Saturday, October 30, 2010
Most writers will fail in the sense that they (we) will not be as successful, rich, famous, admired as they (we) hoped, or may not be successful at all at any point in their lives.
I spend most of my day, at school and in Uncanny Valley and at other lit blogs, negotiating the terms under which these writers and writing (and my writing) will fail. For every hundred stories I read for Puerto del Sol, less than one gets in -- and my odds, given my placement in the organizational chart, of seeing any successful prose piece before publication are 100%. Some readers for Puerto very likely see zero published pieces in a given year before we print the magazine. Uncanny Valley has an unusually high acceptance rate mainly because we have been unusually good at getting word out to, and interest from, writers we already admired or have come to admire. In workshop we discuss how best to revise a story with the usually-unstated goal of publication, which most stories we workshop are plainly unlikely to ever achieve, though the number that manage is higher than zero, though not by much. (Poets are a somewhat different story, of course, at least at NMSU.) When I teach I am discussing works with undergraduate students whose odds of ever finding publication are genuinely close to zero.
As an editor I often find myself rejecting a submission from a well-meaning, hard-working person who has probably been rejected hundreds of times already, who will likely spend the rest of his or her life as a writer seeing only rejection.
Even a successful writer (in the sense of publishing a high percentage of one's output in the sort of publications one admires, apart from any financial or career concerns) will spend most of his or her time failing: a piece is usually, but not always, rejected many times before it is taken. Rejection is in any case by far the most common experience to follow a submission. Writers develop the ability to satisfy themselves with kind rejections in lieu of acceptance.
What are the implications of these facts? If you call yourself a writer, how do you live with them?
Friday, October 29, 2010
Guys I am tired of reading the phrase "Spanish moss." I'm seeing it in a lot of stories right now and, I mean, I just want out. I want out of this!
We should stipulate at the outset that doing an image search for Spanish moss makes it clear that the actual phenomenon is pretty cool looking. But so far no one has had the conviction necessary to actually include an image of the moss in a submission. Nor have they bothered to describe the Spanish moss. It's just there, a detail in the background, a bit of throw-away description somewhere in the first two or three paragraphs to establish a) mood and b) that we are reading the sort of serious, sensitive, melancholy author who will notice and mention Spanish moss.
Maybe it's just the fact that the words "Spanish moss" are slowly driving me insane, but I'm beginning to wonder if Spanish moss isn't the telos and ethos alike of the modern literary short story. Perhaps no phrase has so perfectly captured what drives me up the wall about stale realist fiction. Let's really get up to our elbows, now, in Spanish moss.
What makes Spanish moss so appealing? Well, it sounds "crisp" and it has the ideal ratio of adjective (two syllables!) to noun (one syllable, ending in a syballent that echoes the Spanish). It's also sort of exotic, but not in a threatening or especially brown way. France sounds too silly, England sounds too dull, Ireland is too overtly romantic, Italy is so fiery, but Spain? Spain is like a gray blur at the intersection of all those countries, superficially specific but actually, for the average American reader, totally meaningless. This exoticism is of course immediately counteracted by the word "moss," which is just about the dullest object I can think of. Wikipedia -- which, hilariously, has a whole section of its Spanish moss page devoted to explaining the literary and cultural significance thereof -- explains that Spanish moss is also associated with the South.
This is perhaps the ultimate expression of American literary realism: the dogged insistence on finding beauty solely in mundane objects, the shame-faced tendency to use a vague touch of Europe or the South to make this happen, which ultimately reduces all language and style to flavor, vague passionless mood music barely noticed behind the dull-as-hell plot. It's not that you can't tell a good realist story, but that at this point both the foundation and the purpose of these stories seems to lie in Spanish moss -- in a phrase carefully designed to communicate without communicating, to balance perfectly the exotic and the mundane, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the beautiful and the boring, such that ultimately the words are a wash, have essentially never happened. You can't really object to Spanish moss, but you can't fall in love with it either. It comes pre-lubed for workshop; no one will complain about it, perhaps someone will even underline the phrase and congratulate you, marginally, for being "so specific!"
Thursday, October 28, 2010
But this dancing is still an art, and so is the music that accompanies it, and so, very much, is the act of choreography.
Swan Lake's choreography was changed several years after the ballet was written, and it was this choreography that made the ballet so popular. It's immensely challenging, so much so that to change it in any serious way tends to draw disfavor--upon both the show's directors and the ballerina playing Odette/Odile (it's a dual role). Why is it she can't do what more than a century of other ballerinas have managed to do? What is she hoping to hide?
Yet, it's not the technical challenge that tends to impress people about Swan Lake anymore. The choreography in Swan Lake is deeply rooted in pantomime. The famous pantomime scene is when Siegfried first meets Odette by the lake. The whole thing is pantomime really--she is miming to you that she's a swan, that she's nervous; he that he won't hunt her, that he wants to look at her. The conversation really begins at 1:35: "Who are you?" Siegfried asks. Odette replies, "I am the queen of the swans." Though it's as graceful as any technical ballet movement, it is pantomime that lays out the story and that makes the emotional movements of Swan Lake apparent.
