My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, August 31, 2012

People of the Earth....Again

People of the Earth:

I am Vizzthurg, the Vice General of the Octorian Fifth Column, and I address you for a second time.

My second-in-command informs me that of the 7 Billion of you, only four billion happened to tune in to Writing About Writing yesterday.  I guess since Chris said he was going on vacation, you didn't feel like it was actually necessary to check in, but I assure you that this is not the case.  The situation is, in fact of...

Hang on people of Earth.  I'm getting a urgent comunique here...

Yeah.  This is...  No this is a really bad time.  No I don't care how urgent you think it is. I'm right in the middle of my world leaders surrender speech.  I've been working on it for three years.  OH MY GOD!  Fine.  What is so fucking important that it can't wait until I call upon Earth to surrender.

Yeah, that's what I said.  Only four billion people read Writing About Writing yesterday.


Four people?

Four people read this blog?

Four?  You're not missing some zeros--like nine or ten zeros?

That's IT????  Four?

How the hell are we supposed to issue a demand for world surrender from a blog that only four people actually read?  I thought this was some major facility.  They were doing time dilation experiments that opened up our phase dimension for fuck's sake.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but this IS the place that made first contact right?

And then sent us those series of totally pretentious blog articles, practically challenging--nay begging--us to come into their time phase and expunge such crap from the universe?

And then sent an androgynous super soldier elf dude named pLink BACK through the phase shift who has killed like thirty thousand Octorians in our home plane, and somehow pulled the hearts of his dead enemies out of their chest cavities and used them to give himself spontaneous regeneration?

And then managed to hire the A-Team for an extended contract?

And are currently working on making bacon come through the internet?

But they only have four readers?

Oh my god, what the fuck is wrong with this planet?  I am so going to kill them all.   I'm going to genocide this whole species...right in their faces!

Wh-what?  Of course I know genocide isn't a verb.  You knew what I meant though--

Oh my god!  It's this place.  It's corrupting us.  We have to get out of here.

No, just leave it.  Forget it just turn that off.  Just turn it OFF.  Just turn it--


Thursday, August 30, 2012

People of the Earth

People of the Earth:

I am Vizzthurg, the Vice General of the Octorian Fifth Column.

Your precious Writing About Writing is now under my control.  Left completely empty, it was no trouble at all for an advanced strike team to commandeer key sectors and take over the entire facility in one quick and merciless strike.  I now command the cultural headquarters of your inadequately defended planet, and I'm not afraid to use its vast mass communication capacity against you.

Each of your world leaders (with their ridiculous regional governments and no planetary oversight) will submit their surrenders to me and the Octortian empire.  Do this, and your genocide will be quick and painless.  Failure to do it, and we will begin broadcasting Yahoo Serious movies, The Jonas Brothers, Jersey Shore, postcard sized reproductions of Rothko prints, and excerpts of Sylvia Plath on all frequencies.  Do not test our resolve on this.

This will be your only warning.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My Highest Compliment

This is NOT my mother.
Though I often did make my mother pull her hair out.
But images on Google that are labeled for
commercial reuse are tough to find.
Especially of my mother.
I wouldn't realize it for many years, but my mother paid me my highest writing compliments way back when I was a little tyke.  She did it with flushed cheeks and clenched fists, before she grounded me for a week or banished me to my room.  Before the yelling started.  Later, she did it with pressed lips and lectures about disappointment, and I needed an Epi-pen shoved directly into my heart after an hour not to slide into blissful unconsciousness.

And now, twenty-something years later, they are among my most cherished memories.

We miss so many of the real moments of genuine praise.  They slip past us at the time and sink into the sludge of our mercurial memories and filters and blinders, and they only drift back to the surface of our thoughts on their own time and in their own way when we are quietly contemplating something completely different.  "Oh," we think, "I didn't realize at the time what that really meant and how significant it was.  And here I was just thinking about how everything is better with bacon....including a groupie threesome."

Praise, even high praise, can wash over us if it comes in the form of flattery.  Compliments are cotton candy of the praise world.  They may taste sweet (sometimes painfully so) and give you a brief swell of energy, but their effects are short lived and have an inevitable and disproportionate crash.  And a million of them can't take the place of one solid chunk of negativity.

But there are other forms of praise that are like seven grain bread with dried fruits and nuts in it.  Imitation, for example.  Imitation is like dried fruits and nuts.  Yes it is.

If my mother had said: "You can write.  This is good writing.  I bequeath you with the title of 'good writer,'" I very much doubt that decades later I would be writing an entry about it.  I probably wouldn't even remember it...maybe if it had involved a knighting ceremony with an actual sword.

I was a kid.  I cared that I was getting yelled at.  I cared that I was getting into trouble.  I cared that I was getting grounded and I (actually) didn't deserve it this time.  I burned with rage and injustice.  Of course I burned with rage and injustice when I was asked to set the table after my parents had cooked for two hours, so I can't really trust that I had the most objective feelings about things. But I never saw until YEARS later the subtext of what was going on in those moments and what my mom was telling me without ever meaning to.

"You didn't write this, Chris," she would say to me.  "Where did you copy this from?"

"I didn't," I swore (and I hadn't).  "I wrote it myself."  (And I had.)

"You couldn't have written this, honey.  It sounds like it came straight out of Cliffs notes.  Did one of your little friends' parents get them a Cliffs notes?"

If I was lucky, she made me sit down and write it again in front of her. Usually what I got for my trouble was a half-hearted concession: "well, there's clearly nothing wrong with your memory."  If I wasn't so lucky, I ended up on the business end of one of those punishments that only sounds awful when you're a kid.  (Seriously, I look FORWARD to going to my room these days.)

What I didn't realize until years later--what you've probably picked up on already--is that my mother, the English major, was having trouble discerning a teen-ager's writing from something copied out of a professional publication.

And that this event played out multiple times.

Every time she accused me of plagiarism, all I cared about was that I was going to get in trouble. Because I wasn't noticing that I was being given some of the highest praise imaginable--an inability to tell my writing from "the real thing."

Now I realize ever one of those moments was my mother telling me, without telling me, that I was good--pretty darned good.  No amount of fluffy praise ("Oh this is just so good!  You're just my little writer!") could ever, EVER take the place of any one of those knock-down-drag-out fights, and each is worth a hundred pictures stuck with magnets to the refrigerator.

I know moms are supposed to tell their kids they're awesome and everything they do is awesome.  And when kids do something artistic, moms are supposed to encourage their creativity by telling them they are simply wonderful, and they have the Midas touch.  That's one of the eight great lies moms are required by the mom statute of motherhood to tell (along with "It'll make you strong like Popeye," and "It won't hurt that much.")

Me? I'll take an accusation of plagiarism any day.  Because some twenty-five years later, I still remember it as one of the highest compliments I ever got.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Defending the Ivory Tower

It's true that I strongly believe an MFA in Creative Writing might be the stupidest "what's next?" move someone could possibly make when it comes to trying to be a successful writer, and that the only real reason someone should pursue it is if they have the money and time to spare and really enjoy the kind of writing that MFA programs tend to produce.

