Monday, December 27, 2010

Best Books of 2010

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

Watership Down - Richard Adams

The Fidelity of Betrayal - Peter Rollins

For The Time Being - Annie Dillard

Mere Churchianity - Michael Spencer

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Everywhere Like Such As Stories

Everywhere Like Such As Stories is a new literary tourniquet that is being developed by postmortem authors. It is popular to read and they are new.

Instead of being limited to settings and like objects and characters that are part of your story, you can use like any setting or object or character you wanted, whether is part of your story or whatever. This is liberating and helps with the education. No one should ever be forced to write coherent stories because it is un-American, such as hard. Stories that are made up on the spot are better because stories that are edited are unable to do so. Mark Twain said this when he was Pope.

I wrote a story today about three lemons that hated cats; both lemons were pink. The story was to raise awareness about lemons, and cats who are abused by lemons, before it's too late. Hatbands help to spread the word about dolphins - I mean cats - who take lemons to prevent scurvy when climbing trees in Nicaragua. You can get them from the Society of the Profession of Cruelty to Lemons, located in the Russia. They also have kitty mood-rings, available in all colors, such as emotional. All sorts of like the Batman wear mood rings. Na-na-na-na-na!

As you can see, the possibilities of Everywhere Like Such As stories are like islands that are everywhere. You can write many stories every day, and many people who will read them cannot afford maps, because they are unable to do so.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Herman Melville on Worship

Prior to the voyage, Queequeg invites Ishmael to join him in worshiping his small wood idol.

"I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshiping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth - pagans and all included - can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? - to do the will of God - THAT is worship. And what is the will of God? - to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me - THAT is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Timing and Success

Everyone wants to make the next thing, anticipate the curve, set the trend. It's a brave idea, but it may be more like lining up three cherry 7's than playing Stratego.

In a book I recently read about cultural and technological change, the author wrote that "YouTube came along at the perfect time." I think he has it backwards. Really, the perfect time came along when YouTube did, and that's why it was successful. When there are enough random people out there with video content to upload and enough people willing to watch the uploaded content from said random people, someone is going to build a video upload site. The interest was there, as was the infrastructure. All you had to do was tie the knot.

This is not to discredit the genius of Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, but only to point out that an equal genius could also have launched a video-sharing site and simply been a day early or a day late.

Increasingly, this may be how the fates of authors, musicians, and technology developers are decided. Are people ready for what you have to offer? Are they bored with it? Too bad.

"In the Society, real wealth is the ability to say 'I have an idea' and have people agree to work to support it. The rarest coin of the realm is when other people give you chunks of their leisure time.

Losing the confidence that others have in you, that you can make things fun for them, is... bankruptcy."
Mark Schuldenfrei, via David D. Friedman

You need to have enough fans to lift your painting or your book out of the murky depths of obscurity at the perfect moment so more people can see it. Yes, it's a catch-22. And the freight train has grown too big and is moving too fast for anyone to control it now. So keep throwing your penny on the tracks and hope people like it. You might get lucky.

A Week of eReading

I used to think readers and book-lovers were the same people. They're not.

Last week I took my family to Wisconsin to visit relatives. (Wisconsin is where they play football. It's cold there.) All of my reading for the trip - four flights, three quiet houses, and several long drives - was done on a new e-reader. I brought no "books."

The fate of the word "book" is akin to that of the word "church" - the skin is mistaken for the substance. That's what differentiates readers and book-lovers. Readers read. Book lovers love books. Of course, one can be a reader and still be a book-lover, and vice versa. All I mean is that it is quite possible to be one and not the other.

Dedicated e-readers use a technology called e-ink that almost eliminates glare. The following technical explanation - found on Wikipedia - is worth quoting at length:

"The principal components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules, about the diameter of a human hair. In one incarnation, each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule to become visible to the reader. This makes the surface appear white at that location. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which now makes the surface appear dark at that location."

E-readers are excellent for travel, being small, lightweight, and versatile - three things paper books are not. Adjust the text size, search, highlight, lookup a word, or switch to reading something else entirely. A progress bar at the bottom of the screen shows you your position since you can't look at the book on end to see how far you have to go. Page turn buttons are located on both sides so the device can be read with either hand.

Sampling new books for free is an especially useful feature, as it saves me from spending money on books that are badly written, urbane, or simply over my head. (For some reason we feel smarter when we are filling our shopping cart, like we feel hungrier when we are filling our plate.)

In addition to sampling new books, there are millions of complete out-of-copyright books available for free in digital editions. Eliot, Pascal, Tolstoy, Melville, Chesterton: bring it.

The potential sterility of electronic reading was a concern of mine, and still is. For centuries books have been both intellectually and tactually unique. Like LP's or CD's, the medium of books created an opportunity for tactual and visual expression that was lost when the content was digitized. And so we cry all the way to the store.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Writing a Story is Hard

Let us have no delusions. Writing a story is very hard.