Despite the pull to adhere to tradition, directors obviously don't always want to perform Swan Lake in quite the same way. Neither do ballerinas. Usually, the aim for both has been to reproduce in Odette the nature of the swan itself, which has traditionally manifested itself in movements that are impeccably graceful, both stately and fragile. Thus each new production's interpretation of Odette has often been evaluated through the degree to which the ballerina's arm movements are seamless, on her ability to convincingly preen and flap, on the tremble in the legs. One Odette, Agnes Letestu, saw swans differently and based her conception of the character on that: "Swans are splendid creatures. They are not frail, fluttering things, and neither am I! They move a lot of air, and splash down heavily when they land; I've watched them and my interpretation has become more physical and animal." If you watch below, you can indeed see something a little more decisive and bold about her movements; no grace is sacrificed, but something does seem more animal, more emotionally blank--this is the swan pure and simple, not the swan-girl with her tragic love.
The interpretation also changes with the production's conception of Siegfried. Productions have alternately treated Siegfried as a typical Prince Charming, self-determined and in control of his reality; as a dreamer, an idealistic Candide moving from dream to reality; and sometimes as a Hamlet, who wants to change his reality but has trouble deciding how. When the prince changes, the queen of the swans changes; she becomes object of his desire, object of his dream, or subject of the story, with him as recipient and her as actor. To make the story make sense, the ballerina and premier danseur must be well matched--because her task is so physically difficult, and so emotionally important to the story, her dance must mime swanhood, in a way that shows her role in relationship to the role he's been playing. With Letestu, her desire to effect change in the swan queen's character was complemented by a change in her partner's conception of Prince Siegfried's relationship to the swan: "With Ghislaine [the premier danseur], I no longer see myself as a victim about to be sacrificed. What became important was to show the woman imprisoned under the swan's great wings." These conceptions of character enter the dancing, changing the emotional trajectory of the story, even as the technical movements and pantomimed gestures stay largely the same from production to production.
But there is one gesture that strikes me every time I see it. It appears in every production that's not pretty radically rewritten. This one gesture, in its particular executions and arrangements, makes manifest the emotional arc of each separate production.
This image may not mean much to you out of context. It probably wouldn't have for me, either, if I hadn't seen Princess Tutu in its entirety, and learned what this moment means. In this moment, Princess Tutu (yes, both) is being challenged to announce her love to the prince (Mytho) so that his heart, cast out of him long ago and split into pieces, will return to him. The problem is, as soon as she speaks of her love aloud, she will return to being--not a swan--but a duck. (A pitiful duck who can do nothing--they reiterate the point a lot in the Japanese. The duck is for some reason an inherently impotent animal, it seems, and you feel the force of this understanding as you watch. Her odds are impossible.) This moment shows Tutu attempting to announce her love through dance. The moment is important because she is dancing by herself a pas de deux, a dance requiring two. That she doesn't have her second is in itself a mime, communicating that she's missing him, that she needs him as her second. (The whole scene is here.)
This gesture comes directly from the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and it is never performed the same in any two productions. It is altered by the particular posture of the ballerina, and it is altered by the physical positioning of prince and swan. In Tutu's case, the prince is absent but her movements suggest him; in a climactic moment, she leaps into the air and suspends herself in a lift--from which she ultimately falls, as she lacks the support of a partner. In this subtler movement pictured, she also expresses her need for him: the bend of the head, the extension of the arm. Where in the story of Swan Lake this movement functions as a sort of farewell, signifying Odette being pulled away from the prince and back to her swan form, Tutu's posture is not that of a wave goodbye. Her hand is reaching to touch something--a shoulder or cheek that's not there. Her particular posture communicates this sense of longing where other ballerinas choose to emphasize the swan's fear, the swan's grace, the swan's desperation, or her captivity to magic.
In the ending of the episode, therefore, it's not surprising that Mytho is close by when dancing this part with her. Her hand never quite comes to rest on him, but it's clear that that is what she wants to do, and that what she wants to communicate to him is her "deep love," her benevolence. That Princess Tutu is not fated to be with Mytho (despite all appearances in this episode) is foreshadowed by her gesture--she can love him, but it's a love separated by a veil; they will not actually touch.
Zakharova and her prince do touch. Watching the full scene, her hands crawl all over him as if trying to remember his face--her priority here is to the love story, to communicate that the swan queen doesn't want to leave and that she has fallen in love as much as the prince has. The prince, meanwhile, kneels in supplication; he can hardly let her go. The desire expressed between them in this instant of choreography is mutual.
Murphy bows more deeply than any of the others, and in the full scene the pantomime is exaggerated to show her resistance against the magic that compels her. Though she is far from her prince, this is her last, desperate gesture to him as a queen and not a swan--very shortly after she reverts to a mechanical object of enchantment. Though he fights against her transformation as well, this part of the story is hers; her emotional arc as the captive supersedes the emotional arc of their love.
It's just kind of amazing to me that a single gesture can be interpreted so broadly, and that some versions can emphasize it so heavily while others use it just as another wave of the swan's wing. It's amazing to me, too, that pantomime can communicate so much, especially when it's typically thought of as second-class artistry--a too-literal translation of what we like to think of as very nuanced shades of emotion. Maybe we, and our characters, are not all that complicated after all, at least in terms of our gestures. It would make sense to me to say that we all make the same gestures, that we all work from the same palette of preconceived actions, but that we perform them differently, in different posture, according to our priorities.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Where are the online publishers who reward big, weird experiments?
Where are the online publishers, in other words, who will post something that doesn't fit into their blog's template?
