Monday, November 29, 2010

The Ocean

"That or the imagination which in this case takes the form of humor, is known in that form--the release from physical necessity. Having eaten to the full we must acknowledge our insufficiency since we have not annihilated all food nor even the quantity of a good sized steer. However we have annihilated all eating: quite plainly we have no more appetite. This is to say that the imagination has removed us from the banal necessity of bursting ourselves--by acknowledging a new situation. We must acknowledge that the ocean we would drink is too vast--but at the same time we realize that extension in our case is not confined to the intestine only. The stomach is full, the ocean no fuller, both have the same quality of fullness. In that, then, one is equal to the other. Having eaten, the man has released his mind."

--William Carlos Williams, Spring and All

Programming note

Apologies for light posting these last few days. Holidays, finals, and etc. are getting between you and me. Hopefully we'll be posting soon -- today, even -- but even if things stay a little slow this week, we still love you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Saturday Night Musical Parodies

Tracy and I can actually do this one from memory, hand motions and all:

This is what "What Would Brian Boitano Do" sounded like before Matt Parker and Trey Stone's voices were pitch shifted to sound like kids:

Raped in the face:

Poor Martians, so bored.

Fox only seems to allow foreign-language Simpsons clips but the song itself is still in English:

I legitimately want to see more of this:

Okay technically this isn't satire but it is a parody of itself.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Today's insane Black Friday deals

For twenty-five dollars, we will write a post on the subject of your choosing.

For one hundred dollars, we will write a story wherein you get the girl.

For five hundred dollars, we will send you everything we publish forever.

For one thousand dollars and the cost of airfare, we will come to your home and speak deeply with you on matters of art, peace, and love.

For one million dollars, we will devote a year of our lives to your happiness.

For one hundred million dollars, we will bear the burden of wealth.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Venture Brothers and General Treister

We've just watched the Venture Brothers season finale. This is a show produced essentially by the willpower, sweat, and tears of two men, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, along with a fleet of likely underpaid animators in Korea. It's stranded at impossible hours during Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming, because that's apparently where we've decided to keep our best animated television these days. We also ordered the first three seasons, because Amazon had a deal -- and still does, it seems -- that made doing so cheaper than we could resist.

Jackson Public got his start working on The Tick, which was a comic that briefly became a small empire, which satirized super hero comics, which is a genre that already satirizes itself merely by existing, and by giving Rob Liefeld steady work. The basic joke of The Tick is that super hero comics look silly. He's a big super-strong guy in a skin-tight blue outfit with a guy in a moth-suit for a sidekick. There was a cartoon, where (my somewhat spotty research says) Jackson Publick worked under his given name of Chris McCulloch. The Tick is pretty generic as a superhero or a satire, which makes sense given that he was originally a comic book store mascot. The key to his appeal was his cheerful invulnerability, and the cartoon as a whole worked not so much because it made fun of heroes but because of the wit, wordplay, and weirdness of its world.

When the live-action show came around, most of the weirdness and play of the cartoon was lost in what seemed to be an ill-fated grasp at popular appeal. The other characters were flat as jokes and as people. You had Batmanuel, who was a sexy Hispanic Batman. You had American Maid, the generic offspring of Captain America and Wonder Woman. They were decent sight gags but the show was dull because there wasn't real emotional investment in their schticks: the actor who plays Batmanuel brings a bit of conviction to his character but you never really believe it, you never know why you should care.

Patrick Warburton played the Tick in the live-action series. He would, when Jackson Publick got his show The Venture Brothers, go on to play the character of mulleted super-bodyguard Brock Sampson -- a better fit, and not only because Warburton's voice is considerably more compelling than his physical presence.

The Venture Brothers is a much better The Tick than The Tick ever was. (Edlund helped McCulloch/Publick to create it.) It draws much of its DNA from cartoons like Johnny Quest and the Hardy Boys series, which helps: the show's emotional investment in childhood fantasy brings a sweetness (and a sense of shame) to the story. It also uses the vocabulary and grammars of superhero comics, action movies, Scooby Doo, prog rock and new wave music, and pretty much everything else nerds care about. One of the iconic sequences features the heroes attempting to combat evil with a plastic Captain America shield, Hulk hands, a plastic light saber, and other toys collected over the years by the villain's nerdy henchman. The show has paradoxically become, as time passes and it develops its own universe and mythos, an increasingly rich pastiche, using its audience's deep knowledge of and investment in its source material as a way of achieving emotional resonance and power the characters would likely never achieve on their own, all in the context of a super-dense, intricately plotted, at times almost incomprehensible 22 minutes of television.

Take for instance the character of General Treister. This is a guy who has appeared in three episodes. He's the head of a super-secret military organization that deals with super-powered individuals and pretenders, and he looks like this:

In other words he's what would happen if you bred Colonel Sanders with Marvel's Nick Fury (the original, pre-Samuel Jackson model, that is). His loud, overbearing Southern accent is compared by some to Foghorn Leghorn, but the more obvious comparison is of course Cotton Hill, with whom he shares a voice actor and most of his distinctive voice. Cotton Hill is in turn perhaps a bit reminiscent of John McCain.

It turns out the general is in poor health. He's had eight heart attacks (shades of Dick Cheney) and depends for life on a glowing chest piece. Yes, like Iron Man. Of course his dominant archetype is actually that of the screaming southern general.

