Escaping Influence

A few weeks ago I wrote about my most recent writing’s similarities to Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks from early in his career, and the thought, once I’d put it into words, wormed its way all the way down the street to the library, where it forced me to borrow The Brood, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch. I’d never seen the first film, but I’d seen the latter two, and I still found Videodrome the most satisfying of the three.

In quickly becoming a Cronenberg aficionado–in fully acknowledging my once-dormant fandom, that is–I read and watched everything about him that I could, mainly because that’s just what I do when something strikes my fancy. (Recently a local film retrospective and the return of Twin Peaks has flipped the Lynch switch as well.)

Anyway, Dave (one comment I read referred to him as Uncle Dave, which I appreciate for so many reasons) switched majors in college from Biochemistry to English and ventured into film after realizing that he could never shake his two biggest literary influences, Burroughs and Nabokov. I find it so difficult to imagine being so immersed in the style and subject matter of someone’s work that I could not distinguish my own aesthetic outside of it, and what does it say that most of the themes in Cronenberg’s films still completely mirror Burroughs? It’s natural to get caught up in the purity of originality–and in a certain respect it’s necessary to kill your artistic ancestors in order to carve out your own distinct niche–and one way to do this, I guess, would be to switch media.

All of which made me wonder what came first for me, the screen or the page? I have always loved reading, but I have also always loved movies and have probably spent about equal time appreciating both mediums.

In a class I was teaching yesterday, a student asked what it was I liked about writing, and I had to pause before I could offer an answer. She only asked because she explained how she was terrified of writing and the formalities of the writing process, especially since in our class the result of this process will be graded, but beyond allaying her fears I tried to answer the question honestly.

“Everything,” I said, and I left it at that because it was getting late, it was the first day of class, and I hesitated to proselytize.

Of course, I could have gone on. I could have passionately expounded for hours about the mystery of discovery and the chance connections that can be made when you begin to put words on the page and let your mind wander through its myriad associations, influences, feelings, beliefs, fears, doubts, and hopes–none of which, if you truly lock into that wide-open creative space that emerges, will be anything but your own.

Rhythm, Sound and Sense

Words are fun. In an interview with Kendrick Lamar, the rapper talked about the pleasure of molding words to his own purposes, twisting them so that they rhymed or almost rhymed. Internal rhyme, end rhyme and rhythm are the backbone of rap and have been the site of the genre’s most noticeable innovations beyond, of course, the sonics.

In my own work I find myself more attuned to the rhythm and sound of words, and finding new combinations that work in terms of rhythm, sound and sense has become one of my chief aesthetic pleasures. Words. What fun!

A writer–I believe it was Annie Dillard–wrote that in order to write you must love sentences, and I have read countless interviews with writers who express their love and devotion to the craft of the sentence. I’ve long been in that camp myself.

Below are a few recent sentences that I’m particularly proud of:

At first glance the knobs looked flawed, like a cluster of clumsily blown baubles, yet their labyrinthine striated creases pulsed with the regulated rhythm of even breathing. The creature sensed China’s nearness and contracted just before she tore off the topmost lump, which she held up by her nose so that she could peer into its puckered folds.

By concentrating on nothing but the correct door and the stairway down to the next floor, she forced them to ignore everything except her guiding actions even though her own thoughts unwittingly crept in and arranged themselves into something like a curated display that the others had somehow already seen. Her thoughts had become theirs. The entire edifice of her mind—its plans, its intricate construction, its countless renovations—were as familiar as their own, even as they still marveled at what Neun knew, the way she understood this place and seemed to foresee everything, including the fallen ceiling at the foot of the stairs and how fast their hair would grow back in the fresh air.

Masters possessed a magnetism that attracted lesser-thans reflexively, even those with substantial evasive practice, and once caught a master’s thoughts prompted an addled daze of admiration where even the most mundane stray notions spun themselves into strands of glittering genius for the prolonged moment before the lesser-thans were pitched into the subservient sphere.

 

Constant Revision

John Steinbeck once wrote that you should not get caught up in the language or style of a piece but should instead just plow through and worry about fixing everything up later. As a practical strategy for just getting ideas on the page, this is excellent advice. In order for a story to work you must find out what happens, and it’s easy to lose your way when you’re spending all of your time mending the path.