Seems as if there must be places like this, and certainly there are adventurous publishers, but I guess I'd like to see more.
For what it's worth, if we get a great experimental crazy wild thing, Uncanny Valley will find a way to make it seen, online or off.
Take a look at their new issue. One of the finer points I didn't get to yesterday is the extent to which I think it's important for online magazines to have textually-oriented design. > kill author doesn't have a graphical logo, which tend to look neat the first time and asinine on the tenth. It has text. The only graphic in the entire issue, in fact, is a picture of Kurt Vonnegut, whose grays have been adjusted to blend comfortably with the blueish gray (is it blueish? am I being color-blind again?) of their background. The background color has a nice level of contrast with both black and white text. In fact, generally speaking, the colors on their pages are just plain nice. It feels glossy and low-key at the same time. > kill author may just be the kindest, gentlest reading experience your eyes can have with a monitor.
Of course the contents are organized alphabetically by the author's first name. I continue to think this is a poor choice, and it continues to be the primary means of organization in most online magazines. The arrangement of names and titles into a chunky block of text feels good.
Head to a content page and you'll see why I'm really so into them, though. If we're going to get REALLY nitpicky, I find the horizontal balance between contents and title a little weird -- the contents feel, you know, a little pushed off to the left. But guys, look at the navigation links at the bottom! There's a link back to the issue index, and there's a "next" button. A next button. At first I was disappointed by the absence of a "previous" button but now I kind of like it -- how often do you go backwards in a magazine without just heading back to the index? This makes a lot of sense. Note also that when a writer has multiple pieces in a magazine, each piece gets its own page, which is linked at the right beneath the title and author's name. The next button will navigate first through the pages and then to the next author. This is really nice. It's readable, the navigation is sweet, I like going to this website.
Abjective is an example of another one that has it right. Of course, because Abjective only has to deal with one piece at a time, it has a simpler job: the contents page has to be readable, I have to be able to find the archives. The site's minimalist design is extremely attractive, and the info page takes care of everything else. This is a good model for an online journal, one that I honestly think more should probably follow (why are we all publishing fifteen million things on a monthly basis?).
Necessary Fiction works in a similar way and it's similarly attractive, but the stuff on the right is a little bit distracting. I understand why it's there! But I think that ideally it would be integrated into the navigation at the top.
So, I guess: high fives to everybody, keep it up.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
I like this one the best of the three, design-wise. I'm not in love with centered text -- in fact as a rule I hate it -- but the austerity of the page is nonetheless appealing. elimae also does two key things: it shows me titles, genre and author name for each piece, and it mixes genres. These things are good practice for several reasons. For one, I like to have a reason to click one link instead of another when I look at a page -- otherwise I get overwhelmed. I personally think online magazines should make a tendency of excerpting one or two lines/sentences from every piece in their index, but giving me title, genre, and author is the next-best thing. Secondly, mixing genres in the index makes the magazine feel less like a collection of links and more like a magazine. It's tough to make decisions about how to arrange the contents of your publication, which is exactly why I appreciate when editors do it. This also relates to my general distaste for separating genres.
The main trouble for elimae comes when we go to an individual piece within an issue. The contents are very readable (nice font, nice narrow column, everything is low-key and feels manageable, no distractions) so that's not the problem. The thing is I can't go from this piece to the next in the magazine. The editors go to the trouble of arranging elimae as an actual reading experience and then they make it so you have to hit the back button, scroll down, and choose the next link if you want to read the pieces in the order they arranged them. And it really does have to be the back button, because the only clickable link on the page takes you to not to the index of the issue you're reading but rather elimae's splash page. These would be easy things to fix and I think they would enhance the reading experience a fair amount.
If you go to thecollagist.com you actually end up at the Dzanc Blog, which wouldn't bother me (the magazine is after all a loss-leader for the excellent Dzanc Books, and it needs to work on that level as well as it can) except that getting to The Collagist from that page is surprisingly difficult. You've got to spot a small link in an unintuitive spot in a not-beautiful red header. There should be a Collagist logo at the top right, above the other links to Dzanc projects, so I can find the site I meant to go to right away.
Okay, so now I'm at the actual magazine, and it immediately looks professional, glossy, attractive. The site has what we in the freshman comp business call ethos. But honestly it's a little cluttered. I don't mind all the Dzanc buttons on the left when we're in the index page, but they stay there when you go to a specific piece, which I find a bit distracting. Were these always here or did they come with the redesign? I Can't remember. Again, I respect the need to promote Dzanc's other products, which are great, but I wonder about taking them out of the contents pages. If I'm getting distracted enough to actually click them in the middle of a story that's probably a bad sign for the story or the design that contains it.
I wish the genres weren't cordoned from each other, for reasons I mentioned above. It makes me a less adventurous reader, it makes the different pieces feel more like links the editors enjoyed and less like a product the editors arranged. I do appreciate that the pieces are clearly arranged within a genre, however. That tells me again that it matters what order I read the materials in, which I like.