In the season finale (here come spoilers) it turns out he's maybe having further health problems. He seizes up, goes unconscious, when he comes back things are all smashed up and he's wearing a pair of tiny purple pants. Yes, like these tiny purple pants:

Soon enough he confesses his terrible secret. "I'm a hulk." The Nick Fury/southern general/grizzled veteran archetypes that constituted the character led us to understand him in a certain way, as a bizarre patriarch, maybe the sort of father who drinks when he ought to be building our bike. But it's okay because he works hard to earn money, to keep us safe. He may also remind us of our grandfathers -- certainly Cotton Hill does. Adding the Hulk modifier is a way of talking about the pain of having your body betray you, about the fear and alienation that we experience in watching our family's bodies grow old, change, mutate, die. The idea of a general and spymaster whose dying body is kept alive by a glowing chest piece and now finds his body transformed by rage and radiation becomes a colorful, sideways method of approaching common, bittersweet experiences. The childish props, costumes, archetypes are both a way of avoiding the issue and a way of sneaking up on it. If you're a member of a certain set of geeks, they probably make it hurt more.

The next time we see him he's naked and wrapped in a flag. This image evokes Captain America, several major films, and, well, everyone. His muscular, degrading body juxtaposed with that symbol of (decaying) empire carries the same sort of emotional payload as the idea of becoming a hulk. Now he is becoming America. He reveals the truth: he knows he's not a hulk. The truth is he's got testicular cancer. It's incurable. He plans to launch himself into space in order to either a) die or b) if you believe him, get medical treatment from an alien civilization. The final image of the episode (his saluting body ejecting from a rocket, post-it note reading FIX IT attached to his chest, gigantic gleeful prideful smile) is beautiful. It also evokes Superman -- but a Superman whose body is likely to soon decompress.

The truth is that the differences between being a hulk and having testicular cancer are not very big ones. And the way our shared cultural language (or subcultural languages) allows us to approach questions like mortality through a more primal, more terrible lens than plain language and strategies of realism. I feel more for the characters in Venture Brothers than I do for anyone in an Alice Munro story.

YouTube Variations: "One Winged Angel"

The original "One Winged Angel" was the final boss music in Final Fantasy VII. It was, at the time, probably the single most impressive thing a video game console could do. I couldn't tell you what the first game was to use such a rich orchestral composition, but I can tell you FFVII was the first I played. The song loses some of its impact as the stupidity of the fight reveals itself -- the boss, Sephiroth, has a move that ought to be called "Shaggy Dog Apocalypse," wherein he destroys the entire solar system over the course of several minutes in order to deal truly inconsequential damage -- but it stands out as the key example of how, in spite of all its excesses and goofiness, that was a game with some real and lasting power. Here's the original recording:

And here's a link to a fan-created Stepmania version of a tarted-up arrangement because why not?

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the song, composed of course by Nobuo Uematsu, is the sense of play; yes, it's epic, but its angularity and blatty horns keep things light, supple, and faintly ridiculous. Some sections are gloriously ridiculous in the sense of pursuing their drama fearlessly -- take the section around 5:30, for instance -- and then some are just plain funny (6:14 and onward) and undercut the drama of the moment in a way that actually enhances it. The mixture of portent, apocalypse, rapture, epic, and hilarity is really effective, and frightening, a bit deranged. This is, for gamers in my generation, about as iconic as it gets.

Now let's look at what YouTube has done with the song. Tragically you can't embed the incredible live performance by Nobuo Uematsu's band The Black Mages, which captures all the weird majesty of the original while adding certain metal flourishes and orchestral textures that play well live.

Here YouTube user HCBailly rebuilds the song in Mario Paint. There's something pretty spectacular about seeing the whole thing laid out in boats, planes, cars, mushrooms, power flowers, and eventually cats. (Here's a version of another iconic FFVII song by the same guy; apparently he does a lot of these.) If you're not impressed by this you're not paying attention.

There are several orchestral versions on YouTube but this one is clearly the best for reasons I could better explain were I better-educated in music; the Eminence Symphony version, by contrast, suffers partly from a worse recording, but also seems to understand the song's dynamics and tone much less. The performance is rote, the ear is drawn to the wrong places at the wrong times, and the choir isn't nearly loud or commanding enough. What you begin to suspect is that they basically don't give a damn about the song. This version's problem is simpler: they're playing it insanely fast. I can't figure out what the hell they were thinking.

There are some misheard lyrics videos. I like this one best.

This acoustic guitar version does a nice job of negotiating the richness of the song, the complexity, the controlled chaos, and the necessities of adaptation to one instrument. (Note: This guy's channel is great.)

There aren't words for how wrong this one is. I sort of love it. I guess the singer is "the worlds virtual diva." Oh lucky world! I'm more partial to this cover in the style of Animal Crossing's K. K. Slider. It's funny how much of its gravitas the song retains in this format. The affect is mainly somewhat flattened, although clearly we can only read it as a joke; as I've said, it was always a joke.

This is one of the better remixes I've heard. It brings out interesting elements of the original, adds a few decent touches, compresses it, doesn't feel like a waste of time.

There's about ten billion more versions, but let's close with one played on the erhu. Really love how this twists and bends the song:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why I Hate Glee

I should say that I've seen three episodes of Glee and surmised after those three that it was a bad show.  There are a lot of reasons for my hate.  I hate it because shows like Glee that have terrible writing and acting, can stay on the air, but really original and creative shows like Pushing Daisies get cancelled.  I hate Glee because it's the reason Jane Lynch left Party Down.  I hate it because the writing is bad: the story is predictable and no one says anything funny or profound.  Their lips move; that's it.