But not all advanced degrees are created equal.  Even think other MFA's aren't punching out graduates who so consistently and regularly call their own program a ponzi scheme and their own degree a total waste of time...or worse.  And some MA's are positively useful...even outside of academia.  Further, there is a deep and inherent value in the exploration of knowledge and in education, no matter what the Tea Party would have us believe.  The pursuit of the esoteric for money or prestige is starting to fade from our culture, but we are still left with what we had in the first place, and that is the pursuit of the esoteric for its own sake--for the simple joy and pleasure of knowledge and learning.  It is even impossible for me to say that an MFA in Creative Writing from a pedagogically inflexible environment of stodgy, anti-genre "I know what is 'worthy' of fiction" professors would be completely useless.

And it's hard for me to deny that going back to college was the best decision I ever made as a writer.  It not only helped me with craft, but made me think about WHAT I write and what were actually "big" ideas (and what was just me bloviating about Philo 101 stuff).  It helped me avoid sophist pitfalls, and taught me how to entertain ideas without accepting them, and to think about things without believing them.  Even in my G.E. classes I was learning things about science, politics, psychology and more that have had direct beneficial influence on me as a writer.

College may not the auto-passport into a good job that it was for my parents' generation.  But good writing and education have always been besties, and there's a solid reason why.  So even though next door I'm firing trebuchets into the lofty upper levels of ivory tower's "artiste" section, here I will defend it's more down to Earth sections against education-hating troglodytes who want to smash open the gates and burn the whole thing to the ground.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Writer Goes to Burning Man

This article has been revamped and revised. The new article can be found here.

This will be my eleventh year at Burning Man.

Sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Oh and lots and lots of dust.

Except for me there isn't very much sex or drugs or rock and roll.

Whenever I get back from the playa, people try to find out about how many orgies I had or how many illicit pharmaceuticals I abused or how often I danced all night at a camp with a speaker the size of my house, and I always end up disappointing them a little when I let them know that I don't really go for those things.

Then there's usually a long pause and they say, "Well...why the hell DO you go?" (It's hard not to hear the implication of "Cause....you know....what else is there?" in the question.)

Still it's a fair question.  And I think "for the art" is a cop out.  It's like saying you read Playboy for the articles. Even when it's accurate it's not like you can't get good articles (or really neat art installations) some place else.

Why I go has changed over the years.

Anyone's relationship to an annual event is going to evolve over the course of a decade if for no other reason than they were a younger person all those years ago and they have evolved. My relationship to fast food, literature, memory foam, music, homeless people, and cheese has also evolved.

My relationship to threesomes has grown no less fond, but has become cynically realistic, however.

When I started going to the Black Rock Art Festival, I was in my twenties.  I was still married.  I hadn't started college yet.  I was still almost two years away from the fateful encounter with a trio of criticism torpedos that would make me look in the mirror and think really hard about how much I wanted to write and what I was willing to do for it.  I was not quite the same Chris I am today.  I even had crazy long hair and Tony Jaclyn golf clubs.

The event has changed.

Burning Man has also changed over the years.  My first year the tickets were about $150.  There were a little over 25,000 people.  At that time, the event itself was not that far removed from its Ocean Beach roots. People were still impressed that the man was built on a solid structure instead of hay bales. There were more drum circles and less slick art. You heard about fewer ridiculous things found in porta potties and you might actually find someone else out there doing their two hours of MOOP (matter out of place) clean up while you did yours. There was more fire-dancing and fewer fireworks. More drum circles and fewer slick LED light displays. More nudists and fewer gawkers. More considered art and fewer pieces that are clearly meant to be enjoyed while rolling. More hippies and fewer techies. Sunset brought fire and flashlights and looked less like Disney After Dark. Every other person wasn't dressed to overload some E-tard's brain with flashy and fake fur coats. Giant behemoth art cars in the shape of dragons, submarines, full scale Spanish galleons crawled across the landscape spitting fire and music as impressive as the sound camps. You saw the occasional RV, but most people were still pitching tents. Theme camps with proprietary names hadn't gotten Cease and Desist orders yet for naming themselves after businesses, so the Jiffy Lube camp and the Costco Soulmate Trading Post were still going strong. And I hadn't completely given up on the chance of a blistering, if dusty, threesome.

This year tickets were $420. (~snerk~)  There is every expectation that the population will be near the cap of 60,900.  Last year the event sold out for the first time ever.  This year they had a number of complications involving ticket sales.  The lottery they had to try and fairly distribute what they knew would be a finite number of tickets turned into a disaster.  There are almost ten times as many law enforcement officers as the first year I was there.  The regulations for cars and camps are stricter.  They won't even let people have sex out in the open anymore--I mean what's up with THAT?

Beyond the changes you would expect for an event doubling in size and tripling in price, the timber has changed as well.  Sure, some of it's me getting older and wanting whippersnappers to get off my lawn.  I just don't have an interest in the drug culture or in drinking like the teens and newly-twenties do.  But it's more than that.  There are more tourists every year.  One entire camp consists of people who have paid nearly $10k for a "vacation package" to Burning Man (that includes mega swanky RV's, all meals prepared for them, and even an "LSD night" as part of the package).  They change the feel from participation to "here we are now; entertain us."  BM has become less and less the hippie utopia I first fell in love with, and more and more a super happening, exclusive and expensive week-long party--in which, for some reason, people are okay with corrosive dust that gets EVERYWHERE and no plumbing.

Apparently people will put up with a lot to find a socially permissive environment, kindred spirits, and a week-long party.

One of the things I noticed over the decade is that, as the years went on, I felt like I left the playa with less and less infectious creative energy each year, but feeling more and more centered, conversely.  In a way, as a writer, the later is even better.  I don't feel like I'm running on a battery recharge so much as that my performance-deficient rechargeable batteries have been replaced by fresh ones.  (I guess I'm not an iProduct. ~rimshot~)

Burning Man has become, for me, a period of intense mental and emotional isolation.  So much so that I have to get back in touch with myself and return to all the fountainheads of who I am and what is important to me.  It is so (for lack of a better word) "lonely" out there that I have no one to talk to but me.

If you've ever really talked to yourself--I mean really talked to yourself--you know that you slide through the chit-chat phase pretty quickly.

Obviously I'm never that far from physical bodies. The deepest art safari is only about half a mile from the nearest throng of people, and we camp with wonderful folks who include me in everything they do. My isolation is spiritual and emotional and exists only in a weird metaphorical artsy bullshit kind of way, but I feel it profoundly as soon as I inhale the first lungful of dust.

Welcome home.  You are now alone.  Cope.

-No connection.  Yep, I'm one of those people who gets a little twitchy when I'm offline. I check my e-mail several times an hour.  I use Facebook to self-promote so it's pretty much always on. I may be an introvert, but I care intensely about the people in my life and what is going on in their world. When I'm at Burning Man that connection is gone. I think they have cell phone signal at center camp these days, but I don't have a smart phone, so it doesn't really matter. I wouldn't check it if I did. It's good to unplug for at least a few days and remind me that I am basically refreshing obsessively to see what our friends had for lunch and be reminded of everyone's politics.

-There's no sign of civilization.  The closest thing to a McDonalds you're going to find is probably a bar giving away free shots. There is no running water. (Actually there's no water at all except what you bring.) There's no electricity except what is hooked up to generators or battery powered. I have to spend five minutes winding up my hand-crank flashlight to make a midnight bathroom run....to a porta potty...which are probably worth their own whole section given how neurotic I can be about my preference for familiar toilets. That sense that you can just go get anything you want or need fades very quickly.