Now for more navigation nitpicking: there aren't next or back buttons here either. I want them so bad! More troubling, though, are the permanent navigation elements. I understand some of these things are technical constraints but let's be perfectionists for a moment. 1) The Collagist logo takes you back to the Dzanc frontpage. This is counter-intuitive. 2) The Table of Contents link on the left hand always takes you to the table of contents for the most recent issue, which is fine if you assume that no one is ever going to be reading a back-issue and then want to get back to the index. But I've totally done both of those things and I expect I will again in the future. 3) So actually there is literally no way for someone reading a back issue to click a link that will take them back from a given story or poem or review to the issue in which it appeared. Instead this person would have to either hit the browser's back button (assuming they started at the index, which sometimes they won't have done) or, very counter-intuitively, click the "Previous Issues" link, scroll down, and choose the issue they were in. 4) ...which they might not actually know, because nothing says which issue it's in on its page. In practice none of this is ever a huge deal but I think most of it could be fixed.
I love PANK. There are a lot of things to like about the design. When you go to pankmagazine.com you're immediately greeted by a story or poem or thing. I'm not sure how these are selected for a given day (is it just a rotation from the current month's issue?) but it's a good idea: this is a website about reading and if you go there that's what you'll do. This probably isn't a good idea for EVERYBODY but I wonder if it shouldn't be used more often.
It's easy to get from here to the magazine index and then from there to, say, the most recent issue. This is where PANK gets into trouble. (Again, remember I love you guys!) You're greeted by literally a column of names -- names, and nothing else. This column might be, depending on your monitor's resolution, several screens tall. One of the good things about PANK is that they publish the broadest sampling of writers and writing I've seen anywhere online: new writers, experienced writers, all sorts of different styles, genres, genre-benders, and so on. But the index of a given issue does almost nothing to help you sort through all this. You could click through the contents and read them one by one, but you quickly realize they're sorted alphabetically. This is actually as far as I can tell how the majority of online magazines do it, but I think this is a really bad mistake -- it's actually worse than not sorting your contents at all, because it's actively meaningless. Reading from beginning to end under these circumstances feels ludicrous: there's just no way that's the ideal order.
We haven't got titles or excerpts or genre here either, and, to be clear, I don't actually love knowing a piece's genre before I see it, but at least that's information. The result is that I rarely manage to read a significant portion of a given issue of PANK. I feel so overwhelmed that I click a few names (one or two I recognize, one or two I don't) and then I just sort of give up. I don't know where to begin or how to approach the issue so I never quite get absorbed.
Once I click a specific piece in the issue things get much better. As in the other two magazines above, the text is entirely readable and I appreciate the lack of distractions (though I could use a little more whitespace between multiple poems by a given author). I like that we have author bios on the article pages, but that's not really a usability issue -- I just like knowing that when I get to the end of a given piece, I'll have pointers about where to find more by someone if I like what they did. I wonder if we shouldn't always have at least links to bios at the bottom, and I'm curious about putting e-mail links for authors at the end of pieces as a more general thing, which as far as I know nobody does now.
One thing PANK got right that the others missed: right there at the top of the page is a link to the index of the issue in which the piece appears. On the other hand, still no next/back buttons. I can't think of anyone who does this either but I want it so bad, and so do some people I know.
So here are some things all of the magazines I've listed got right: they are all strong magazines with strong contents presented in an attractive, professional, and above-all readable way. And this is no small thing! For me, the majority of online magazines are essentially unreadable because of ugly, unprofessional, or excessively busy presentation. This includes some of the ones that are reputed to be very good. I wouldn't know! I can't read them.
On the other hand, most online magazines are suffering from a lot of small-but-niggling navigation problems that stem in part from the blog-based content management systems most magazines prefer. It can be distractingly difficult to get from one piece of a magazine to another, especially for those of us who prefer to use a website's interface rather than our browser navigation buttons to get from place to place (which should be, as a rule, always possible).
Counter-intuitive navigation choices can undermine the cohesiveness and specialness of a magazine by making the reader feel as if different pieces within an issue are entirely separate, rather than closely related and carefully curated/arranged. It should be as easy as one click to get from one piece to the next in an issue. Two clicks, after all, is just about enough to get you anywhere online, is the distance between this blog and probably Russian car catalogs or something bizarre.
Relatedly, editors should organize their magazine's contents by something other than the alphabet. This, along with additional information (at LEAST the title, and preferably a small excerpt) will both enhance the magazine's identity as a curated, designed object and give busy readers means by which to judge which pieces in a given magazine they want to read. Almost no one will read any issue all the way through, after all, and if we don't give readers the means by which to choose the parts they like best, they won't just read everything: they'll give up.
Again, this isn't meant to pick on these magazines or others, I am mainly fascinated by this sort of design and hopeful that discussing it in a clear, precise, and critical way can help online magazines to become as readable, beautiful and special-feeling as the best of their print counterparts.
Monday, October 25, 2010
|A determined reader catches a long-buried|
nuance in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Right now I'm reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the book I selected for my MFA workshop to read as instructional for my work. (I didn't have the courage to go with The Princess Bride, and besides, I do like Calvino, and besides again, I think I honestly couldn't handle people rejecting The Princess Bride in front of me.) I bought Invisible Cities for a college history/humanities colloquium on "Imagined Worlds," used. There's super-light pencil marks in the margins; I can't figure out whether I made them or Mike made them or someone before us made them. What's strange, though, is that every time I stop on a passage (most often trying to note for myself ways of mixing concrete with abstract, and separating concrete from abstract, which are my big problems with the book I'm working on for my thesis), it's one that's already been underlined or called out somehow in the margin. There's nothing written, so I have no clue as to what the notetaker thought was interesting or important about the passages he/she chose to mark. It's strange, then, that they're turning out to be so relevant to me under what I presume are vastly different circumstances.