But I understand why people watch it.  There are some things to like.  It's simple and easy.  I know who I'm supposed to root for (Glee clubbers) and who to hate (Lynch's character, Will's wife, cheerleaders).  I know everything will work out in the end (even if someone dies or gets pregnant).  Life goes on and they are still happy, giving us pretty things to look at, nice things to listen to.

Here is my list of things that I saw and hate about Glee:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fallout: New Vegas Reviewed

When I wrote about Fallout 3, I talked about a number of things, but probably the most interesting part for me was the political subtext. Given that the game takes place in a post-nuclear apocalypse DC, the political argument is pretty subtle, but it's there. I don't know to what extent the first two games deal with politics, but in Fallout 3 and now Fallout: New Vegas, they're absolutely central.

When I say politics I don't mean the left-right spectrum, although some of the clumsiest humor in Fallout 3 does come from satires of conservatism. What I mean is the management of property, the distribution of goods, the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, of necessary services. In Fallout 3 (here come some spoilers!) your longterm goal is to find a machine that will make the Earth livable for a small community. Though there comes a turn in the endgame where things get a little more typically "epic," basically the central conflict of the game revolves around the necessity of establishing a waterworks. Because of the context in which the game takes place, it's unlikely most players stopped to think about this. In the US, water is something we feel we can count on. In some places (like my current home of New Mexico) less than others, but yes: you turn on the tap, potable water comes out. This is a miracle. We find it boring.

In the capitol wasteland you need water. In fact your character can live without it forever given sufficient other resources, will never suffer from thirst, but the environment is designed and the characters interact with you such that you buy into the fiction of water's necessity. There is a man outside the biggest city, a big steel boat stranded in a shallow pool of poison water, who begs you whenever you pass for fresh water. If you give him a bottle, which is something you could sell for good money, you get some karma. Eventually, if you play the game as a good citizen, you'll provide the entire community with good water. You'll feel really good about this. You'll be providing a vital, necessary service.

Of course the fact that you're living in a demolished DC is an indictment of our political system, one that is not so much subtle as so blunt it takes weeks or months to even think of it. They're careful in their usage of the iconography; you don't see a lot of demolished or upside-down American flags or anything, mainly you see the Washington monument re-purposed as a tremendous radio antenna. You see the Congress emptied out. This happened, of course, because the government was too busy preparing for a war that never should have happened to take proper care of its citizens. Part of what's striking in playing Fallout 3 is that your experience as a player -- walking around searching for food, for dropped money, for drugs, packing heat, etc. -- is not that different from the current experience of many real and living people in the actual DC. I mainly wish the game had been a better simulation of homelessness, because it was already a pretty damn good one. You've got sharply limited resources. You go around doing odd jobs in hopes it will pay off. Generally speaking the energy and life and ammo you spend on the job is worth more than it pays. Sometimes, because it's a video game, you maybe get lucky. You hang out in abandoned subway stations. Everything you see, everyone you know, is hungry and dirty and awful. Maybe you take the perk that lets you cannibalize corpses so you can find something to eat. Maybe you start killing people wherever you won't be seen doing it, so you can take their stuff.

Karma is awarded in Fallout 3 for good citizenship, and deducted for bad. Murdering people will lose you karma, and if you kill someone in the middle of their community or in sight of a good citizen, the other citizens will try to kill you. You also lose karma for stealing. Initially this struck me as very strange: why should property rights be enshrined in the laws of the universe? Why does God care if I take somebody's empty can? A stimpak, sure; that's medicine. But cola bottles? Bizarre.

It makes more sense, though, if you think about it as a measure of citizenship. Property rights take on a new significance after the apocalypse: when you have so little, it's that much more important that you keep it. The community will not only defend itself with violence from violence -- they may also attack you for theft.

Your mission, then, assuming you aren't playing evil, is to build a working society. You can solve many problems without violence, and there are rewards for doing so. You begin the game as a political dissident; a totalitarian vault overseer (vaults are underground communities in protective bunkers built before the war) goes too far, you escape him or you kill him. Outside you find a failed capitol. You have to do what the politicians failed to do. You're cold and hungry and alone. You try your best. (And if you do play evil, which I genuinely find difficult in games, especially on a first play-through, it feels actually motivated in a way it does not in most other games: you're doing what you have to do to survive.)

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in the Mojave wasteland, which was never that developed anyway, and did not fare too badly in the war. In other words, the situation is less dire. The main question is who's going to run the place, and while your character begins as a courier, a pawn in the larger game, it doesn't take too long to discover that you have quite a lot of power to affect the outcome of the game. In New Vegas, you're a player. You can decide the power structure going forward.

This means, in the most immediate sense, a choice between the New California Republic (NCR) and Caeser's Legion. This is not, in moral terms, an especially difficult choice. The NCR is literally presented as, at first glance, a bunch of grown-up cowboy boy scouts. The Legion is a society of slaves and slavers. The game offers nuance without false equivocation, however: the NCR has an authoritarian bent that pays little heed to local culture and custom, while the Legion has a sense of honor and discipline in its higher ranks. Again, there isn't much of a choice to be made here, but the fact of the player's having to articulate a position is exciting. It turns out that in the event of an apocalypse, I'm a pretty unapologetic authoritarian: I don't just feel that the NCR is the best option in a bad situation, I genuinely like them. You count as rich in the Mojave if you can either a) count on eating every day or b) kill people without much fuss. Elevating the standard of living for the average citizen, providing them security from gangs and monsters, providing them with things like electricity and decent food, are important enough goals that I have willfully delivered communities into the grip of the NCR against what seemed to be their wishes. In a hundred years we can have democracy, for now I want to feed people and find them shelter. And I don't mind using force to make it happen.