-Life does not naturally exist on the playa.  There are some mountains on each side of the lake bed that have some high desert scrub, a few bugs, jack-rabbits who like to dive in front of cars with a cry of "tellmotherIloveher!", and probably the occasional push-up-crazed lizard, but the playa itself is alkali. Nothing grows in it. Nothing lives in it. It is harsh, unforgiving, barren, and beautiful only in a stark and dangerous way like an apex predator's teeth or talons. You, human, have no business being there, and you will be reminded of that continuously. Okay technically there's a thirty minute period at dawn and dusk that you won't be reminded of that, but mostly you won't forget how far you are from where you belong.

-I'm at an unusual age for a burner.  Most people out there are considerably older or younger than me. You get huge chunks of over fifty and under thirty and I'm smack in the middle of those two demographics. Most people my age are punching out hellions or are taking them to see a giant mouse. When you find most of the conversations are about retirement vacations or "dude we were HELLA tripping last night!" you tend to feel a little like your particular struggles with buying a house or trying to kick off a "real" career aren't the most relatable issues.

-I'm not the physical specimen that most people out there are. 90% of people at Burning Man are ridiculously hot. (You have to say that aloud and put an insane amount of accent on the DIC part of "ridiculous" to get the real effect.) That's not my opinion. It has been verified by the US Hotness Society (USHS) and the Global Fineness Consortium (GFC).

Men. Women. It makes no difference. They all look like they stepped out of an advertisement for a gym membership. There is so much hawtness, you actually get desensitized to it.  ("Ho hum, garters and stockings.") These people (and it's almost all of them) have awesome bodies with smoking muscle definition, and it makes me all too aware that I do not. At a gaming convention, I can feel mildly in shape, and even appreciate the muscle definition in my upper body.  If I'm standing on a BART platform or walking down the street, I feel sort of average, if a little dumpy. When I walk around on college campuses, I'm keenly aware that I'm overweight. When I'm at Burning Man, I feel like Jabba the Hutt, only ambulatory through some strange mutation of nature. ("Hoo hoo hoo hoo. Eta choota Solo?") It's not that I'm looking for the hook up–though it's always a little worse when I'm feeling kind of lonely–but just that I viscerally feel like I don't fit in.

-I'm sober.  Once upon a time, Burning Man probably involved at least one interesting but legally questionable experience in the course of the week, but it hasn't in several years. I don't really drink, so I'm pretty much sober. (I don't eschew these experiences; I just don't spend effort pursuing them.) The fact that a lot of people ONLY experience periods of sobriety because they are aware that they need them to rejuvenate neurotransmitters for their next indulgence means that I am usually surrounded by people in various states of chemically induced idiocy...or really bad hangovers. I don't begrudge them their fun–don't get me wrong–but if you've ever been the designated driver or just been around drunk or high people when you are neither, it can feel a little lonely to not share their altered state of consciousness.

-I'm shy.  I'm always shy–even out in the real world. Painfully so. I burn with the conflict between wanting to talk to you and not wanting to disturb you, and secretly hope you will just say something and end my suffering. But at Burning Man a sizable majority of the people there aren't shy...not even a little, so by comparison I seem to be even shier.

There's a self-selection bias involved in the kinds of people who want to shlep out into some of the most inhospitable territory on Earth to have a 168 hour party. They are gregarious extroverts, most of them and they're feeding off each other's energy. While most of those 60,000 people are getting their social-fu on, I'm cursing the fact that I'm a social-fu white belt and the idea of saying hi makes me want to burst into shyflame.  Every once in a while I find someone who is a little overwhelmed by all the stimulation, extroverted enough to talk to even the wallflower, or genuinely curious about what I'm writing, and who is willing to have the kind of conversation I can really get into, and we usually have some kind of AMAZING discussion about art or politics or something.

....but that is a very rare event.

-I don't look the part.  You think the one place on Earth people wouldn't judge you for how you look might be an event with thousands of people actively trying to subvert mainstream culture and it's demand for conformity.

You'd be wrong.

There is a culture at Burning Man that is as prevalent as the culture back in the real world.  It's just different. It demands conformity to its unspoken rules just as much as our culture does--it just does so about different things. There are tribes that do not get along (industrial artists, "hardcore" campers, flower power hippies, ravers, and such) and if you don't fit easily into one of these categories, you can make people nervous. And the people there–as expansive and open-minded as they usually are–can be just as intolerant when it comes to the Burning Man cultural conventions.

Expressing yourself radically apparently applies to Utilikilts and nudity but not to Hawaiian shirts. At least a couple of times every year someone takes one look at me and assumes I'm a virgin. They sometimes even get a little snarky especially if they don't realize I'm wearing socks and shoes due largely to my outrageous dry skin issues and with absolutely no premeditation to offend their delicate sensibilities about not being barefoot and free. I don't bother pointing out the irony of being judgmental about the fact that someone looks different at an event largely focused on non-conformity, but I do enjoy it when they discover I've been coming for two or three times longer than they have.

-I'm not the right kind of artist.  I trundle around with my Moleskine journal and a mechanical pencil and spend almost the whole time I'm there taking notes or just writing. But Burning Man is a place of performance art and sculpture. It is a place for fire dancers and people with flamethrowers attached to their cars. For the gregarious folks with wild costumes and LED wire who feed off each other's energy.
In its own words even it fosters "spontaneous acts of artistry" (which 90% of the time bear a striking resemblance to "drunk people being goofy in packs" but label it how you will and appreciate the other 10% for its genuine energy). There are a thousand things at any given moment competing for your attention (including people trying to hook up that have so much fucking game they could be sold on Steam for $59.99).  The quiet guy writing in the corner is, if anything, even more inconspicuous than in the real world seeing as how much other stimulation is readily available and how many people are turned up to 11 out there.  I'm just not the right kind of artist.

Last year I saw a guy painting with acrylics at the temple, and we spent perhaps an hour talking about what it was like to have art styles that were atypical to the playa.  His experiences were largely similar. He loved the creative energy, but had a distinct awareness that he was not the right "type" of artist for the Burning Man culture. No one goes "WOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAHH!  That is so TIGHT!" about a short story draft I'm working on.

On the best of days in the real world, I feel alone in a crowd.  I love people and I love all their quirky little foibles, but I always sort of feel like I'm on the outside looking in. Out there everything is magnified. I feel as if I have been plucked completely out of the world, or at best that I am moving through it like a shade. Everything in that environment seems to serve to sequester me on every meaningful level from those standing right in front of me.

I am cloistered within the crowd.

This might sound awful, and it can be. But it is also wonderful. It's like the pain that lances out an infection or the agonizing explosion of of a shoulder's rotator ball popping back into its socket.  And like everything else out there, the extremeness of the duality brings both into relief. Just as my soul is feasting as my physical body is having the worst time of its life, so too does the isolation serve me.

Which is not as corny as it sounds. At least not when you're standing in it.

All these things are why it becomes such a period of rejuvenation for me.  There is so much stimulation going on all the time with lights and music and energy, but mentally, I'm in a kind of sensory deprivation tank. Out in the middle of nowhere with flat, cracked land stretching out for what feels like forever, all but invisible to everyone else, and looking at some strange piece of art is where the distractions fade away, and the mindless chatter of online debates and "have you checked your e-mail" and banal conversations fade and I discover there's nothing I can distract myself with except those fundamental questions we all usually try our hardest never to have to answer.  "Who are you?" I ask me. "What do you want?" "Why are you here?  What do you actually care about?"

"Why do you create."