How do you all approach writing in books? Is it more physical habit, or intellectual exercise? Do your notes make sense to you later?
Now a neighbor is either a silent mystery or a loud entertainment. (We prefer mysteries, in this case, to entertainments.) The neighbors on our left had a truck in their space that brought a breathing machine of some sort. We didn't see it arrive or leave, only saw it idle in the space, two orange cones at the front end for no obvious reason, a notice that we shouldn't smoke within such-and-such distance if we wanted to keep our nipples on straight. Someone in that apartment needs help to breathe. We also see cleaning supplies on their porch sometimes. We also, sometimes, hear the low end of the sound of a movie they're watching.
The neighbors on our right seem to be drug dealers but we'll never get proof. They never leave long enough to go to a job but they are constantly coming and going at high speeds. They are always screaming and fighting, and sometimes screaming and seeming to fight though they are in fact getting along. They seem to have a game where the husband pretends to assault the wife in order to taunt their dog, Hank. Only he is not the husband: we learned that once when Cynthia, who seemed to be the wife but has many gentleman callers (who all seem to come by our apartment first) insisted loudly that she was NOT his wife and he was NOT her husband. I know their names not because they've introduced themselves but because they are so loud. I do not know the one who seemed to be the husband's name was because no one shouts as loud as he does and he does not say his own name. He also sings, tunelessly, about their dog. Imagine Ernest dying of alcohol poisoning. I know how high their electric bill is. (It's pretty high, more than $200 dollars, is it energy-intensive to cook meth?) One time, when my family was visiting, they pulled into our second parking spot at high speed, nearly hitting my brothers, and they got out, and the man was wearing only his boxer briefs. They were laughing.
One time he was fist-fighting his brother in front of our door. We called the cops, who didn't actually listen to Tracy's description of what was happening, and who never came.
I think a lot of writers would get stories out of these people but I haven't got the energy. I already live with them.
Remember Sleep is Death? I've been disappointed with most of the games I've seen on sidtube but this one is pretty good. Taken as a straight narrative, it's not that great -- you've got a therapist and a patient, you've got a pretty vague mystery, the hapless patient hears a voice, the voice is very strange and aggressive. You wouldn't want to read this as a short story or watch it as a film. But taken as what it actually is, a collaborative storytelling game between two people, I like it a lot. What isn't immediately obvious if you're not pretty familiar with the game is that the player is responsible for the voice in James' head, not James' dialog. This is the game's greatest strength, and its weakness -- if you think about it, the premise of being a voice in someone's head is most exciting if you can make them do things, especially things they don't want to do, or things they maybe secretly do want to do. There are gestures in that direction here, but they all happen in dialog, and James' dialog is rather flat, hitting the same two or three notes regardless of the player's inputs. The best bits are where the voice/player gets to speak *for* James. The worst bits are the long stretches where he's trying to make something happen but just can't do it. Sleep is Death is essentially a simple work-around for the problem of how to make games deal with language, but the controller really has to understand that concept to get the most out of that workaround, and there are good instincts here but they're not totally followed through on. Still, you can see that even in the slow patches the player and the controller are having a lot of fun.
Note also the careful visual composition, which pays close attention to negative space and relates the characters in an inherently dramatic way. Note the use of small gestures where most SID games rely on big movements. There's a lot to like about this, even if it's not 100% successful in my eyes.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
It is really easy: when a post goes up, there's a link at the top to a .pdf of the story being discussed. Download, read, and join in. NY Tyrant is a great magazine and you should probably already be reading it anyway, but if you haven't been, now's as good a time as any to start.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
1. Tim's Mummy Cookies
These are not Tim's recipe, but he did link to them on Facebook, so I think of him as responsible for delivering them to me. I kind of can't stop thinking about how delicious they look. I love cookies, and Mike and I are both huge fans of white chocolate, so these are an easy sell. But they can also be made without. Either way, nom.
2. Cream of Pumpkin Soup
Some people in the MFA crowd around here are planning a Soup Party this weekend, and my current plan is to attend with this in a crockpot. The cinnamon croutons are the real stars here, but I'm also looking forward to the chance to make the soup without forgetting the cream this time. Turns out it really does taste just like pumpkin pie when all you put in it is pumpkin puree, fall spices, and brown sugar...
3. Mexican Crepes
Our friends over at Master of Fine Eats always have great stuff cooking, but this one has been making me salivate for a while: tortillas layered with strawberries, ricotta and cream cheese, and a sprinkle of chocolate chips.
I've had a sweet tooth bugging me for a while now, so I'm hoping for the opportunity to make at least one of these in the coming weeks. Especially the crepes, but especially the mummy cookies.
Someone approached me on the street. It was broad daylight, appalling.
Questions were put to me as if I might know something. The first had to do with my birthplace. I told them I couldn’t remember, that I’ve been told different things by different people.
Then they asked me if I was interested in making some extra money. I told them stories need to be verified. I told them I would look into it and get back to them. I said I needed more time.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Reading Jeremy Parish's article about Super Mario Bros. 3, I remembered the period during which I started and participated in a number of video game websites. I imagine a lot of young writers today started out writing about video games, partly because games are awesome, and partly because it's pretty easy to get people to read about video games. There are maybe fifty thousand hobbyist websites and they are all in desperate need of anybody with the ability to string a few words together.