I'm not sure where my loyalties ultimately lie, however. There comes a point in the game where (spoilers again!) you have to decide whether to commit to the NCR, the Legion, or yourself (as well as, I think, maybe one or two other options). It's not entirely clear to me how this last phase is going to play out. I've been traveling the wasteland getting to know the various factions so that I can make alliances where possible and also to determine where this cannot happen. In one case I worked closely with the community and helped them to gather resources and restore infrastructure in order to win them over to my side. In another case I gave in to political necessity and killed the tribe's leader so that another man more sympathetic to my cause could take his place. This was explicitly framed as a political killing. My hope is to arrange alliances and gather power such that I can give the NCR the Hoover Dam for good, while serving as a countervailing power to rein in their excesses (especially in terms of their unnecessary attacks on the Great Khans and Brotherhood of Steel). It may be that to impose my own order on the wasteland is necessarily to start a war with the NCR, in which case I don't think I'll do it: I feel they have more of a claim to rule than do I, given that many citizens have invested in their cause, and relatively few in mine. (My army would be mechanical.) At this point in the game, so close to the end of the campaign proper, I'm genuinely uncertain as to what I'll do, and I am thinking through the implications of my choices for the other people in the game. This is a tremendous achievement on the part of the developers.

In New Vegas, they half-implemented my idea of Fallout 3 as a simulation of homelessness: there is now a "hardcore mode," wherein everything you carry has weight (normally most objects and equipment have weight, but bullets do not) and your character needs water, food, and sleep to survive. I'm not playing this way right now because I enjoy the game's relatively breezy pace in the normal mode, and because I think this is really the wrong game for this feature. Resources are not nearly as scarce in New Vegas (or possibly I am only playing it much smarter) and honestly the requirements of hardcore mode sound more like an exercise in resource management than a real challenge: especially if you're comfortable stealing now and then, and if you're used to scrounging, I don't think it would change that much. And, most tragic of all, they still haven't done the most important part, which is to make you push around all your worldly possessions in a grocery cart. (There are grocery carts, but you can't interact with them except by kicking them over.) The mode seems fine, in other words, but less relevant in a game that is less about being a citizen in a failed state and more about being a politician or a strongman in a state being rebuilt. 

The expansion of the karma system to a more complicated set of relationships with individual factions is a more significant revision. If you do good deeds or certain jobs for people in a given community, or in the NCR or the Legion, you'll become better liked there. This might lead to gifts, aid in battle, discounts on equipment and medical supplies, or other benefits. And of course it's necessary to forming alliances. If you get people in a given place to hate you enough, they'll attack you on sight. You still lose karma by stealing and killing, but the more relevant concern is usually pissing off the locals. Your citizenship, and your politics as you practice them more generally, have real consequences in the game.

The fact that you still lose karma for stealing from certain factions is very strange. I'm at a point in the game where I've essentially declared war on Caeser's Legion. They try to kill me on sight, and I do kill them. I take things off their corpses, which is both morally and socially acceptable even in the case of good people once they're killed, apparently on the theory that the dead do not have property rights. It seems to me that if I can kill a man then I should be able to steal things from his home. I should be able to, at the very least, use his bed, which the game literally will not let you do. There's an argument to be made, though, that makes sense of this quirk in the game's morality. I am skeptical of property rights as a real moral concern: while I enjoy owning things, I don't think of this as a moral question so much as one of convenience. A system wherein I own things is easier for me to live with than one in which I cannot. It rather stabilizes things: I may not have much, but at least I know where I stand. And yet in political terms the question of ownership is essential. In order to organize a society, a community, one has to deal with the distribution of things. In politics, stability is essential. We need to own things not so much because this is right, but because we wouldn't know how to deal with each other if we couldn't. By this view, it's important to recognize the rights even of slavers, because to do otherwise might corrode the whole fragile system I'm trying to build. No, I don't quite buy it, but again, it's interesting that a game can make me think about this sort of thing.

It makes me suspect -- and maybe I'll write more about this later -- that while minimalist storytelling exercises like the games of Fumito Ueda's studio (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus) are currently the most satisfying and beautiful things going in terms of games as a means of narrative and beauty, the game as practical politics has a very strong future, and may even be the most fertile territory for future exploration. In any case, in spite of its extreme glitchiness and a few other small shortcomings, I do think that Fallout: New Vegas is easily one of the best and most important games of this year, and if you were thinking about buying it, I'd say that maybe you should.

Decision Points

This is an excellent review of Bush's book.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Night Boss Fight

Student Choice Day 4; conclusion

Yesterday a couple students failed to contribute, and so we close this series of posts with three links rather than the typical five.

Jimmy Chen -- "Written By Death, Welcome to My Door" -- Dark Sky Magazine

The student emphasized the daring of the lengthy, labyrinthine first sentence, the dark comedy of the piece, the way it looks at human lives from a perspective unlike the typical literary outlook. We talked about the risks of the piece -- the syntax, the humor, the way it's all one paragraph, the obscenities, etc. -- and how they paid off, or did not pay off. I enjoy the story but admitted I didn't think some of the bits that felt designed to be offensive worked very well.

R. A. Villanueva -- "Corpus" -- The Collagist

We mainly talked about how it managed narrative and atmosphere. The dateline at the beginning immediately establishes something of a setting and atmosphere, the title and chosen words in the beginning also do a lot of work. The way that traditional punctuation and syntax can help a narrative poem to deliver its payload. There was some discussion of how this narrative compared to a hypothetical prose version, which would be perhaps more explicit and less evocative.