I don't walk away from the playa with "ideas" anymore--not really. I used to bubble over with plans for next year, story ideas, and plans to dress up like a fairy and deliver one-ply to the needy porta-potties (or something), but not so much anymore. Now when I walk away from the playa, I have something different. I have a renewed sense of identity and purpose. Like somewhere between the unforgiving environment and the austere loneliness I have shed my skin like a snake and my soul has emerged looking vibrant an new. I slough off the bullshit and I return to the real world more me than I was when I left.

In the end, I think that sense of purpose serve me better than a few ideas and a dusty ol' threesome ever would.  Not that I would MIND a threesome, you understand...have I mentioned that I have a birthday coming up?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Going to See a Man About Some Flame

[I had this entry written.  I even POSTED it.  Then something went wrong.  I noticed a grammar mistake (which means it was a day ending in Y) tried to fix it, and then my whole post disappeared and proceeded to "Save Changes" on the blank version.  So let's try again.  I think I still have most of the images, but unfortunately, I only remember three of the links since I delete the bookmarks as I post them, and I can't remember what all I posted yesterday.  ~sigh~]


On Thursday, I'm going to Burning Man, so the entire staff of Writing About Writing is going to take a few days off.  I will try to keep posts going up until Wednesday.  After that, we'll lock up the building, shut down all but emergency power, and everyone will get a few days off.  I debated using the scheduling function to put some posts up while I was gone, but since people rarely come here until/unless I cross-post in a few places, and I won't be around to THAT, I figured just taking the few days off made sense.

I probably won't be back until Tuesday.  Trying to leave the event gets crazier every year as 60,000 people bottleneck down into a two lane road.  Last year the exodus was six hours for people trying to leave at typical times, and even though we drove out of camp at 3 in the morning, we didn't even drive off the desert and onto the road until well after sunset.  So this year we may not even try to leave until Monday night, possibly even crazy-ass-early on Tuesday.

So the entire staff will be taking the time off.  Yep, there won't be a single person here to prevent any shenanigans should it occur.


This is an awesome Ted video.  Basically they build a computer program that could track certain strings of words that exist in the five million or so books that Google has scanned.  By analyzing these strings of words, they are able to glimpse really interesting things about society.  Plus the dude is a total geek, so he makes a bunch of sci-fi references during his talk.  Extra props for doing so at a Ted convention.

The One Sentence Story Archive: While I doubt that many of these "stories" would impress my old Creatie Writing Professors, they are pretty neat to look at.  Some of them really do have an identifiable arc with a climax and a denouement.

Eight Things Everybody Ought to Know About Concentrating: For some of is it's not the elements of craft that are the issue, it's not the grammar, it's not the writing, and it's not really even the creativity.  Our issue goes even deeper to a simple difficulty with concentration.  Here are some paint-by-numbers tips worth giving a try if concentration is difficult for you.

100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School:  This is actually a blog, and the author is only up to #85 so far.  One of the things that struck me about many of these reasons is that they would actually be magnified by a Creative Writing MFA.  Not that there aren't reasons to get one, but it's really important to understand the reasons not to.

[Do you want to be featured in potpourri along with a few words from me about how awesome you are?  Do you know a great writing link that I should share? Please send it to me at chris.brecheen@gmail.com, and I will post it along with a shout out singing your praises (unless, of course, you don't want one).  There are four caveats to this.  Please read them before you send me stuff.  If I've posted anything that you feel is "yours" (or "your client's" --eeep!) please just tell me what you would like me to do.  Most everything here that doesn't have an embedding code within its source is some kind of meme, so it would be quite difficult for me to do proper attribution.]

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Going to See a Man About Some Burning

Well, it seems I finally figured out how to make an entire entry disappear.  Completely.  Without any backup.

I will try again tomorrow, I think.  I'm a little tiny bit on the irritated end of the spectrum right this second.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Consider Your Writer Talent Build Carefully

No no no. That's WOW.
My blog is WAW.
Totally different.
Wow...they DO sound alike when you just say them.
That never even occurred to me.
I used to be addicted to World of Warcraft.

Well, not addicted addicted. I could quit any time, of course. I wasn't like my friends putting in the hours of a full time job to be in a raiding guild. I wasn't like those guys in their parents' basements. I was a high class addict, you see. Avoiding ten page papers that were due in less than 12 hours...absolutely, but I didn't really have a PROBLEM.

One thing I noticed about W.O.W.'s talent point mechanic was how strangely like being a writer it was.

No. Really.

Hear me out.

I should probably start with the USDA approved message to writerly folk that if you are serious about being a writer, one of the best things you could possibly do would be to take any Massively Multiplayer Online Games you happen to be subscribed to, place them into small box, and then place that box inside a bigger box filled with enriched uranium, and then take that box, put it into a rocket that is filled with explosives, and launch that rocket into the sun (or preferably another sun......one that is going supernova).

You will amaze and astound yourself with how much time you have available for writing when an afternoon's session isn't interrupted with: "Shit, I haven't done my daily fishing quests yet." (Because nothing says "fun game" like treating not-actually-fishing as a chore.)

Yeah, me neither. So keep it down to a few hours a week and keep writing, kay?

Of course, I stopped playing because Cataclysm sucked ass (and not in the way that makes someone go "Oh my god. I've never felt anything that intense!"). But let's pretend it was because I'm a disciplined writer who knew it was just going to be part of the price I had to pay, that I totally have epic mad levels of discipline, and I want to be a writer just that fucking bad. Furthermore, let's pretend I haven't started back up in the last few months.

Okay? Are you pretending? Splendid.

Anyway, this post isn't about getting rid of WOW. You can face that demon on your own....or better yet with a group...or a raid......of demon hunters.

Uh, sorry.  Where was I? Oh yeah. This is about how writing is often like WOW.

You mean you spend thirty hours a week doing it with nothing to show for it except some shiny pixels that make you think you're cool? 

Shut up evil italics voice!  No one invited you to this article. No, what I mean is that you have to decide carefully what kind of writer you're going to be.

If you've played WOW, or really any MMO, you know that your character fulfills a sort of "role" whenever you group up with others to accomplish goals. If you're an MMO vet, just bear with me through the crash course.

In most games like WOW you either take damage, deal damage, or heal. (There are games with a fourth role called "support" where characters sort of swiss army knife what's needed in a given group and drop some sick buffs, but WOW isn't one of those games.) If you take damage, you have to be a big bad tough to kill guy with lots of ways to taunt the monsters into attacking you instead of the people doing the damage or healing--this person is called the "tank."  If you deal damage you have to be able to crank out attacks that can hurt but without doing it in a way that takes the monster's attention away from the tank. If you heal...well, you heal, but again, you don't want to heal TOO well, or the monster will perceive you as the bigger threat. You keep the tank from getting killed, and everybody else if you can.

Unless everyone else is too incompetent to reign in their DPS and they end up with the monster's aggro. Then you let those fools die to teach them a lesson. Except that you'll get blamed for them dying even though they totally deserved it. Everyone always blames the healer when they die. Always. Even if they literally jumped off a cliff into a room full of snake men like in that movie Dreamscape...on purpose....into a fire...and pulled out their weapons so they would impale themselves when they hit the ground. It was still the healer's fault for letting them die.

Did I mention that I usually heal (if there's no bard class).

But really, "I can't heal through walls" needs to be about three times as big.

Off topic much?

I'm pacing myself.