The first site I created was called a "Gamers' College." (Keep in mind, I was eleven.) The idea was that while most of the popular sites out there would give you cheats and tricks that worked in one particular game, I would give you skills that could help you to perform well and discover secrets in any game. These consisted mainly of reminders to look out for patterns: if most of the time the clouds or the platforms or the X in a given game look one way, look out for places where they look another way. I was thinking of Zelda, where you learn pretty quickly to bomb walls with cracks in them (and then, over the course of the game, to bomb and set fire to everything, just in case there's, say, one of eight essential dungeons underneath it). I was also thinking of a particular trick in Super Mario Bros. 3.
Most platforms in a certain type of level in Super Mario Bros. 3 are green, pink, or blue. They look like a natural part of their environment. There are, however, a few white platforms. Once you notice them, they stick out like a sore thumb. If you duck on one of these platforms for a few seconds, you'll fall through it, and this will allow you to run through the background of the level, safe from all the monsters. Discovering this trick makes you feel like a genius.
My Gamers' College would also point out that in a platforming sequence where timed hazards rotated or fell into place and then receded it was usually necessary to rush toward the hazard when it appeared to be most dangerous. It would also point out the necessity of planning and preserving one's resources. In other words, my goal was to codify the wisdom video games inherently teach. The necessity of saving small sums of money until they became larger sums to purchase video games taught me how to manage finances, and so did the necessity of saving the power-ups in Mario 3 until the appropriate moment.
Mario 3 also taught me how to explore:
Super Mario Bros. 3 begins by giving Mario familiar touchstones—bricks, a Goomba, a mushroom, a Piranha Plant—before throwing new things into the scenario. The Piranha Plant spits a fireball. There’s a Question Block on the ground, forcing Mario to kick a turtle into it... and out of that block comes a new power-up icon, a leaf. The leaf confers upon Mario a tail, which can be used to smack enemies from the side. And no sooner do you get a feel for the the raccoon tail than you realize that there’s a trail of coins leading into the sky. You take a running jump to see how many you can grab, and suddenly you’re flying. And all at once you realize just how very new this Mario game is going to be.
Here, too, does Mario 3 demonstrate a fundamental component of modern Nintendo design: The canonization of the unique. Nintendo has always been distinct from other developers in its tendency to take a simple core mechanic and explore countless different permutations of that idea: outward-looking game design. Other developers tend to grab a scattershot array of ideas and force them into a cohesive whole, working from the outside in. Such games usually feature a handful of brilliantly original ideas used to the point that they become utterly rote.
Mario 3 took a different tack, tossing out countless improvisations on its core mechanics, but presenting each one sparingly, so that its embellishments became memorable rarities. Kuribo’s Shoe -- a massive wind-up boot piloted by a Goomba and wholly capable of being hijacked by Mario -- remains a fan-favorite feature. It appears twice in a single level of Mario 3, and its popularity is no doubt a function of its scarcity.In Super Mario Bros. 3, the physics are fairly simple: you're a guy who can run and jump. If you land on top of something it dies. If it touches you in any other way, you die. If you hit a block something good will come out. There are power-ups and variations on the ideas in the game that change how you manage these rules, but these are the rules.
If it looks like you can do something in Mario 3, you probably can. When you first see Kuribo's shoe, you notice there's a goomba riding in it. You know that you can kill the goomba. If you kill the goomba, it might leave the shoe behind. There's no reason that you couldn't ride in the shoe.
Monday, October 18, 2010
More recently I often find I need not to listen to any music because I get distracted or, in some cases, something about the combination of concentrating on writing and not concentrating on the music can put me to sleep. Often this seems to have something to do with headphones. If I can use my speakers I am usually okay to listen to music.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Why can't we tell ourselves jokes in our sleep? Or if we do, are the jokes not very funny?
See what I mean? The vocals are bland as hell and they're easily the best part of this song; the guitars weave a meaningless guitarhaze until they rouse themselves long enough to do...some things that guitars generally do. The drums might as well be a couple metronomes for all I notice them.
What I am grousing about is the fact that when I want to listen to music what I often really end up hearing is identification. Identification and not much else.
A lot of art reads this way to me anymore. When I look at literary magazines full of traditional fiction, I don't really see anything on the page beyond the act of identification with traditional fiction. When people talk about "the MFA story," if they aren't talking out of their asses, this is what I think they really mean: the story that accomplishes essentially nothing beyond signifying the fact that a writer has attended the MFA, and/or internalized its values. These stories aren't quite awful in the way that a Foo Fighters song isn't quite awful. They avoid certain mistakes (the avoidance of mistakes being the entire aesthetic of a pure MFA story). They show mastery of certain techniques, atmospheres, tones. They are, however, limited to a recitation of the small body of official knowledge granted any recipient of a liberal arts education -- a bland sort of liberalism expressed through aesthetic conservatism that ultimately renders it conservative, a mixture of fatalism and mysticism (an insistence that while there may be no god, there is in fact something to console us in the same way), etc. "Craft" is a word we use to refer to the presence or absence of these recitations, the commitment to or rejection of official knowledge.
My understanding is that the world of poetry is playing out a different but related dynamic, wherein more experimentation is allowed but there is a journal or there are several journals for each aesthetic or strategy or style or whatever (sometimes, embarrassingly, they call themselves movements).