Lindsay Tipping -- "Loose Change" -- The Incongruous Quarerly

This student chose to read the piece aloud for the class. We noticed immediately how easily it came to him -- partly because he's a gregarious guy, but also because Tipping skillfully arranged the syntax such that it was extremely readable, and also suggested tone, delivery, mood, etc. We talked about what this suggested about the potential for reading one's work aloud as a revision strategy, which we've discussed before. The student read the piece allegorically, which is clearly an option available in the text, but as usual I prefer a more literal reading. I actually solicited the author of this piece a while ago on the strength of this story, unless I missed it somehow I don't think she ever sent us anything, I hope she'll reconsider!


Overall I would say this has been a successful experiment. The main disappointment has been that you could tell some students were settling, not in terms of quality (they generally worked pretty hard to find something that was a good example of what it meant to be) so much as in terms of personal tastes. Sometimes they chose things, in other words, that were good in their eyes but not what they had specifically hoped to read. The idea of doing online magazines was that since they were free, this would not only introduce students to a valuable source of reading and potential community, but to a source of reading sufficiently diverse so as to help them begin to define themselves as writers and readers.

Of course any reading will ultimately advance this goal if it is serious, and I think part of the trouble was that I didn't give them a lot of guidance as to the aesthetic of each magazine, but I think this does underscore somewhat my feeling that online magazines are at times surprisingly homogeneous. Ultimately there's not much to be done here other than to encourage writers who feel estranged by the aesthetics of publishers on- and offline to persist in submitting work with unexpected styles, aesthetics, and combinations. I think editors, in aggregate, generally take the best of what they are offered. This means that writers need to be courageous and explore the possibilities of their work as fully as possible. It also suggests, however, that editors may need to emphasize sending in stories that "fit" a little less: it can close off possibilities.

For creative writing teachers out there, depending on the requirements and limitations of your class and what you hope to accomplish with your students, I would suggest offering students more agency in selecting their readings, whether by using online lit mags or making them go out in the world and find printed work. Tracy has been approaching this same issue in a different way, and I think it's paid off for her as well. Ultimately we can't make our students into the sort of readers and writers we want them to be, and we shouldn't try. What we need to do is model and facilitate deeper and more durable engagement with the writing of others, as a means to the production of our own writing, and as an end in itself.

Further Adventures

It’s been a week since I wrote my CYOA story, and to remind me, the universe led me to this Amazing Super Powers comic.

I’ve undertaken no new adventures this week, except for these:

1) The adventure of reading Barry Hannah’s collection Bats out of Hell, prompted by the Believer interview conducted by Wells Tower. I am only a few stories in but I will say, It’s pretty good. Hannah’s characters all buzz on several levels at once—angry, desperate, wise, foolish—and even when outlandish they come across as true.

2) The adventure of finishing the first draft of a light-SF novel. Not much to say about this except, hooray! I flirted with the idea for a while and then stepped away and came back and I’m in love with this thing.

3) The adventure of buying plane tickets and of wondering what to read on the flight. There’s a particular type of book well suited to flights, at least for me: longish things, darkish things, maybe things I would not enjoy were I not in the sky. I used to panic at the thought of ascending—the night before AWP 07 I rolled in bed imagining the flight to NYC, kind of hoping for ice, snow—and now I’m completely over it and drink coffee instead of gin in my plastic-y little chair but there remains a magical desperation to the act of getting on, sitting down, listening to the engines, feeling the tilt. So: any suggestions for books to bring?

Bonus Part: The NY Observer ran a story on traditional-media writers getting involved in video game development. The comments tend toward the furious.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My students' final project

So I wasn't sure until pretty recently what the final project would be in my creative writing class. The plan has never been to teach them everything about anything. At NMSU, intro to creative writing necessarily deals with three genres -- traditionally fiction, poetry, and essay, in my case fiction, poetry, plays. Is this how most schools do it? I think Butler focused on fiction and poetry, but I can't remember for sure. In any case, obviously if we're doing three genres we can't really learn everything or even that many things about any of them. Plus it's an intro class. So the idea was that I would get them interested, that I would help them get into a mindset that would lead to interest in and production of words. I gave them a few specific strategies aimed at solving particular problems,  but I don't see a way to weave it together into a cumulative assignment, exam, project, or presentation.

What I decided to do was to give them a final that would be easy for some and very difficult for others: they have to make or do the most beautiful, amazing thing they can imagine. This assignment is easy because they can literally turn in anything and I've promised to give them an A for it as long as they can look me in the eye and say it was the most beautiful thing in the world. (My in-class example: "You can tell me to stand under a spotlight with my eyes closed, then stand at a 45-degree angle to me and blow gently and repeatedly onto my left eye, and I will give that an A.") The assignment is difficult because if you care about what you're doing with your life being challenged to do it as well as you can it's going to basically take over your life. (Assuming you respect the one making the assignment, that is.) If an instructor gave me an assignment like this I would, I guarantee you, end up working on it night and day up to the last minute, writing a novella or something like that.

I told them the lesson they were intended to learn was basically the lesson of how to be an artist and a human being. You can slack off for the rest of your life, or alternately you can work hard at pleasing other people -- instructors, etc. Or you can identify what you want to achieve as a human being and work your ass off for that, precisely that, and only that. It's not such an issue anymore, but I used to spend a lot of my time convincing myself it was worth being a person through this method. Other people make other ways of living work, but I think mine can be a really beautiful and powerful thing.

I thought this was pretty original at the time but have since realized I was basically using some of the stuff my teacher Dan Barden did in classes at Butler, where he tended to be less interested in how to write fiction specifically and more in generally how to make the most beautiful, exciting things you could think of, how to pursue your personal obsessions and dreams and needs. A lot of students objected to this because they didn't think it had anything to do with writing fiction, but of course if you get it you see it's maybe the only way there is to write great fiction, and if you don't end up writing fiction because you're too busy pursuing another kind of beauty, you'll be too happy to care. Fiction? Who gives a damn. Most of my students are not writing something for this project, and that's fine with me; if I accidentally give them the impetus to do something incredible with their lives, I don't care particularly what it is. And those who end up writing anyway, as I would have done and perhaps as you would do in their shoes, they'll know they really love it. This is a surprisingly hard thing for students to believe and understand about themselves. The lesson of this final assignment may be to love without fear.

Today I talked about the math of writing for an audience: the way that most writers would kill to reach 0.0001% of the US population, the implications of this for our writing, that we might be ludicrously successful if we can pursue our passions in an honest and rigorous way. I showed them my recent monstrosity, written partially in response to the assignment I had given them: an essay, a poem, and a long short story about the game Angband, with in-text ASCII graphics. I showed them the ending, which is the most ludicrous thing I've ever "written." The file is 2 megs largely because of this ending. I told them how proud I was of it, how absorbing the process of creation, how currently I am very slowly submitting it to various venues (one at a time, for now) in hopes that someone will share my passion for it. What I didn't tell them was that I'm confident it'll be one of the best-read things I've ever written if someone chooses to publish it, in spite of its obscurity and strangeness, formal and otherwise; because less than 0.0001% of the population plays Angband, but they are passionate, and I will tell them what I made.

I'm really excited to see what they make.

Words by Contributing Humans

Brian Oliu on Kanye West:
And so, we believe his ire in “All of the Lights” when he tells the story of a jealous lover who ruins his family over horns that sound lifted from Rocky and the sexy Bahamian-warble of Rihanna, because that’s the only way we would listen, and that is the only way that we understand.  Sitting in your room all bummed out and listening to The National is so played out, so trite, so cliché—it just doesn’t register these days.  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is like crying at your own birthday party amongst cake, a packed dance floor, and all of your friends.  It is exclamation points and CAPS LOCK in your status updates, thirty-five tweets in two hours.  It is not quiet, and it is not meant to be, nor should it be.
Roxane Gay, "Beautiful Babette, the Wondering Nymphette":
Babette was a beautiful woman with a beautiful, old-fashioned name. Her mother, who never traveled beyond the county line for most of her life, loved the idea of France and words that ended in ette like laundrette, serviette, toilette, and marionette. For most of her life, Babette listened to her mother’s stories about a place she had never seen. She determined, like most daughters are wont to do, that she would never be like her mother. She would go to France, she would leave their small rural town where no one could properly pronounce or spell her name, where they only knew her as the head majorette whose mother worked at the luncheonette on Main Street.
Poems by Robert Alan Wendeborn.

Poems by friend of the blog Carrie Murphy.

Brian Oliu, "someone.exe":
There is always a fear of no one, the yelling voices after cars failing to start on late evenings, the noise muffled through glass doors and windows, and then, nothing, no one except an anonymous log-in meant to get and put and not to synchronize, no way to write new things or to even acknowledge existence beyond a time stamp filed into a log with a dot in front of the filename, something invisible. This is the fear that draws me to who I am supposed to be, a person without a home, a transitory voice which could be anywhere, at the end of a road where no one lives anymore or a field where there is no commentary except that of the contrast between the stalks and sky.
Roxanne Carter has a book coming out next year with Jaded Ibis Press! I should have known but somehow missed this. Congrats to all.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Call To Action

Electric Literature had a really cool idea--let's all try to finish a story that Aimee Bender started. Exquisite corpse-style: each person adds a line having seen the line before. I've been watching all day, and now it's quickly approaching the 100-person end point.

I am struck by the participants' almost complete inability to make something actually happen.

She gave them a ghost/monster/apparition/thing, and they find it impossible to make the character confront the thing. If I follow it right, the thing is now evaporated and has instead glommed itself somehow to her body, presumably so that the participants don't ever have to talk about the thing she has to confront ever again--so that they can concentrate instead on what is happening with her, in her. So that all she has to deal with is what's inside herself.

And what's inside herself is truly a gooey mess. A bad relationship. Another bad relationship. Intensity of feeling. Lack of feeling. Things her father told her. Things her mother told her. Things her homosexual friends told her. Should have gone to college. Should have found the right one. Should have been independent. Should have paid attention to her body. Should have paid attention to her soul.

And the question that started this long line of avoidance, that starts all chains of avoidance: How had her life fractured so badly that she'd ended up here?

It seems to me not a study in "too many cooks" but a study in how a particular pathology of authorial avoidance gets a story derailed. There's this urge people seem to feel to make the story not about the story but about the person and this utterly useless question of how they got to this point. A story is where its question lies, and if your question is in the past, why isn't your story there as well?

I want stories to start with people who are where they are, and who must deal with that. Certainly there's room for an exploration of how things developed, things that are essential for our understanding of the present moment. But if you've got a person up against a monster, which seems to me the easiest and most basic way to discuss any given story, then what your reader is there for is not to find out how she got to the street with the monster on it. The object of the story is to show us what happens when she has to face it, when she's avoided it as long as she can. Avoidance, I think, should be what's been happening all the way up to the beginning of the story. Avoidance stops when a story starts.