In WOW, and most similar games, each time you gain a few levels, you get a point to spend on a "talent" that gives your character a little bit of customized power. Used to be there were whole trees where you had to buy somewhere between one and five talents to unlock something more powerful. (These days it's all streamlined and a little cookie cutter.) These are called talent trees–because they look like trees....that are growing upside down.....with three or four long spindly branches....and....okay, they don't look anything like trees.

Are you going to tell us this metaphor, or just tell us a bunch of things that aren't this metaphor.

Shut up.

Anyway, when you buy these talents, you don't just buy some from here and some from there in a mishmash of grocery-shopping-esque "I'd-probably-use-that-eventually" kinds of choices.  You are shopping with a list that has the ingredients from the recipe, and no Ben and Jerry's--not even Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough goddamn it!--is going to deter you. You consider how to get the best talents for that "role" you're playing. You want to unlock the more powerful talents because they will make you better at your role, but you also want to make sure everything fits together with what you're trying to accomplish. And sometimes there are really great, awesome, powerful talents that you don't take. Not because they aren't great, awesome, and powerful, but because they just don't fit with what you are trying to accomplish.

Like if you're a damage-dealing character, and you need to crank out damage, you might ignore a talent that gives you more armor every time you get hit by a monster. It's not that armor isn't awesome. Armor is the enthusiastic oral sex of the MMO world: you can never get enough.  It's just that every talent point you spend getting better armor is a talent point you can't spend to do more damage.

If you pick the armor talent, you might have to skip the "Rip Their Face......OFF" talent.

Now here's the problem: people who want to hedge their bets take that armor talent anyway.  Then they become less awesome at their "role" of doing damage. Sure, they can take a few more hits, but what they really WANT to be doing is more damage. They sacrificed their niche for something more jack-of-all-tradesish and now they can't do as well at their niche. The good guilds don't let them join. They get called noob. None of the sexy characters who are just-like-a-hot-human-except-blue will go back to their starting village to take a look at their etchings. And no one will cyber them.

We were promised some kind of metaphor or connective tissue with writing.  Did you forget about that?

Shut up evil italics voice.  I'm getting to it.

As a writer, you have to chose your focus wisely. You have a finite amount of time, and you probably have a finite amount of creative energy before you don't want to write anymore in a given day. You also probably have certain physical limitations like joint stiffness or eye strain. So it's important to think about the kind of writing you want to be doing and consider the "talents" you pursue.

You probably have a "role" you want to be writing in: "Fiction Author," for example or "Journalist" or "Web Content Freelancer." And sometimes it can be dangerous to think all writing is created equal and all avenues will serve you equally well.

Yes, freelance work might be useful. Sure, a journalism degree isn't a waste of time. Sure offering yourself up for no-pay gigs that get you some recognition might be useful. Fanfic might be useful. Writing web content might be useful. Blogging for free for a big blog might be useful. Any of these things would develop skill sets you don't already have and teach you a thing or two about writing. There are lots of "valuable lessons" to be learned. Experience is valuable. But they are like that awesome talent point that doesn't fit with what you're trying to do.

Just to be your-mom's-good-china-when-company's-coming clear. It is not that these things are not useful. It's not that they can't help you be a better writer. They just might be like that armor talent–that is to say they might be helpful but not necessarily helping you be the best kind of writer of the type you want to be. They take time and effort away from the one kind of writing you really may want to be doing.

While you're doing somebody else's Shakespeare homework or writing web copy for roughly 1 cent a word, are you missing other opportunities that involve the kind of writing you would rather be doing?

It's easy--all too easy--to take a job as a writer because....hey I'm a fucking WRITER! Freeze frame Flash Gordon fist-in-the-air-jump!

And then you look up one day, and it's twenty years later, and you're still on chapter six of your book because you come home at the end of every day from your "Fucking Writer!" job and the last thing in the world you want to do is write some more. You're probably a really good writer–twenty years of practice will do that–but eight hours a day is really about all you can handle. To make matters worse you might have a really specific style of writing at your "fucking writer" job that isn't helping you with the sort of writing you always dreamed of.

Oh and you're married with kids, so good luck trying to quit your "fucking writer" job to go make 8 cents an hour because you want to chase your dreams full time.

The same can be said of teaching writing. Just about every teacher I had at SFSU would rather have been writing full time. The same can be said for editing. The same can be said for publishing. Feelance. Techwriting. Whatever. A lot of writers get stuck in jobs where they thought they would learn something useful in a job that was close to writing, or "kind of creative," and they just ended up regretting how sidetracked they got.

I can't tell you how many writers I know who've told me they wished they'd just been a patent clerk or gone into construction so that they could come and not be revolted by the idea of writing for another few hours.

No one is suggesting you pass up opportunities, but the goal is to do so in a way that works you UP your skill tree, not to take every random opportunity because you might develop as a writer.  If you want to write about the robot wars on Khyron Beta Prime, joining a writers group for sci-fi writers two towns over (even though the drive is an hour each way) might be a better use of your time and effort than a paid internship at your local paper.

Disclaimer: If the kind of writing you're doing makes you happy, then you're not really stuck.  If you can make a lot of money writing, and come home and write some more, then rock, rock on! I know a tech writer who can demand some fucking serious money, and then does their fiction writing at night without missing a beat.

And guys....seriously...I can't stress this next part enough: if you got into something but then you found that it gave you a fulfillment in life that you ever could have expected, you've won the jackpot.


That's all we're really trying for in this life anyway, right?  If it turns out that raising a family brings you more happiness than writing eight hours a day in a boiler room apartment, then do that! Too many people lose sleep over some unfulfilled desire just because that was their childhood dream, but they've long since found other aspects of life more fulfilling. My mother dreamed of being a published author when she was young, but ended up writing internal policy for a bank when she discovered what really brought her joy in life was her family.

Of course now she lives vicariously through you by telling me to write BDSM erotica, and not noticing that you take a shower with steel wool every time she does so.

Please shut up, evil italics voice.  Please...

This is why I often turn down certain kinds of freelance work or advice about where to find writing gigs–even good paying ones. It's not that I'm too good for them. I certainly don't think they would be pointless or that I wouldn't grow as a writer from the experience. It's just that once I've done web content for twenty or so articles, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to have much trouble imagining how the 21st will go.  I want to write novels and mediocre blogs about the thing I love in this world.

Everyone has to balance their ambitions and hopes and dreams against the reality of their lives. If you're the breadwinner for a family of six, I'm not suggesting you quit your job to chase rainbows. But what I can tell you is that you can easily lose years because you went for that "armor."

Metaphors about Writing

Sometimes when I try to tell people what writing is like, they look at me like I have grown six new tendrilly appendages, each ending in a tiny little Bea Arthur head that is singing "Achey Breaky Heart" as a round.  So I often use a metaphor to help illustrate it. "Oh, well, it's like X," wherein the value for X is some pretty wacky shit.  (This makes them look at me only as if I just told them I thought Hawkeye was the best Avenger, so I take it as a win.) Writers can be pretty zany when it comes to metaphors. Stephen King, in his book On Writing uses no less that half a dozen major writing metaphors from fixing a screen door to driving in the fog at night to unearthing the fossilized remains of a dinosaur.....that will no doubt come to life and eat children.

Why do we do this?  It's just one of those bullshit artsy things that bullshit artists do.  We find connections between things that most others wouldn't expect.  If we get rich and famous people find our imagination delightful and charming, and on talk shows they say things like "How did you ever come up with that?"