And of course this is not strictly an MFA phenomenon. It is, I would argue, the primary way in which humans make and understand art. When I started buying albums and figuring out what I liked (having discovered, at the age of fifteen, that there were in fact records I liked) I went into a record store where they sold edgy t-shirts and small drug paraphernalia as well as the records themselves. Like anyone in a record store I was also hoping to meet girls; if I bought the right record or wore the right edgy t-shirt, perhaps I could make someone like me. Maybe we would fall in love. Etc. I asked one of the clerks to make some recommendations, which is something I did often. He recommended one album, noting that it was different from the artist's previous work in that it was sort of happy. I said, "What's it doing here then?" This was a ham-handed attempt at identification, and thus it is one of the most embarrassing moments in my life thus far. The clerk said, "I'm happy," which told me that I had failed at identification.
What I had wanted -- in addition to sex with a pretty girl -- was an album that would recite some things I already knew into my ear. The things I wanted to hear were about how awful and venal I was, and how awful and venal everyone in the world was, and how depressing everything was turning out to be when it was clearly supposed to be beautiful. Messages like these comforted me then (and still sometimes do now), mainly because they told me I was right about everything, which is all anyone really wants to hear.
Ultimately, as I've said, I think most art more or less works this way. When we recognize genius it is often the experience of not identifying with something and knowing its greatness anyway. I guess it isn't such a big deal, really. I think it pisses me off in part because I am, as I've written here before, a deficient identification machine: while I experience empathy quickly and with great intensity, the experience of actual identification is essentially alienating for me most times I feel it. I'm not proud of this -- I think of it as a deficiency of my psychology, one that, for lack of power to change, I try to make a strength. And so there is that.
But there is also the sense in which art that does nothing but identify is art that perpetuates privilege and power. Privilege is the right to go unexamined. Art that sees publication or other distribution is generally art that never had to explain itself: The [Blank] Review prints a story or a poem not because they find it beautiful but because they can find nothing wrong with it, because it presents such a blank, smooth surface that it never occurred to them to try to find something wrong. When an artist finds success this is often crippling to the artist, and we say he has "sold out" or that he "got rich" and this ruined him. What we are really saying, I think, is that the artist has ended communication. To speak without speaking, to make noise without communicating, is to speak politically, is to assert one's privilege, is to protect one's position. Speech without speech is the heart of every powerful person's communication strategy. The MFA story is conservative. The MFA story is a pair of cement shoes with no practical function beyond the crippling of society. The Foo Fighters are the same. They fill our thoughts with thought simulations. They give us something to do without doing anything.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
One thing I was just thinking about, though: it seems like a lot of the stuff I write about here, I write about from the perspective of how it opens itself to reader/player/listener/user participation through what is, in classical terms, flawed presentation. Repetition that draws attention to itself, the inclusion of mistakes, intentionally "flawed" delivery, operation according to fairly specific constraints. These elements are common to vast swathes of art, of course, but even in the sort of minimalist exercises of post-modernists, there was a sense of engineering a sublime artistic experience. As increasingly the line between audience and artist/performer/whatever blurs, as we begin to understand that we are all creators not only in creation but in reading, it seems as if the appeal of what we might call unfinished art improves.
I was thinking of this in the context of the Penny Arcade-hosted Blamimations, which Tracy and I have been enjoying tremendously since their debut. The constraints are many: the artists animate very quickly, creating a presentation that is both professional (most people definitely couldn't draw, compose, or time this well) and limited: they don't have time to draw a lot of frames, so they wiggle the art around a lot, and use a lot of copy-and-pasting. There are only two of them, and only their voices appear. There is something of a format, though the format does change often. They leave in their mistakes (though of course the mistakes become intentional, and they are very likely doing the scenes several times and choosing pieces from different versions) and they often draw attention to the seams in their animation, the stiffness, etc.
There is a sense in which this sort of work is limited by its insistence on engaging with its own limitations, by refusing the artifice of grace. But there is also the potential, I think, for lasting greatness in this; and the illusion of sublimity may be something we could do a lot without.
Maybe I will develop this more tomorrow. Or tonight, when I am more drunk.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
I mean, just, wow. This is the lamest thing ever. "Magic everywhere in this bitch!" Long-neck giraffes, butterflies, pelicans, and moms are apparently all very special to this new ICP. Can't wait to see their next video.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Let's say I'm forced to use the word in a sentence. I might say that a story that carries a sense of full disclosure about its character (I thought of Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) is generous, meanwhile countering that an unnecessary vomiting of information (Franzen's "They were the kind of liberals that...") is not generous but slack. Or I might say that a story or poem that wallows in its language a little, turning and turning and turning phrases round past the point of need till they come out more honest, more meant, is generous; I'd take care to differentiate this from a story or poem that twines its adjectival phrases, its nested subordinate clauses, delicately about to the point of rolling in its own slop. When I examine it this way, I wonder if the difference is really as simple and abdominally visceral as I imagine--is generosity an act of holding forth (and what a weird expression that is--I picture squeezing something tight as you deliver it into another's hands), not to be confused with excess, with indulgence, with binge or purge?