My own process usually involves writing ideas down by hand, and these are by no means neat or even very voluminous. I sketch out plot points, ideas, quotes from pieces I think might serve as fodder for further thought about my project, and then I keep that in the back of my mind and get to work.

Still, there is nothing like mending to bring you back to your work when you’ve been away from it for a few days. The entire project feels foreign and you’ve forgotten how to wrap your head around it, but the seeming tedium of re-working a sentence or two situates you in the world of your work, allowing you to remember why this particular phrase within this particular scene matters. You remember what is at stake, and you remember all of the reasons you began the story in the first place.

Original: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

Revised: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting, his red face straining, and his efforts aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extending head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the superfluous limbs that ripped the wounds open still wider. Staggering, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, the flailing parts and pain being too much, and the whole fluidic mess collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

A Faint Signal Is Heard

When I opened up Processed Product a moment ago I had to wipe off a layer of dust at least an inch thick, but now everything seems to be in working order. The novel has been taking up most of my writing time, but in those moments when I’m stuck or I just want to air ideas and thoughts, I plan to do so here. So I guess what I’m saying is, get ready.

I have never thought of myself as a “fan” of David Cronenberg even though each of his films has stayed with me, more so perhaps than most others. They are nightmarish, but more importantly they’re visceral and gooey in ways that so many other films shy away from. Seeing “The Fly” once is enough to sear Jeff Goldblum’s disgusting transformation into your mind forever. “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” the tagline went. And let’s not even talk about “Dead Ringers.”

So it’s with a strange sort of recognition that I find myself writing passages like the one below, which comes from the chapter I’ve been hammering out for the past three months. The end is in sight, but getting the rhythm and the diction just right is increasingly important to me, and for some reason the details my mind conjures are increasingly disturbing:

He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.

Huh.

Celebrating the Halfway Point, but then…

The beginning of summer makes me nostalgic and reflective. Maybe it’s because my birthday falls near the beginning of the season, or maybe it’s because I am a teacher, meaning I’ve always–aside from a few quick years spent in the real world while I finished graduate school–associated summer with endings. The end of the school year meant long days spent reading or swimming, then years later working and driving around with friends looking for something, anything, to stave off the boredom of being a frustratingly wholesome teenager, a designation achieved not by choice but by design, the result of a loving family, good schools in the suburbs, well-rounded friends, and my own deferential disposition.

Now summers mostly mean writing. With most of my daytime hours free, I can produce upwards of 1,000 words a day if I’m really feelin’ it. At the very least I can produce 300, an amount that would lead to a novel by the end of the year if a novel was my aim. Which it is. And while this might sound idyllic, it can be amazingly frustrating, especially when time sucks the daring and the imagination right out of you, making you wonder if what you’re undertaking is really worthwhile because this process, this putting down of word after word, leads to new thoughts–“Writing is generative,” I say to my students–and before you know it, you want to include every passing idea into a piece that now resembles a quilt stitched together by Benjy Compson, or maybe a drunk Macbeth, whose sewing prowess was noted but never much appreciated. (Shakespeare, unforgivably, left out two kilt-stitching scenes, masterpieces of comic poesy, that, quite crucially, indicated that the murder of the king and everything that followed was actually a farcical play within a play put on by Merry McBeth and the Queen’s Women. The loss of this portion of the play is, suffice to say, a tragedy.).

The point is this: I sat down to write a Halfway-Through the Year-End list, remembering how much fun it was to write the 2014 Year-End list, but somewhere after the lead I stumbled off the path. I carried the weight of revision and summertime nostalgia on my back, but I finally made it. The list, however, did not. I expect it will arrive by post sometime later this week, which means you can expect to read it here soon thereafter.

Working…

Processed Product has taken an unintentional hiatus as I’ve been working on a final revision of what was posted on here as Rick and dove right back in on revising A Phenomenal Nothing, the novel I’ve been working on. Here’s a sample below of how things are changing and developing for the better. In the back of my mind during the entire time I write, I am now thinking about character and story. How can I accumulate as much detail about personality and situation as possible, as quickly as possible, so that the story can move into even more nuanced and compelling territory?

Revision 3

China hurried through the lobby, late again. Her two-inch heels clicked against the tiled floor, and she dashed down the hall, glancing at her phone as if knowing the time would make any difference: 9:34. She slid it back into the side pocket of her purse and rounded the corner near her office, almost running. Nobody would scold her for being late, but she still felt like people kept track, especially her staff. Rex and Trish needed constant managing, and while she fumbled for her keys she felt the two of them creeping up behind her.

Revision 4

China Bexlan hurried through the lobby, late again. Her two-inch heels clacked on the marble tiles as she raced past the reception desk and sprang over the hallway threshold to silence the ad that played in her earpiece, the woman’s smoky voice cut short, her own thoughts rushing in: the catalog, the Eight, and a nagging disquiet she credited to a bad night’s sleep. Her pace slowed even as she glanced at her watch and double-checked the time on her phone, the seconds ticking by with every other step. Breathe, she thought. Taking a few seconds to relax was perfectly acceptable. The Eight, in fact, recommended it.

Rick: A Postmortem

My last post was the finale of “Rick,” my latest short story attempt. Having not written a story since “Peel Away,” the new character surprised me in a number of ways. I empathized with him, I learned a lot about trucking, and the moments when he came across as unsavory were some of my favorites, as were the few moments where he appreciated beauty. Having it read and rereading it for myself helped to highlight, as always, the flaws of any first draft. While I appreciated Rick and delighted in some of the sentences I wrote (they’re longer and looser than what I ordinarily write, e.g. the one copied at the very bottom of this post), the story falls flat once he arrives at the golf course. There is less insight into his character after several intimate moments with him in the first half, yet the other characters don’t develop enough to balance this lack.

I admit that my original intention was to make a comic piece, a slapstick caricature. The main reason I began the story was to capture the personality of someone I met just briefly, but the process of imagining him made a simple caricature feel much too reductive. Like so many instances when I meet someone or overhear a snippet of conversation, I found myself wondering what it was that Rick thought. What was his life like to bring him to the moment in which we meet him and what, more importantly, will he do when he encounters challenges? Thinking in terms of challenges to my characters has become my focus in all creative writing I’m doing these days, which is what most people will tell you is the essence of story anyway.

The constraints of the short story also affected the first draft, and this is where I will need to concentrate most as I revise the piece. I thought I could hold onto Rick as I presented the other characters, but it clearly wanted to shift into Bill’s point of view and I think this would better serve the story: to see Rick in action, from the perspective of a person who dislikes him from the outset. First, I like the balance of a separate point of view, and second it gives me a better title: One Under, One Over.

As always, I appreciate you reading.

Over and out.

 

A favorite sentence from the revised copy:

Rick knew the score. That gooey little bastard probably trotted out an immaculate set of clubs once a month and reveled in the sporting chance of the handicap, getting by on luck like any other hobbyist whose commitment to the pastime outweighed his devotion to the spirit of the game, the purity and ferocity of a miserable week–a miserable life–righted by one good shot.

Who’d’ve Thought?

The other day I finally sat down with the intention of getting organized. It has been more than a month since I last worked with my novel, yet during that time I have been endlessly thinking about where I had last left off. I was in the midst of a chase scene in Chapter 3, and the protagonist had just evaded her pursuer.

When I thought about what came next, I was stumped. What would she do? Where would she go? How was this going to become what screenwriters call “the doorway,” the decision that would set the plot into motion and lead to the inevitable climax?

Characters need motivation of course, and they also need to be tested. “People change” is the fleshy heart of every story, and the degree to which this happens–the more challenging the path they take–the more satisfying the story.

It feels a little late in the game to be doing this, but I am now diligently studying every character I read or watch: Ron Woodruff, Don Draper, Dorian Gray (a part of my library resolution), Saul Goodman, Riggan Thompson, Jerry Seinfeld, Ron Swanson, Hannah Horvath–in fact, one of the more inspiring moments came as a result of watching Lena Dunham’s commentary at the end of each episode of Girls. The way she talks about the characters as if they were real people was a revelation to me, something I knew writers did but never actually believed, and it demonstrated just what I was lacking in my own relationship with China Bexlan.

I used to dismiss the idea of outlining my character as somehow inauthentic.

“She will take shape,” past me thought. “You just need to allow for it.”

What the naive writer above failed to remember was that you need to know what it is you’re allowing for. If you’re still working on your first novel, the process of carrying a character through the time and space of 80,000 words requires more than just serendipity.

Two simple questions: Who is she? How does she change?

When You Come Back

There is nothing like the practical concerns of daily life to interfere with your writing process. A while back I wrote about Poets and Writers magazine and how much I love their hopeful, inspiring stories about overcoming obstacles and finding success in writing, whatever form that success might take.

The legendary writers who wrestle time away from their full-time lives do so in the wee hours of the morning or in great spurts, putting all else aside to work feverishly. The force of their desire to get their words out into the world would be enough to raze forests, a fierce grasping and a defiant letting go.

In the past two weeks I’ve moved and traveled and graded hundreds of essays, and I’ve had very little time to write. During the times when I could have been writing, I chose to be with family or friends. Or I chose to read.

Poet F. Douglas Brown’s advice for overcoming writer’s block is to read. He finds that it gives him permission to try new approaches. I do not have writer’s block. I am not stuck. (The writer begins to think he doth protest too much.) Effectively, I’ve been away from my work for a little more than two weeks, but the boxes and tape, the airports and the memorial service, the new floors and the empty shelves, the new life that continues growing–time disintegrates in these moments, the stream of it picking up speed, pieces of the eroding banks falling into the swift current.

The other night I read Michael Pollan’s incredible New Yorker piece on psychedelic therapy. So far the experimental treatments have been mainly limited to terminal cancer patients, who widely report on the enormously positive impact of the experiences, and sessions are monitored by doctors and led by skilled therapists who guide the patients. During the more frightening moments of these sessions, patients are told to confront their fears, and they quickly overcome them, sometimes laughing at how ridiculous they seem. Facing certain death, the patients’ mystical psilocybin experiences helped them accept what was soon to come.

My dreams that night were vivid, and one moment stayed with me long after I woke up. I sat on a beach after climbing down a set of brown, slick ladder rungs. Waves were coming in, and suddenly one of these waves was far bigger than the rest, and I panicked. It was going to engulf me and there was nothing I could do. I sat there, and it rose high above me, a mass of water, and I woke up, at peace, knowing that we can always bear more than we think.

Finishing Move

I stumbled upon this earlier today. A student in one of my classes used Mortal Kombat as one of several examples of how shock sells, the others being 50 Shades of Grey and Miley Cyrus. The discussion began with a video clip of John Waters talking about his artistic principles, which he claims he arrived at after showing his friends a Miro print as an eight year old. “Good art,” he says, “provokes and inspires.”

“So where do you draw the line?” I asked the class. “Is it a matter of intelligence and intent that separates Waters from E.L. James and Mortal Kombat?”

By the time class ended, the consensus seemed to be yes. 50 Shades, folks seemed to think, was poorly written, and Mortal Kombat stopped being controversial twenty years ago. For the simple reason that Waters explained his intent and seemed to have a vision about what he was trying to accomplish, he could safely be considered an artist. Expression and purpose, it was decided, are what characterize art.

When I was thirteen years old, I bought MKII on “Mortal Tuesday.” Rather, my dad bought it for me because it had to be purchased by someone 17 and older. I had played the game in arcades and was roundly defeated each time by older kids, but at home I defeated final boss Shao Khan with every playable character.

When I watched the trailer for Mortal Kombat X I laughed. It is absurdly violent. 0:41 through 1:03 contains more blood and crunching than a meat grinder, and I immediately pictured a fanboy, my thirteen year old self, soaking it up. At some point only a couple of years later, that kid would realize that characters were more than just costumes and special moves, but I can still hear what he would shout from the streets: “AWESOME!”

‘Stupid,’ I thought. But here I am writing about it. The game is fundamentally the same one I played twenty years ago, yet there is no spectacle surrounding it, no blanket marketing campaign, at least not on the sites or channels I visit. The game still relies on simple strategy and memorization, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call it ‘art,’ but somewhere in the dim basement of my consciousness it lingers, like traces of mold, the spores floating up between the cracks of upstairs floorboards, pieces of my past self.