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Analytics, Business Bits, and Quotes About Money

Couple of quick bits of business before I get to quotes.

This happened over the weekend:
This is not "Cardio" mode on the elliptical. 

What you're looking at are days where pageviews were up in the thousands.  Those valleys are from about midnight here in Oakland to about eight in the morning.  I think most people who use Stumblupon are probably in the United States.  Almost 95% of that traffic came from one post: 20 Ways to Sabotage Yourself as a Writer. 

Pageviews were about double this.
So I'm going to obsess and weep over the half who DIDN'T give me a thumbs up.
The reason this happened is due to Stumbleupon.

As people who "stumble" the site like a page, the page comes up more often for other "stumblers".  I have no idea exactly how it works, but what was happening for a while there was positive feedback loop.   As you can see to the right, a lot of people liked this page.  The more people who "liked" it, the more it came up for others, the more people who saw it, the more that liked it--and so on.  It was not awesome enough for the kind of runaway viral effect that some sites or memes have, but it did okay.  It looks like it's finally plateauing as you can see from today's 24 hour shot (below).  Last night's numbers are starting to look a lot more like before this article took off.  So maybe things have finally leveled off.  Or maybe I don't understand how the Stumbleupon engine works when it decides what to show people, and this may happen again and again.
Who's old enough to remember Excitebike?
Doesn't this look like one of the "hella hard" obstacles?

Now you can see that the effect is starting to taper off, but for those few days, I was getting hits on the order of TEN TIMES MORE than my best days.  This is epic on a scale that no other social media has even come close to, and I think that's largely due to the fact that most of my friends aren't actually all that interested in what I have to say about writing.  They are either not interested in writing at all or are way better than me.

So what does all this mean?  Well three things really:

ONE- Not a whole lot of much.  It's awesome to be read.  I feel like John Motherfucking Grisham right now.  You guys should see me strutting around the house like a peacock with my pearock out.  But here's a little screenshot that might help keep things in perspective:

Might need one or two more popular articles before I start deciding what color my Ferrari should be.

They don't even send me a check until/unless I hit $100.00, so basically, I've been doing this since February, and I haven't actually made a dime.  I've made about ten dollars a month...in THEORY.  That's ten dollars for about 120 hours of work each month, give or take.  (I'm giving this blog roughly thirty hours a week right now.)  So...yeah, I'm making something like 8 cents an hour.

About right for a starting writer, actually.

Even this crazy, off-the-hook pageview bonanza of the last few days (which is probably $2.40 of the $2.50 I've made this month) hasn't made me enough to get a value meal.  I would still be ordering off the 99 cent menu.  So until I write hundreds of such inexplicably popular articles and/or I have something that really goes viral, this is just a thing I love to do, and I get excited every time I look inside my little teapot and see a little itty bitty tempest.

Who's a cute little tempest! Who's a cute widdle tempest! Yes you are.  YES you ARE!!!

TWO- If you are wondering how you can help a struggling writer out, but you don't have money to spare, I can't stress enough how awesome a "like" on Stumbleupon would be.  This site works better than anything else I've tried because the only people who are going to see my pages are people who have put "Writing" in as one of their interests.  I only have so many friends on FB, LJ, and G+, and even when those friends "Share" my articles, I can't get these kinds of numbers.  Stumbleupon rocks the kasbah of getting my niche writing to the niche audience that might enjoy it.   I've set up a button in the top right of every screen, and if you are signed up for S.U., all you have to do is give it a click.

(And Stumbleupon is worth signing up for just to look at it.  It's free.  It's REALLY cool, you get to customize your interests, and it adapts to the things you "thumb up" and "thumb down."  They have the BEST astronomy pictures if you put "Astronomy" in as an interest.  Oh. My. God.)

This is a monthly view of my pageviews (below).  The spike just left of center is basically the night I discovered Stumbleupon.  I put up a bunch of articles and they get an initial ten views each (it seems to be 15 now, so maybe there's something that tracks how much "street cred" I have with Stumbleupon).   If no one likes them in that initial "test" phase, they go quietly into the Stumbleupon night.  But a few of my articles caught a few people's eyes, and so they come up a once in a while.

If you look really close, you can see where I made fun of Justin Beiber.
But even after the night I discovered S.U., and even before "20 Ways" took off later in the month, you can see that Stumbleupon nearly TRIPLED my pageviews.  So I really can't sing it's praises enough.

If you're looking for an easy way to help, click that Stumbleupon button.  Not. Even. Kidding.

THREE- I probably need to start being more careful about images I use.  I sort of knew I could get away with murder as long as I wasn't even breaking triple digits, but it's time to be more careful.  I've done some research into how to find the free licence stuff.  Might mean the pics are a little less cool, but they're mostly there to distract you from the huge wall of text anyway.  Even though I try to avoid images with copyright, I know if I'm using google, there's no real way to tell if I'm not using an image that someone else stole.

I have no interest as an artist of making actual money off someone else's creative toils.  When it one image on one of ten articles that got me one cent, I didn't mind just using an image off a web page where I didn't see a "Do not reproduce..." or "Copyright" or "All Rights Reserved."  But going forth, it's time to take a little more care.  I really don't want to end up in legal weirdosity, but mostly I just don't want to take advantage of someone else's hard work in a way that they're not okay with.

On that note, I thought it would be appropriate if today's quotations were about writer's attitudes towards money.

The lack of money is the root of all evil.
Mark Twain

Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more

Donald Miller

It's a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.
Albert Camus

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Leela Bruce Goes To the Mat With the Cliche Police (A Story of Good Gone Wrong)

Leela Bruce here.  And today, I'm going to tell you a story.
A site with funny stuff that you should totally check out.
Last night, I ran into a patrol of the cliche police coming out of a bookstore.  I just rounded a corner and there they were.  Obviously they were headed in to continue their relentless pursuit of cliches, scouring various writings like hawks--books, blogs, short stories, articles and such--in pursuit of phrases and ideas that have been so overdone that they start to lose meaning.  One was a guy with a chiseled chin, the other was a woman who looked like even though she could kick some ass, she wasn't afraid of her own femininity. They maintained a cold professionalism, but the sexual tension between them crackled and buzzed with their every word.

Clearly they hadn't yet realized the irony of their very existence.

"Hey," they said to me.  "You avoid cliches right?"

I knew.

I knew who they were as soon as I spotted them, but their words cinched it, lock, stock, and barrel.  The fucking cliche police!  I felt my fists begin to tingle.  Sometimes you have to hunt down bad writing advice like a wild animal to beat the shit out of it.  But sometimes...not often, but sometimes...bad writing advice finds you.

"Oh yes," I said.  "I avoid them."  They smiled with humorless displays whitened teeth, and turned from me to continue their way into the bookstore.

I grinned sweetly and added: "....like the plague."

Some bad advice is bad advice because it just sucks. If someone tells you that they really have found a site that gives away trips to Disneyworld, that's bad advice. If someone tells a guy to be an asshole because women love assholes, that's bad advice. If you're having marriage troubles and someone suggests opening it up to other sexual partners that's really bad advice. If someone tells you to put your cover letter for a book query in Comic Sans, that's really, really, really bad advice.

But like the best comic book villains, the most dangerous bad advice is the kind of advice that used to be good, but just lost sight of what mattered in its fanatic zeal. Avoiding cliches is such advice. It's the Magneto of the writing advice world. It has strayed from the path. It is fanatical, pedantic, prescriptive, judgmental, often outdated, and usually the kind of limp one-size-fits-all bumper sticker oversimplification that gets me primed to do some serious ass kicking.