Right now the story is doing in the physical sense just what it's been doing all this time in the metaphysical sense: the character is, quite literally, running away. Pretty much the only action so far, and it ends up being a refusal to act.

So this is a call to action. I'd really love to see some people head over to the story and create some kind of action, some movement forward for the character. And if, sadly, we are too late, I think a renewed commitment to action is in order--in our writing, in our reading, in our classrooms. Action is a story's lifeblood. Without it--duh--nothing happens.


Robert Lopez's new collection Asunder is available for order. Here is one of those newfangled book trailers:

Not sure if that really tells you much about the book, but I haven't read it yet so I can't say much either. What I can say is that I read his last book, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, over two sittings in one day. My review of that one is here. The new book is likely very good.

I love Gun Show so much

Here's why:


On Naming

We don't like to tell our writers how to do their jobs; we're of the professional opinion that every submission you send is a compliment, and we want to read them, always. We're finding, though, that few things make such a quick (bad) impression on us as character names. We offer this brief tutorial in the spirit of learning, both yours and ours. Let's together see what awful names we can conjure up. Let's also be clear that a few of these are from real submissions, and that you get to guess which they are.

Avoid like hell the following:

Dirk Shadow
Richard Pepperidge
Victoria Saucedo
Dorian Quatorze
Franz Fabrizio
Francesca di Lombardi
Enrique de la Hoya-de la Cruz
Julia Tivitre
John Wayne Asimov
Jackson Fitipaldi
Archibald DeSoto
Leopold Tigre
Annie Tampa
Jason Crookshanks
Patrick Ewing
Jared Ubermensch
Amanda Cheeks
Robert Tabernacle
Jack London
Jimmy Cross
Johnny Nightmare
Vladimir Potemkin
Cristobal Hammersmith
Mac McAfee
Jimmy Hoffa

As you can see, names should provide a sense of history, class, personality, and other characteristics, without being overbearing, unlikely, or self-contradictory. Uncanny Valley suggests trying these names for your characters instead:

Rhode Island Sinclair
Rosco Kiltweaver
Colonel Florence Baggins, Sr.
Bob and Charlotte Masterson-Masterson
Oliver Ways and Means
John Waterbaby
Danny Glover
Charlie "Bait 'n' Switch" Cheauxbauxcaux
Leopold C.M. Tigre (see the improvement?)
Jeffrey Abner James and Lilliput Huffington
H. Hugh Cleopatron

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Student Choice Day 3

Okay, you know the drill. Let's get right to it.

Dave Housley -- "Seven Clowns Before the Explosion" -- Dark Sky Magazine

I was proud when my students noted that this story largely works in an internal, narrative-based way rather than operating in an external, plot-based mode. We agreed that the structure -- the cycle of protagonists -- was essential to making that work. Of course the idea of the characters careening around in this clown car helps, too. The student who chose the piece enjoyed the dark tone and the unusual subject matter.

Matt Briggs -- "Knot" -- Birkensnake

Was good to see Birkensnake get some love. We talked about the way the imagery and events literalize what might otherwise be abstract (if familiar) emotions, feelings, experiences. The way they become "tactile," concrete. The pleasure of reading it literally, the pleasure of reading it metaphorically. The ways it is perhaps influenced by poetry. The potential for accuracy in exaggeration.

Rob Roensch -- "The Customer" -- PANK

This student enjoyed the repetition of sentence structures, the lengthy candy list. We talked about the way a story can implicate readers by presenting them with a moral decision wherein they can imagine doing what the protagonist did, and so learn something new about themselves and other people; in this story the speaker does not rape a girl, but admits he might have given the chance, and does nothing to save her from others who do rape her. This is presented in a light that lets the reader see the extent to which he (or, probably to a lesser extent, she) might do the same thing.

Peter Schwartz -- "In Defense We Carry Potions" -- elimae

The student emphasized the slanted repetition of sounds, words, and phrases, and the impressionistic logic of the poem -- we talked about the way language can work more by association and connotation than by direct narrative.

Gary Moshimer -- "Feel Your Boobies" -- Storyglossia

We talked about the way the child protagonists slant their telling of the story, the way their language and their understandings structure and bring meaning to the story. We agreed that in some instances this story was contrived, but that on the other hand writers need to think more about how their narrators (whether characters or disembodied voices) will slant and distort their story, and how this can be productive.

Thursday is our last day of student selections, and I'm curious to see what we'll talk about.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights

Much of what I learned about writing I learned as a young music journalist. I think I was sixteen when I started out with Splendid Magazine, the now-dead semi-pro online music publication operated on the sheer will and moxie of George Zahora. I owe George a tremendous debt of gratitude for his patience and confidence, for everything he taught me, for the opportunities he gave me when I needed them most.

The difficulty of writing about music when you don't actually know much about music is not in itself insurmountable. Most music journalists don't know shit. They get by (I got by) largely by way of ignorance of their (our) ignorance. The challenge is that you're regularly presented with objects and experiences of such shocking beauty that writing about what you've heard feels worse than obscene: it feels like missing the point.

Splendid was so good because we had an official policy of reviewing literally anything anyone sent us. I mean anything. This meant I listened to a lot of shit and I wrote a fair number of negative reviews, though George was good at reminding us to be fair and rigorous in our criticism even when the artists had been lazy in their art. It also meant I regularly ran into beautiful, amazing things I never would have otherwise heard of. Once every month or so I would get a big box full of albums, press releases, and the occasional Spanish-language comic book. These packages enriched my life more than most of what was going on back then. I was not a very happy person.

Once I got a CD-R with the words "FUCK YOU" carved into its underside with, I have to think, a razor. It was actually really good. The disc's scar tissue was part of the music; it produced a kind of chugging skipping in the audio that was actually beneficial to the affected song. More than anything else I did as a kid or in college, writing for Splendid expanded my understanding of the possibilities for beauty in the world. In a very real and direct way, it made me a better person. I miss writing for Splendid. There was supposed to be another site afterward, but that never happened. I would probably write for George again in a second.

I've tried to keep the chaotic influence of writing for Splendid in my life a number of ways. Reading slush for Puerto and now for Uncanny Valley has been a part of that plan. And but so has my subscription to eMusic. I used to get 90 songs a month for $20. Now it's 50, which is still pretty good. It's enough music for a small enough sum that I can take silly risks. I downloaded K'naan's album, for instance, because I liked a couple tracks. Much of it isn't really for me, but the ones that are for me are great, and I have time to learn to love the rest. This was how I discovered the band Little Teeth, whose bizarre and initially inscrutable Child Bearing Man has been one of my favorite albums of the last five years.

And then sometimes you discover something that you already knew.

Which is to say that Antony and the Johnsons get plenty of press. They get good press because their first album was a bit of a shock to listeners everywhere, and because their second (I Am a Bird Now) started with "Hope There's Someone," one of the most gorgeous, overpowering songs recorded in decades, the sort of song that will last.

However attention from the press does not guarantee the quality of that attention. The last couple of things put out by Antony and the Johnsons were not as good as the things that came before them. They were quieter, and a little dull. They were very well composed and arranged but I didn't feel strongly about them, for them, through them. I think that people listened to Swanlights and they thought, "Well, he's settled in. This is the sort of album he makes now." They didn't notice that Antony had achieved in this album what he was attempting in the previous albums. Which is too bad, because noticing is their job.

Or it may be the difficulty of writing about the album. What you do as a music journalist, if you don't really know much about music, which again the majority most certainly do not, is you try to refract through your prose the beauty and the particular pungency of whatever it is you're reviewing. You take on a little of the voice, a little of the music in your writing. But how do you do that with a song like this?

I do not know how to do that with a song like that one. Or this one:

What could they say? The compositions are gorgeous in that each piece is subtle in that it does not announce itself excessively or preen, and yet their relationships to each other are obvious, one might say iconic, and the emotional tenor of every element is immediately clear and urgent in itself, in addition to its relationship to the other elements. There are songs that drift or lilt but the drift or the lilt is not listlessness, it is the feeling, it is the beauty. And then they build and bloom. You feel them. What people wanted that they weren't getting was to be commanded by the music. Now the music is commanding without manipulation. It is itself, naked and easy, and if we do feel compelled then we feel compelled.

I remember lying on my borrowed dormitory bed, the nicest one I'd slept on in years, the first summer I lived alone, on a grant from Butler University. I had just discovered Antony and the Johnsons' first two albums. I would turn the volume up and let it happen.

I have a similar feeling listening to Swanlights, an experience of rediscovery. I turn the volume up and I am made a better person. Alphabetically speaking the next album in my iTunes playlist is Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. It feels crass by comparison. I rewind and listen again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Amazing Adventure: Beans Again

Nobody worry: you can now live out your own amazing adventure, as long as the adventure you crave involves dinner and is about 500 words long. My 120th story-every-day piece is An Amazing Adventure: Beans Again.

I've been thinking about making a CYOA-style piece ever since starting the Moonshot project. The internet is so perfectly suited to handling these stories: it may not have a fix for the genre's inherent hokiness, but it has the interface to present readers with blind, honest choices rather than easily-gamed survival decisions--you just have a set of links at the end of each episode, rather than a pair of page numbers, one of which you may remember following before, to your death at the hooves of a three-headed space giraffe.

I wasn't a huge fan of CYOA books growing up (not due to any refinement of taste, surely, as my reading was largely limited to Goosebumps-series cliffhangers), but I checked out enough from the library that the memories stayed with me. I joked once in grad school that my thesis would involve page jumping and bad illustrations, and somewhere in that span of time Sarah and I swallowed cocktails and actually watched this:

What I remember most is the weirdness of some of the narrative paths; most of the storylines carried you through standard adventure plot points--the crashing of a plane, the deployment of a parachute, camping in the snow--but a few pulled you straight into some writer's idle back-brain fantasy, over an invisible staircase or into a land of talking Yeti (the exact weirdnesses escape my memory). These bizarre strains, although ostensibly "happy endings," struck me as creepy not for their weirdness but for how easily missed they might be, for how they quietly threaded beneath the normalcy of most of the stories.

Bonus Part:

A couple years ago my friend, The Wizard of the Cloud, sent me a copy of Your Amazing Adventures: The Dragonmaster that he found in his parents' house. Your Amazing Adventures, obviously, was a CYOA-style book, even down to the cover art:

The cover exhorts you to "solve the mazes / defeat the evil forces," and indeed you will crawl through many mazes if you read this book. In fact, the entire decision mechanic seems to have been replaced here with navigation of swamps and monster swarms, wherein you find not safety at the end of a path but instruction on where to go next:

I'm not sure how I feel about this. Sarah glanced through the book last night and gave it the same sort of criticism I used earlier: it's too easy to know where you're going, particularly if you know that all the endings are in the back few pages of the book. But maybe these mazes offer a more honest way to get to those endings; you're not likely to choose a finale if you're enjoying the story, but if you stumble on one by accident, well, you can accept the consequences, ignore them and give up the pretense, or just restart at the beginning.