I came across the term most recently not as a description of writing, but as a description of music. My favorite musician, Owen Pallett (who I am going to see in concert tomorrow--I break the ban on Arizona to see this man) tweeted about Sufjan Stevens's new album, The Age of Adz, saying on its behalf, "I'm gonna be interested to see if anybody can give The Age of Adz a negative review and not come off like a complete asshole." Then, "It's like coming home to find that Sufjan's made you dinner, ironed your clothes, washed your car and installed a new hot tub," ending with the hash tag, "#generous." I hadn't realized Sufjan had a new album, which made me feel very stupid; he's rather a hero of mine too. So I went and found it waiting on the NPR site (generously). And I started listening, and obviously within mere moments I felt very stupid again, because I did not realize ahead of time that this album was made pointedly different from his last few, the ones I got to know him by. And so I started looking for that generosity, because in one sense I knew it was there--to explode your style the way Sufjan does here, to both totally unmake it and tease it to its limits, is some kind of generous.
It's been a long long time since I memorized your face /
And it's been four hours now since I wandered through your place /
I do love you / I do love you
The opening song is incredibly lovely--these little Hauschka-esque plucked strings (I also love Hauschka), the immense overblown echo, the surprising strikes of a very homely piano. I think it's my mother's, which I reached a hand up to play when I was two years old, which I thought all children loved but they don't, which hasn't been tuned since I've been born.
But before long comes Bigfoot stepping through piles of sonic acid, banging trash cans on his way out of the sewers. A sick couple of trombones, eventually, dovetailing pleasingly and grossly into more pancreatic explosions. Flutes and clarinets, the same--trills that could eat their way through the ozone layer. It's kind of amazing, and awfully disturbing. It's the kind of thing I was always afraid I might hear in my head. The kind of thing that, in my deepest trances of composing, I was always afraid I'd make.
When it dies, when it dies /
It rots /
And when it lives, and when it lives /
It gives it all it gots
It's the power of electronics to create worlds that don't exist for sensations that do, to create blight where real instruments and voices can't. You don't hear a whole lot of music that creates blight, that wastes itself. It's something writers don't really have. (Do we?)
It's clearly a work of great musicianship. It seems to fight logic so hard, but it has a vocabulary that can be tracked and made to fit next to the part of the musician's personality we already know. In some ways it's exactly what I always wanted Sufjan to do; I wanted him to yell at me, to break down, to scream. He doesn't really do that here, but he does put something of himself at risk. He risks his own overexposure; there's a quality of self-destruction, but without anger, without full violence. Balanced with it is certainly this quality of Sufjan inviting himself into your house, of playing in your brain--is this generosity? Or is it that he's inviting you into his house, his brain? Because he seems to do both.
Does a generous writer invite you in? Or does generosity impose?
Owen Pallett has a new album, too, to my joy: an EP called A Swedish Love Story. And he's trying new things too--the string arrangements are rickety in places; they strive as they always do, but they also scratch and warble and spread. There's a quality of openness to that--as with Sufjan, it's not a deliberate misplacement of elements, a coy wink at an intentional mistake; it's not an abandonment of craft but a careful deflation of it. Generosity, maybe, breaks the membrane a little to let us all see what'll leak.
Generosity as human stuffing, as life fluid. Generosity as abdominal after all. Generosity as bandage for a suppurating wound.
These are generous people, and maybe it's in part because they perceive a generous world. Just last week came this, too, which is one of the most generous things I've ever read (though I'm not sure it's necessarily generous to share). Generosity, maybe, bleeds. It does more than share. Generosity works glory out of blight.
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well / I want to be well /
And I forgive you even / As you choke me that way /
Monday, October 11, 2010
Meanwhile, Ben Spivey's book involves a character who's a mannequin, and it just generally sounds cool. More here from Blue Square Press.
"Authors on Art" will be featured on Burnaway the second Monday of each month.
(C is making me particularly anxious because I liked Remainder quite a lot and C is heavy with singular characters and promise of weirdness but it's sort of densely narratively traditional, at least toward the front [I'm only 40 pages in] and I'm getting a little slogged down and feeling guilty for it.)
Anyway Thursday I decided to return some things to the library and when I looked at the website saw that the central location would be hosting Laura van den Berg, author of Dzanc-published What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. I have not read every story in the collection but the stories I have read are strong. All the stories, as I remember, have appeared in well-known and respected journals. The stories I've read are about intelligent and resourceful people doing their best to navigate less-than-ideal situations, sometimes while wearing bigfoot suits. The plots aren't fantastical but they flirt with the fantastical.
So Saturday Sarah and I went to the downtown library and stumbled around feeling foolish and tried to log onto a machine to figure out where exactly this event was and then finally the Information Desk sent us to the third floor where Laura was reading from the first story in the book. We sat in the back and I was surprised at the turnout. After the reading, Laura conducted a Q-and-A on publishing, working with an indie press, etc., and was ultragracious in her moderation of topics and generous with her answers.
Anyway I recommend her book. When I've read it all I'll probably write about my favorite pieces, on Moonshot.
After the reading I met J. Bradley. If you've read the PANK blog, you probably recognize him as the interviews editor. He also produces poetry and fiction, a lot of which you can find around the internet and some of which you can find in books. His writing is very punchy and packed, which is to say that in the fiction you can see the close attention to word choice and feel the heat of the narrative engine.
Here's a picture of my cat sleeping with J. Bradley's book, The Serial Rapist Sitting Behind You is a Robot, published by Safety Third Enterprises: