold her hand or not hold her hand. You could pull her there to sit or you could sit and then wait for her to sit down beside you. You would sit together, touching or not touching, for as long as you wanted. She never took your hand; you had to take hers. It made you want her. It simultaneously created and captured a feeling you were having and already had -- a confusion of innocent good will and almost lustful wanting, a need for her and a respect, a desire to protect her and the desire to be protected by her, the desire to be mothered, to be a little brother, to be a husband, and so on. These feelings were created by the save points, and you were reminded or you discovered that you had always felt this way -- it was implicit in the "holding hands" mechanic, in the way you protect her though she knows more and is older than you. Sometimes I would sit there with her on the couch for whole minutes at a time, just breathing. The characters would look around, and relax. They were resting. They had earned their rest. So had I.

This is how great game design works, and will work going forward, to create narrative: not so much by dialog or cinematic devices, but by the creation of contexts that demand character. To give me the opportunity to rest for as long as I want, and to present me with a compelling image of that rest, and to put the resting under my control, as in the monuments in Colossus or the couches in Ico, tells me without saying that my character must be exhausted. That I am exhausted. And I feel it. Creating the context of exploration manufactures in me the need to explore, and giving my character a way to hesitate will suggest to me that he hesitates, that I hesitate, that we are afraid, ashamed, etc.

Another context is that of the combat itself. The thrilling, menacing music and the constant need to run disguise the fact that these are puzzles. They are, however, urgent and beautiful puzzles that inspire exhilaration and genuine fear.

Probably the defining "holy shit" moment of the game is the sequence when you fight the big bird. You've been exploring for a while now. You come out onto this huge lake. It just goes and goes. You have to leave your horse behind. You jump and swim. You come out to the center of the lake. You feel very alone. There's this bird thing flying around above you. It settles on one of several pillars. It's very far away -- a sepia blot. You can't get up to the bird, but you have this bow. You have to piss the bird off. It's got to come to you. So you piss off the bird. It comes down from the pillar. So far so good. It comes toward you. This is what we wanted.

You see how large it is. It's coming toward you. It's swooping. It's getting really big now. This is what we wanted. Right? It's right here, it's going to hit you like a train.

You jump straight up into the air.

You catch the wing.

You're flying.

For the rest of this fight (if it goes well) you will be on this bird while it flies far, far above the lake. You will be terrified. You'll probably say "oh shit" a lot. You'll crawl around on it, tentative. You have to go out on the wings. Its wings that it is flapping. If you fall, it really feels like falling. You may scream.

In terms of gameplay, in terms of systems, this sequence is all very simple. It doesn't take a tremendous amount of skill. Again, you don't actually press many buttons, don't actually do much actively. But it feels very involving. You have all these feelings. As you tense your muscles, as you prepare to plunge your cursed sword into the wing of the glorious terrible creature you ride a mile above the holy land, as a plume of hot black blood erupts around your fists, you'd better believe you have feelings. Beautiful, awful.

The boss fights aren't all this good, but many are close. I'm especially fond of the giant serpent you fight in the water. You hold onto it, you clutch, and it drags you under the surface, where you can't breathe. I have a weird phobia of water in video games that only seemed more strange when I met a guy who shared it. What's to be so worried about? This sequence gave me something to worry about. I was horrified. I felt, in a way I never feel in other more ostensibly action-driven games, like a hero, like a resourceful survivor, like I was actually brave.

And then the guilt sets in. This is the part of Colossus both most thrilling and most ultimately troubling, from the perspective of those who would tell stories through games. The first colossus you fight feels like a normal boss, if one perhaps a little more interesting than most. That is to say, you never for a second doubt that it deserves to die. Of course it does. The second time, though, you have some doubts. It's got this face. It wears this expression. You feel awful about what you're doing. It's sort of flashy, the feeling, the way certain sequences in Saving Private Ryan are flashy. The guilt was surprising and pleasurable then. It still is now, more or less, but I don't love it now the way I did.

The thing is that a) the game sometimes takes control away from you, briefly, to foster the guilt. This feels artificial within the design, it feels disruptive. And b) this is more of the same moralizing bullshit other media have been depending on for some time. That is, I'm playing a video game. Video games are, as of this moment, violent. There are many reasons for this, the main one being that it's easy to make a violent game fun and interesting. You made the violent game. You made the context in which I committed these crimes, and you created my character such that this was all he could do. It's sort of shitty to lay the blame on me, here, isn't it? This is like the way Princess Mononoke and, to a greater extent, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, its mother, create this desire in you to see exciting, violent sequences of combat and then punish you for wanting to see those things.

Of course, the alternative -- creating the desire to see violence and then glorying in the violence -- isn't much better, but it doesn't smack so much of hypocrisy. Sometimes I don't care about hypocrisy, which I think is generally a useless idea. Sometimes I do care. These are bad times for me to play Shadow of the Colossus, or to enjoy certain other highbrow art, which tends to invest quite a lot of its energy in guilt, which sometimes seems to me a very second-rate emotion, and sometimes seems to me the only possible emotion.

What ultimately sells the guilt, what makes it work, is the exploration sequences. There is the possibility, implied by the game but never emphasized, that you could go on praying forever. That you could simply walk around the holy land with your horse, seeing the sights, swimming in the water, and so on. You might play Shadow of the Colossus forever without actually fighting any colossi. Of course no one does this. Eventually you would get bored, or you would remember your character's motivation (the dead woman), and you would go back on the hunt. But you do have something like a choice. You have opportunities to doubt yourself before you kill. This isn't a perfect solution, but it's something.

What Shadow of the Colossus ultimately teaches us about how to make games capital-A Art, however, is not the importance of shame and guilt, or even narrative. Other games since Colossus have guilted you about the fact that you were playing the game they gave you, which is ultimately a way (especially in BioShock) of commenting on the fact of your playing the game. What Shadow of the Colossus does better than anything else is the simultaneous discovery and creation of character through context, and not just art direction or mood music but player interactions. In some ways the heart of the game is the moment where a colossus is trying to shake you off and you, against all odds, hold on. This requires very little input, sometimes none, but it's a choice that you make, it's a space and a scene in which to live and breathe (if you can breathe) and feel. How you live and breathe and feel in this scene creates your character. It is the narrative. It makes your Wander who he is, and reveals who he always was.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


The Escapist:
Batman is awesome, but only because he's so smart. He figures out exactly what he'll need in the field and stuffs in all into his Batsuit and utility belt. This is exactly what inspired the U.S. Air Force's "BATMAN" program, which aims to develop new equipment so that soldiers are as capable as Batman himself.
BATMAN stands for Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge. Sure, it cheats, but who's really going to criticize the Air Force when it's running a program called BATMAN? BATMAN program engineer Reggie Daniels says: "[Batman's] devices allow him to have an advantage. That is what we're trying to do."
Really excited to see where the military looks for its next big idea. A Hawkman unit? Darkseid blac-ops? Green Lantern super-jets? The exact freakin' premise of Captain America?

"What if a guy had a metal arm like Cable, and a glowy eye like Cable, and but also he could absorb energy, like Bishop, and shoot it out his guns, like Bishop." "WHAT IF WE HAD A SOLDIER COVERED IN BLUE FUR."

On reader participation, pt. 1

Something I've been thinking about a lot recently, partly in relationship to Tracy's last post, is reader participation. What is it? What forms does it take? How can we foster it?

When I think of participation in a story or poem or whozit I think of "playing along." I think of my legs predicting the arrows in DDR through a constantly evolving matrix of possibilities implied by the mood of the song, by where my feet have been before, by where they could be soon. There are only four arrows, which can be stepped on in six combinations. (Down-right, down-up, down-left, right-up, right-left, up-left). Most people don't understand music very well, but they understand it well enough to dance. Even people who can't dance can play along with DDR because the options are so limited. Your feet have a high chance of already being in the right place as long as you're standing, as long as you're in the game.

There are more canonical notes than there are steps in DDR, but not really all that many. A musical idiot in this country can tell you whether or not a song has resolved, and someone only two levels up from the idiot (a moron) can instinctively guess how a song would resolve, if it did. This is because a) our brains are constantly unconsciously performing complex high-level math, b) a lifetime of constant exposure to music has made us startlingly well-experienced with its basic building blocks, and c) while there are infinite potential permutations of any given musical idea, there are quite limited materials with which to build those permutations, and even fewer that (musically speaking, mathematically speaking, culturally speaking) make any sense in situation X.

For example: Britny Spears' "Toxic" is one of the most fiendish pieces of music ever composed. (Ukelele cover YouTubed below 'cuz I said.) The string part, played twice at the beginning, creates a desire. You know somewhere inside you there's a counterpart waiting deeper in the song. You know it's got to be there. You could practically hum it yourself before you hear it. But it doesn't come, and it doesn't come, and it doesn't come -- they play the first snatch of strings again, again. You've got to wait more than a minute and a half to hear the other bit. You hear it once. This, however, only creates a desire for the original piece. You hear that repeated to the end of the song. If you want to hear the middle part again -- the part implied by the hook -- you've got to find the song again and listen again. This will, however, only create more desire for the song. It's monstrous.

Pop music uses our knowledge of music against us. It creates a thought virus with only one purpose: the manufacture of desire for itself -- that is, the manufacture of desire for desire to desire for desire to desire for--

Which is why we can't always listen to pop, especially the evil stuff. (The good stuff, the stuff made with love, occasionally bothers to satisfy the need it creates.) Minimalism is sometimes the next best thing. You can understand "In C" even if you couldn't predict or perform it, exactly; when I saw it performed, they projected the sheet music above the orchestra, so those who knew how to read music could better understand the performance. I couldn't at the time read music (and now can only read a little) so it didn't do me much good, but I immediately grasped the concept: the song has pieces, there are a limited number, the musicians will work through them according to their instincts and experience and knowledge of each other, and the feeling of the room, and so on. You can participate in "In C" if you can recognize a tune, which again, most of us can do. Its slow, spiraling, beautiful, redundant, stuttering structure allows you to enter at almost any time and participate in its performance, if not by influencing the song itself then by imagining parallel worlds and thereby understanding the choices the musicians make instead.

And this is key: because there are limited options, and even more limited coherent options, we can game out possibilities (unknowingly, usually) and appreciate what's chosen instead as better, or equal, or object to it as worse. This is the chief means by which art can attract its audience's participation, which in turn makes it the principle means of generating, well, meaning.

This puts writers in a difficult position. There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. They have capital and lowercase versions. ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. There is punctuation and there are symbols. :;<>,.?/\|][{}()_-*&^%$#@! There are many sounds a human mouth can make and mind can read, though thankfully within a given language the number is usually not very large. These sounds can be built with the letters. They can be combined, in turn, to make words. In any given language there is generally an unbelievable number of words. These words often contain multiple meanings. They can be combined infinitely, they can be punctuated infinitely, creating not only infinite permutations but infinite structures and lenses through which to understand them -- that is, while music is generally understood through a pre-existing genre, and especially popular music, and this genre is frequently very specific with very particular rules, books must frequently create their own genre, or recreate it, within many overlapping contexts, most of which a given reader likely will not know.

There are too many elements -- there are too many things to think about. The reader cannot possibly predict anything in a work that aims to take advantage of every element of language. The reader cannot make sense of such a text. The reader is closed out. The reader does not perceive decisions being made. The reader therefore does not, cannot, assign meaning to the text, is likely to abandon it all together. The reader does not feel wanted. The reader does not feel loved.

(Anyway this is how I feel as a reader. I know people that will put up with such treatment -- people that love it, in fact. I can't really understand them.)

How do we deal with these problems? We can look to many sources for answers. The underlying principle I have found so far in my thinking about this is that it doesn't really matter what your answers are so much as that you pursue them, because ultimately we are only looking for a way to narrow the options, to make the work more manageable (though not less complex in its potential) for everyone concerned. Why don't we look first to Janelle Monae? I am thinking particularly of her song "Tightrope." 

It's a really good song! Take a moment to enjoy it. Pop songs generally deal with language -- some better than others. Monae and Big Boi are better at this than most. Note the limited vocabulary. Note the repetition. Note the use of rhyme. Note the brevity of each lyrical unit. Note the masterful way in which Big Boi creates desire for a certain rhythm, a certain cadence, and then manipulates that desire, plays with it. I have for maybe a year now sort of instinctively called this "pulling the taffy," which I think perplexes my students.

What we see immediately is not wholly uncommon knowledge: that limiting possibilities creates them. That the less balls we've got in the air, the more skillfully we can juggle. That selecting a palette is the best way to avoid an undifferentiated brown slur. We can learn from this in prose and poems as well, and most of the best already have: they know to limit themselves, whether arbitrarily or logically, to create something beautiful, sharp, jazzy, meaningful, and, most importantly, inviting and gratifying (even at its most challenging) to readers.  