Writing down a story is one thing. You already know what happens, what the setting looks like, and who the characters are. Your task is straightforward: relay the story to your audience as interestingly and convincingly as you can.

But what if you want to tell a new story? What then?

You can write from an outline, systematically fleshing out a predetermined plan.

You can write from a conglomerate pile of scenes and ideas, like a patchwork quilt.

Or you can just write blindly, starting with an object, a place, or a color, and then following headlong wherever it takes you.

I generally like to know where I’m going ahead of time. The problem is I don't possess or haven't developed the raw creative imagination to map that out. I may need to depend for the short-term on a hybridized approach that follows a sort of creative intuition looking for signposts that point me where I want to go.

Maybe this isn’t so bad.

In solving a crossword puzzle, we work on what we know and then use that information as stepping stones into what we don’t know. In rock climbing, we use the holds we can see and move upwards, looking for new opportunities. You don’t know the answer to the puzzle or where the top of the route is, but you know you want to find it. Perhaps creativity trusts vision more than perseverance does, and requires more focus.

Writing, especially fiction, is a vulnerable undertaking. The reward of being understood comes with the risk of being rejected, and I'm just me.

The world of literature looks intimidating from the outside - self-contained, buttressed, unassailable. The classics seem inevitable, like they simply wrote themselves. It is all very discouraging.

It is clear we must take a different view. Every classic began with someone who decided to tell a story and then told it. They had to make decisions, edit, modify characters, and sometimes just put one word in front of another. (No doubt this all seems very basic, but it is necessary. Fear must have nowhere to hide.)

What if there were 4 musketeers? Or 105 dalmatians? What if the Big Bad Wolf was the Big Bad Hyena? What if The Little Engine That Could was red and Miss Riding Hood blue? Of course it is impossible now, but it was possible at one time, and that is the point we must understand.

Turn your attention back to your own work, which has been looking rather insecure and one-dimensional. People in your head are saying “It’s too much like so-and-so; it’s not original.” Stop it. As long as you focus on that danger you may succumb to it, just like you may steer into a passing truck if you watch it too long. Look where you are going, for Pete’s sake, and just tell us what happens.

We spend too much time thinking about art and not enough time thinking about life. Originality is not as important as honesty. When we look at life honestly and creatively, art is the result.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Warning

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn't stop at being interested in paint... They sink lower - become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.
-C. S. Lewis

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Learning From Natural History

Over the past couple of years I've developed a taste for reading Natural History. For those who don't know, Natural History (sometimes called Nature Writing) is descriptive writing about the physical world - sometimes historical, sometimes geological, sometimes practical. Everything is fair game - from the matrimonial traditions of geese, to river journeys down abandoned canyons, to the way the edge of the forest looks before a storm.

Natural History authors tend to prefer an essay or journal form that lends itself to description and reflection. The writing tends to be deliciously straightforward and contagiously enthusiastic. Something the writer has observed or experienced in nature has sparked something within them, and their goal is to communicate that spark as purely as possible. If they are successful, then the writer and the reader can together make something meaningful out of a chickadee, or a sand dune, or an elm. We are drawn in to wonder, to learn, to celebrate.

Most creative writing depends heavily on the exotic for its appeal. Everyone loves crime, lust, strange customs and faraway places. Natural History writers spurn this approach and deliberately choose what is present and local. It takes immense skill to write strong enough to create interest in what most people accept as familiar, and it is for this reason that I believe Natural History stands in the gap between fiction and non-fiction. The best nature writers completely disappear, leaving you sitting motionless on a dark bridge watching for muskrats, or scratching for shellfish on the eastern seaboard at low tide. This is a remarkable feat, for it means expanding a mere account (I went there and then I saw this and then I thought that and then I felt such-and-such) into an experience for the reader through sheer force of prose.

Photographer's work at developing their eye, and nature writer's work at developing all of their senses - so they can describe with nuance and conviction. There are no fixed rules for how to write knock-down drag-out descriptions, but as Susan Sontag says, it always begins with paying attention to the world.

Anyone aspiring to write would do well to make a pilgrimage to Tinker Creek, listening to the birds, getting some blisters, and honing the power to describe.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Writer's Task

This blog is about writing. Writing means expression, developing ideas, thinking in sentences. Writing means learning, touching, understanding. Writing means offending some people, boring others, and constantly making mistakes.

(Because this blog is about writing, it is also about everything else. Good writing means coherent traffic with external minds, and that requires a broad working knowledge of the world.)

Writing also means resistance. Composing sentences is an entropy-defying creative act. Human nature abhors a vacuum, evidenced every day as blank walls fill up with murals and graffiti and blank pages fill up with words. All negative space is an opportunity and a battleground, which means opportunities and battles are plentiful.