But it wasn't always that way...

Righteousness is so cliché.

Once upon a time, back in the 18th century, the cliche police were a force for good.  They noticed that certain phrases lost meaning.  They realized that the fifth or sixth time a metaphor was used, it stopped being delightful and provocative, and just became stale.  They set forth across the countryside, like paladins of yore, with the noble goal of informing writers everywhere that the words they had chosen weren't adding anything to their prose.  They pledged their lives to quality writing, swore fealty to something higher, and worked their fingers to the bone trying to make the world a better place.  They used the french word for stereotypes--"cliches"and struck out to make a difference.

Cliches can be problematic, they pointed out.  Overused expressions lose meaning.  They don't really tell a reader what is going on, but can be vague and uninformative.  They tend towards lazy   The cliche police helped writers reach more readers. Who couldn't see the benefit of a force of paladins constantly trying to combat stereotypes?  These were the good guys.

But then...something went rotten in the state of Denmark...

No one knows how it really started.  It was like watching the grass grow.  But slowly, the cause became less about helping writing be better and became more about fighting cliches.  They would no longer ride into libraries and bookstores with tender smiles, but with suspicious scowls.  The language changed.  Where once it had been about clarity and good prose, the cliche police had begun to talk about cliches as evil--something that needed to be stamped out.  They had begun to expunge them with a prejudice that bordered on zeal.  They forgot the people.  It all became about the cause.

Soon after, out of the clear blue sky, they widened their search to include tropes and idioms.  Anything they felt was even slightly overdone became "a cliche" and cliches were "to be destroyed at all costs."

We are the righteous.
And frankly I'm tired of this whole "you've been corrupted" thing.
Would my armor be this cool if I were corrupted?
I don't think so.
But when it all went to hell in a hand-basket was when they turned on the writers themselves.  They started blaming writers for giving shelter and comfort to cliches.  Writers were rounded up for aiding and abetting the propagation of cliches.  Writers who used cliches were forced to wear a scarlet C on their clothes. Giant databases of cliches were compiled along with all their known associates.  Where once the police had talked about "making a more creative world," now they talked about "bagging their first cliche" and "kill scores."  Many kept the remains of dead cliches as trophies and wove them into their armor, again missing the irony of such an act. Writers lived in fear.

The thing is, there is still some good in them.  A glimmer of their purity lingers, and some of what they say is still so relevant and important for writers to keep in mind.  And when you look them deep in the windows to their souls, you can see that a part of them--some small part of them--still wants to help people.  That's why it was really hard for me last night when I was kicking their asses up one side of Oakland and down the other.

I mean it was sort of hard.

Okay, it was bittersweet.

All right...I felt a little dirty about how much I fucking loved it.  Okay?  Are you happy?  Can we move on?

Cliches are like memes.  Not the pictures of cats with the misspelled words, privilege denying dude, or ridiculously photogenic guy (although those ARE memes), but the ideas in our society that spread like self-replicating viruses.  The reason they spread like wildfire is because they are really GOOD at expressing the idea they mean to convey.  The reason a good metaphor gets stale and loses its verve is because we love it so much!  We grab it and stroke it and pet it and call it George, and we eventually break its little neck.  And of course some people go on petting it even though its little neck is broken and saying "Please don't be dead, little cliche.  Lenny won't let me tend the cliches if you're dead."

But here's the thing to keep in mind while you're off expunging cliches from your manuscript because you're a real artist who writes real literature that is concerned with the human condition.

Cliches are part of the human condition.

Have you ever actually listened to people talk?  We talk in cliches.  We think in cliches.  We often act out cliches.  The human condition is a motherfucking walking talking cliche.  There is a reason stereotypes exist and there's a reason yesterday's cliches are today's idioms.  The more cliches you expunge, the more your writing is fresh, innovative, and totally not how any humans actually communicates in this plane of existence.  So if you want that Circulation-1500-Literary-Journal feel to you writing, go ahead and go cliche police all over your own ass.  But when you're following the more mainstream wisdom to write how you speak in order to establish a more intimate and casual connection with your reader, you may want to consider that part of the human condition is that we like our familiar comforts--the toilet at our house when our bowels rumble, the meal our mommy made us when we were sick, and the phrases we actually hear echoed around us all the time.  They set us at ease.

Also "the human condition" is a cliche in case you were keeping score.

In the sixties there was a major literary shift away from the omniscient narrator and a deep push into character studies--even in genre fiction, you can see this influence taking hold.  Even in omniscient 3rd, the narrative tends to jump from one focalizer and get into the heads of characters rather than staying above it all.  (Consider the Woundwart chapter in the 1972 novel of Watership Down.) While it is true that a purely omniscient narrator should avoid a lot of cliches.  A first person narration or a close third that rests inside the head of a character even if it's somewhat omniscient [such as the character of Ender in Ender's Game] would, and should, reveal the voice OF THAT CHARACTER.  If the character is a bubbling cauldron of cliches, avoiding them would be pretty f'ing stupid.  Rick Blaine wouldn't be very Rick Blaney if he weren't constantly saying "hill of beans" or "here's looking at you, kid."

The reason to avoid cliches is that they can dilute your meaning.  An intense combat scene with the cliche "dropped like a rag doll" will actually mean less to a reader than a concrete description of the character falling.  So if you're reading this and thinking you can give out the advice that cliches don't matter and you can leave them in, I might be beating the shit out of YOU in a few months.  However, if a cliche isn't vague and meaningless, if it really is the perfect description of what's happening or it is doing the job of characterization, leave it in.

Of course there really are some cliches you want to avoid as if they are villages that have been afflicted with the viral form of the Black Death.

Character cliches are worth understanding so that you can avoid them.  You can't avoid every trope ever because it's all been done before.  The only thing you can do is breath your personal essence into a tired old scenario and give it new life.  But what you can do is avoid the really huge, really overdone tropes that are so tropish that they've drifted into cliche territory when you are making your character.

You may not even realize you're doing it because you had formative experiences based on such characters and you're just pulling from your cherished memories.  So it's good to know them so you can be careful.  The brooding prettyboy (Cloud Strife), the sex interest who is a dirty badboy/bad girl (anything Hugh Grant is ever in), the love interest who is "pure" of heart (every princess ever), the robot that wants to be human (I'm not dignifying this with an example), the ambiguously suave guy that is obviously the devil (O'Conner gets a pass) , aliens that all have one single overwhelming planetary culture that defines them in a very narrow way (Klingons anyone?), evil twins, scientists who don't care about the cost, generals/admirals who are practically salivating to use nuclear weapons.  There are so fucking many of these, I would need a sandwich, a bottle of electrolyte drink, and six expresso shots to get through half of the list.  Yes, you can have a couple and no one will care.  Yes you can start out with a stereotype and then go deeper or turn it on its head to great delight.  We would all like to read about how Princess Peach really likes Kupa a lot more than Mario and spends inordinate amounts of time using the pulse mode on her hand held shower nozzle.  But if you populate your stories with cliches and never take them anywhere....well you will deserve every righteous beating the cliche police give you.