In the next few weeks (hell, maybe for the life of this blog: the topic is rich) I'll explore these ideas and work them out better through close examination of various books, stories, poems, YouTubes, paintings, etc.


We now have a working contributors page. If you're wondering who's going to be in the first issue and what else they've been up to with their bad selves, have a look.

We have a twitter feed, @uncannyvalleymg. Follow us, if you like!

We have a Facebook page. Like us, if you follow!

Friday, September 17, 2010


Hi friends!

First, many thanks for Mike & Tracy for allowing me to post this on here.

This is a video of myself giving a reading of 'Rampage'--a selection from 'Leave Luck To Heaven', a collection of lyric essays based off of 8-bit Nintendo games.

I hope to be posting a few more of these in the future (and some non-video posts too) on here.

I rented this game from Showbiz Video when I was a kid and spent an entire Sunday morning beating the game. It has the worst/most anticlimactic ending ever, and the levels never get any harder/more interesting. Not suggested.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reader Rewards in Fiction

So many times in fiction, especially in workshop settings, we don't seem to talk about what our decisions mean for the reader--even though that's at least half of the workshop conceit (how to make a story better for readers + how to make a story better by writers). Reader-centered language is rare, and is generally sublimated into writer-centered talk. A writer saying that "This section would be better in scene" masks the reader response that got her there: "I want to feel more involved in this part; I want to watch it unfold." There's nothing especially wrong with that sublimation, but it does mean that honest conversations about reader rewards in fiction get buried. Mike has talked about this some, of course, and has structured his Intro to Creative Writing class around it.

The real problem that results is the conception that good fiction is its own reward. Never mind that no other form of entertainment works that way.

Our game developer friend Charlie linked me some time ago to a book on "fun" theory--how to, err, engineer fun, basically. I would like writers, especially writers of fiction, to talk about this notion more. The prevailing idea, I think, is that fiction isn't entertainment--it's art, and art is not meant to be constrained by the same commitments to providing (shameless) entertainment that TV and movies and video games do. But creating fun, imagining an experience for the end user (reader), shouldn't be considered a constraint. Making meaning in absence of fun is, in my opinion, the greater constraint--because making fun is just another way of creating interaction, of giving the reader somewhere to go other than where we lead, which in turn makes meaning. Meaning doesn't exist in a vacuum; it requires readers to build using our materials. In other words, if the reader is having fun, it's because they're interacting with what they read, learning, making decisions. They're playing. When this happens, fun creates art.

If we really need to, we can replace "fun" with "rewards."

This list of reward types in game design is perhaps a little glancing; I'm not sure. But it offers some good examples, some good points for comparison. Here's my list, recast for fiction:
  • Knowledge Rewards: The acquisition of facts, systems, clues that can be used to game out characters or intuit future events. Writing to encourage guessing, forecasting, puzzle-solving. Setting up expectations to be thwarted or met.
  • Physical Rewards: Rewards that cause readers' bodies to react: laughter, tears, goosebumps, chills, illness, arousal, dizziness, a sense of stopped time or altered place.
  • Narrative Rewards: Anything that occasions the perception that something has moved or is about to move in the overall narrative, from basic exposition to moments of crisis and climax. Learning more about a character, uncovering a new piece of the plot. Seeing the character take the next step in a known or intuited course of action, make a change, make a mistake. Seeing the author pick up where we last left off, return to the scene of the crime. Revelations. Epiphanies. Cliffhanger endings.
  • Emotional Rewards: Rewards that bring satisfaction or disappointment: joy, sadness, anger, fear, hope, doubt. Feeling sorry, feeling upset. Feeling personally tied to the characters--a wish to help, a wish to hurt. Wanting things on behalf of the characters--peace, vengeance. Wanting things on one's own behalf.
  • Novelty: Anything that is unfamiliar to the status quo of the fiction, something that can be experimented with rationally (based on old knowledge) or freely (in absence of new knowledge). New characters, new places, new points of view, new information, new ideas, new forms.

There are others, but I'm having trouble finding analogues for them. If you play games, you know that the rewards below can be some of the most satisfying. Any ideas for how fiction does anything like this currently? Or, how it could?
  • Rank Rewards (think leveling up--how to level up in fiction?)
  • Completeness (think collecting, discovering, defeating--everything, 100%)
  • Victory (winning! conquering!)
For those still reluctant to give up the special status of writing as art, as a form fundamentally different in makeup from that of entertainment (and I am inviting discussion), what is it that distinguishes the function of art from the rewards above? And given the work, creativity, and imagination it must take to design a functional entertainment piece with so many of these rewards in mind, can we really say there's a separation between creating art and creating entertainment at all?

I guess what I'm arguing is--if there's no real structural difference in creating art versus creating entertainment, isn't it all just a game of reoutfitting the language? Can we talk about fun without cringing?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fitness, and Story Number 58: Clean

Tonight I went to a gym where there are TVs hung everywhere that play music videos that feel outdated. Between the music videos the TVs offer advice about what to eat and what not to eat and how often to work out. Tonight they offered this advice:

Don't stare at other members while they workout. It's rude and distracting.
This was laid over an image of a woman staring out of the screen. She looked angry and a little disturbed. Damn, I thought. Has there been a problem with this lately? What the hell is going on in this gym? Knowing that people have to be directly told not to be creepy perverts--that this part of the social contract has been forgotten--is a little worrisome.

. . .

Anyway, that was my unexpected lead-in to this post. The original lead-in goes like this:

For a week or so there was this poster advocating healthy eating in the hall outside my office. It was all big pictures and tiny print and didn't really give you anything you didn't already know, you know? You know? It did, however, give some creepy people eating food. They were so creepy I took pictures:

I mean, damn. These people are beyond excited to be eating. There's something sinister about these images--it's like the man and woman are eating pizzas and apples made out of humans and they know you suspect! And they want you to know that you should suspect! And they want you to know that it doesn't matter if you suspect because you will be eaten next!


I was reading Bookslut yesterday and found Lou Beach's 420-character stories and I haven't read all of them or even a lot but what I have read I've liked.

I've been meaning to post one of my own here but everything I've knocked out for Moonshot lately has been long. But what the hell. Here's a little ditty called "Clean:"

I started meeting this woman who wore skirts she'd sewn herself and who wanted to ferment her own wine and who didn't like me wearing deodorant. When we broke up I didn't want to stop thinking about her but I wanted to throw a glass of her homebrew wine all over her living room. I thought the best thing to keep her memory bright while still kind of laughing at it would be to home brew my own deodorant. I was excited about the idea for a day and then one of the clerks at the co-op talked me into soap instead.

"Our butcher will give you fat for tallow," she said.

"Tallow?" I said.

When I got the bag of pork fat home I stuck it in the fridge and then thought maybe I wasn't supposed to refrigerate it. It felt about how you'd expect, so that I wanted to juggle it or throw it across the living room and see if I could catch it on the other side without smashing through the window.

I got on the internet and then imagined myself running into Bliss. I smell you're using soap again, she'd say. Soap I made, I'd say. And then we'd be back up here together.

I went through recipes and procedures. I mean I really combed the internet. I thought I'd make the best soap I could and I took the wildest recipe I could find and then made it better, dumped cinnamon and a cap of bleach into a bowl while the fat rendered. When it was done I got everything together. You were supposed to use molds but all I had was an ice cube tray and I didn't want to chase little wedges of soap around the shower so I left the soap in the bowl.

Then I went to this little bar down the street. It was a little room with a few tables that looked dragged in from thrift stores. The bartender kept on me about the different levels of hops in the beers and this had all been charming before but without Bliss it was too much. I got back to my place and the soap was done and so good that it had cleaned its way through the bowl and in a long gouge over my kitchen counter and was bubbling through the tile floor. I stooped to get the blob and it was heavy and then it cleaned right through my hands. All my fingers were mostly just gone and parts of the palms too. I kicked at the soap and it cleaned right through the tip of my shoe and then cleaned through the wall and into the living room.

I went for my cell but couldn't even unlock the screen. The soap boiled away beneath my coffee table and then was gone and there was a heavy thonk as it hit the floor of the apartment below me. Well, I thought, they'll call the police at least, but then nobody came and nobody yelled. I looked down through the hole and the soap boiled away and then was gone into the basement. I knew I should get outside and yell for someone but how was I supposed to handle the knob? And anyway I couldn't take my face out of that hole in my floor. Downstairs they had everything, two leather couches and a clean table with a photo album on top and I could only imagine the happiness inside.