Racial/ethnic stereotype cliches should be anathema to a writer.  If you're using them you should either be trying to deconstruct them, or very very ashamed of how lazy you are being as a writer.  Everyone will end up with a person of color in their stories, and unless you ARE the ethnicity in question (and often, even if you are), someone is going to have a problem with the way you portrayed that person as not being correct, or as not being didactic in a perfectly public service announcement kind of way--or they may have trouble with the fact that you did do that and the character didn't seem real.  You walk a razors edge between appropriating other cultures and presuming everyone experiences the world in the same way that you do.  And you WON'T make everyone happy with how you strike the balance.  You won't.

But you won't make anyone happy if you don't even try.  And if you dive into ethnic stereotypes without a second thought, you will end up with the sort of characters that get writers labeled as racist assholes.  And you will deserve that label.   You have so much creative potential when it comes to breathing life into characters.  Magic negros, wise, folksy matriarch housekeepers, kung fu knowing Asians, wise Asian asshole mentors, black male thugs perpetuating violent crime, are the sort of characters that demonstrate no imagination or creativity whatsoever.  These are all offensive and they are stupid.  And you should know better.

The same is true of gender stereotypes.  Make your women all wear high heels and fuck their way to the top and your men all bumbling buffoons who think with their dicks, and you are going to get some righteous flack for being a sexist (not to mention a gender essentialist). The same is true of sexuality stereotypes. Make your villains all effeminate and more cultured than the protagonist and you have taken the lazy color-your-villain-by-numbers route. 

I know! I'll give the black guy powers. Powers that seem almost MAGICAL.
And then he'll be a mentor figure. And he'll make a noble sacrifice.
And the white person will totally learn the lesson.
Jesus is this ever some sweet post-racial ambrosia!
There isn't a formula for getting cliches out of characters.  I can't tell you what's over the line and what isn't because there is no line.  This entire issue is intertwined with your compassion and your generosity and your humanity as a writer.  The more you treat these characters with integrity and truth, the more you won't need to worry about some formula.  We all have a weak spots and the suck of them is that you don't even know they're there unless you take the time to figure it out.  Stephen King probably wrote so many "magic negro" characters without ever realizing it and without ever thinking himself racist. Probably the worst thing we can say about him is that he is a product of when and where he was born and raised, and to acknowledge that he seemed to have stop doing it since it has been brought to his attention. Finding your insensitivities may mean you have to cull that knee-jerk urge to say "I'm no racist!" and listen to someone who isn't you tell you that something you do offends them.

It's humbling.  It's sobering.  You get to feel like shit for something you didn't even realize you were doing and surely didn't mean to.  You're a writer, though, so suck it up.  Your ability to portray a character with integrity is on the line, so feeling like shit for a while and walking away better for it is the least you can do.  Otherwise you deserve what the cliche police give you.

And really, what you should be doing is empathizing with how fucking lucky you are that you only have to feel like shit for doing something you didn't mean to, rather than knowing what it means to have it done to you.

Some stereotypes are based on truth and so some characters should conform to them.  That's right!  Characters should be a little cliche!   I said it.  You probably conform to dozens--if not hundreds--of stereotypes about your race, ethnicity, creed, gender, and class. That's part of the human condition too.   But you probably shatter many others as well.   What I can tell you is that every person is their own main character of their own story.  If you treat each character as if they are MORE than just their stereotype-conforming traits, if you also give some words to the parts of them that are not stereotypes, then you get more leeway with the parts that are.  There's no equation, but  ignoring someone's full humanity in favor of making them nothing more than their cliche is basically the ultimate not rowing with both oars.

Of course, as a writer, one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox can be a cliche that you turn around.  I don't mean to parade through the cliche police's rain, but the reason that a reader finds a good twisted cliche more fun than a barrel of age-appropriate toys is because they recognize where something is going and are happy as a clam-eating gourmet to be surprised.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a seven season show and a movie essentially wrapped around the premise of reversing the helpless female cliches of action and horror movies.

Which is a very round about way of telling you that even though I beat the piss out of these cliche cops, I didn't kill them.  I took them to a rooftop while it was raining so hard that you would have traded out cats and dogs for pumas and wolves and I waited for a lightning flash.  It was like two hours of waiting, but when it happened I grabbed the dude by the lapel and I said:

"I want you to go tell all your friends about me.  I want you to tell them Leela Bruce is kicking the shit out of bad writing advice."

"WHAT ARE YOU!?!???" he cried.

I paused.  "Dude, I just told you.  I'm Leela Bruce.  You have a hearing problem or what?"

"Sorry," he said.  "It's the rain.  Plus it's really windy up here."


"What?" he said.  "I'm sorry, the wind on the top of a skyscraper in a storm is really loud!"

Anyway, it sort of ended less awesome than it began.  I had to take them to coffee and let them stanch their wounds before we could have a real conversation. I may have even ended up telling them that I really admired some of their earlier work.  That part's less important.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnet 23--My Forbidden Love

Not YOU!
All you did was write it.
Unsupportive Girlfriend gets really jealous when I talk about Shakespeare's Sonnet 23.  She says, "You care more about that damned poem than you do me!"

This is, of course, absolutely and patently ridiculous.  It doesn't even make sense, honestly.  How she can come to such an unreasonable conclusion is totally beyond me.

I make sure to take extreme pains to take both of them out to lunch the same amount of times, and I'm very careful to get them both gifts at the same time. When I bought 23 a white Akoya pearl necklace, I made sure to also buy unsupportive girlfriend several pairs of kooky knee-socks. Granted I had that one picnic with 23 out in the park where I made my famous tuna salad and we walked the lake as the sun set, but Unsupportive Girlfriend doesn't like those things anyway.  At least I think she doesn't.

I mean, sure, there was that incident last year.  And that was my bad...I admit it.  No matter how many times I tried to explain that 23 and me are just really good friends, she wasn't buying it.  Then she looked at me and said, "if you can look me straight in the eye and swear to me that you don't love 23 more than me, I'll never say another word." Well....I kind of flubbed and said something about "different love" and "kinds of affection."  It was probably not the best thing I could have said under the circumstances, but that was seriously like seven months ago.

Now every time I take 23 to dinner and a movie unsupportive girlfriend turns into a dreadful harpy about the whole thing.  "You're taking 23 to I-Sushi, huh?  You only took me to IHOP."

Seriously?  You want to keep score about that?  IHOP makes great eggs and really great coffee!
Don't worry about her, my love.
She just gets upset since she and I don't have the same connection.

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burden of mine own love's might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express'd.
   O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
   To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.

I am a writer.  I have a dumpy writer's body, and on the best of days I'm wearing clothes that don't match and only sort of fit.  I would much rather talk about how vampires have changed as a monster over the decades and why Hawthorne gets a bad rap for being dry when he was off the HOOK with all the messed up shit going on in his writing than I would enjoy getting drunk and having dick measuring contests about whose job sucks more. I watch alpha dogs (not always just alpha males) work their mac daddy mojo on the world and everyone in it while I can't seem to quite care quite enough to do anything but be immolated with envy when they get what I want (not always just teh hotties).  People with great fashion, great cars, great pecs, and great extroversion leave me choking on their dust, and while I don't care quite enough to shuffle my priorities away from writing, reading, writing, being a geek, writing, cheese, writing, video games, and writing, I also don't not care enough to not feel a pang.

So that's why some days I love this fucking sonnet so hard.  I can't imagine my life without it.  I bought it a diamond ring, and I'm going to ask it to spend the rest of our days together.  I know I should probably check with Unsupportive Girlfriend before I do, but she'll probably just find some way to blow the whole thing out of proportion somehow.