Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On Filtering (Or Not)

Sometimes I think I might have a problem with my tongue.

You see, it occasionally happens that I will, ahem, fly off the handle and say whatever comes into my brain when I've been angered. As you can imagine, this is not the best conversational strategy to employ. I need a filter, and badly, or else I may find myself losing friends along the way.

However. There are times when a lack of verbal discretion comes in handy. Most of them involve first drafts.

I tend to do the opposite of letting lose when writing first drafts. Instead of allowing words to pour onto the paper, I end up censoring myself. This is a direct result of my perfectionism complex. I want my story or poem--EVEN the first draft--to be as perfect as possible. (The truth is, first drafts never are, and that's why I end up having trouble in workshops.) 

Instead of searching for a way to streamline the first draft, I want to ingrain in myself a much better habit: spewing words until I've said everything that might be useful, and THEN going back to cut things out. Editing, for me, is much easier than writing in the first place, so this approach will likely suit me well. 

After all, some of the best warm-up writing exercises I've experienced have been the ones where you write continuously for three or five minutes, not stopping your hand for anything short of flames threatening to engulf you. I suspect we all need to lose ourselves in the writing like that a little more often. Do you agree?


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Music to Write By

I used to write in such a way that I would create playlists for my stories. In grad school, I would send copies of these lists to one of my professors so he could understand where I was coming from and what was influencing me. Although I haven't done this recently, I'd still like to share some of the songs that have been seminal for me in my writing life. 

-"Isobel," Dido
A scene I wrote based on this song turned into my undergraduate thesis. Although the story on the whole has never been finished, I refuse to give up on it and continue work on it today (in spite of one professor telling me, ahem, not to do so).

- "Arabian Dance," Tchaikovsky
I recently drafted an essay about what this song means to me. It's a really gorgeous tune that never fails to make me think of something romantic to write about.

-"Big Empty," Stone Temple Pilots
Because I've spent a great deal of time on the road, shuttling from one place to another as I pursued educational and professional opportunities, I've also spent a great deal of time writing about my time on the road. This song epitomizes that tendency for two reasons: not only does it efficiently describe how I've felt at certain points ("Too much walking, shoes worn thin; / Too much trippin' and my soul's worn thin"), but it also serves as a reminder to all that I have more or less lived life to a soundtrack of STP's work.

- "Sour Girl," Stone Temple Pilots
Likewise, if I find myself with an extra five minutes before giving a reading, I listen to this tune to calm me down, because I get insanely nervous. I've also used both the lyrics and select images from the music video as jumping-off points in the past.

- "Oh! You Pretty Things," David Bowie
Most of my stories feature female narrators, mainly teenagers, and this song seems to suit many of them oh so well. That probably says more about my dysfunction as a writer than about their shortcomings as characters.

There are many more tracks out there that have touched me both personally and professionally, but if I enumerated all of them, we'd be here for years. I invite you to share a list of your own essential listening in the comments, though!


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: The Fifty Year Sword

Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 2012
288 pp.

Strictly speaking, in terms of length, Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword is not a novel (the word count puts it solidly in short story territory). In terms of scope, though, it's so much more. Danielewski has long been an experimenter, playing with notions of what fiction is, what it should be, and what it can be. This, his third book, is the perfect synthesis of his first, House of Leaves, and his second, Only Revolutions. The use of multiple narrators and occasion illustrations recall both, the color-coded narration OR, and the typographical quirks HoL. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a genius because of his approach, though I don't think it's out of line to label him an important innovator. 

The reason I hesitate to endow him with the laurels of genius in this case is because of the uneven writing craft on display in FYS. On the one hand, the five-plus narrators of this story act as a sort of Greek chorus, mimicking the strophes and antistrophes of classical plays such as Oedipus Rex, their voices barely distinct from each other and often overlapping as they interweave their dialogue. On the other hand, the reason such a device is necessary remains unclear to the reader from start to finish. Furthermore, as ghost stories go, this one is what one might consider standard. Yes, there is tension. Yes, it falls outside the realm of "ghosts," though it is certainly supernatural. However, it doesn't expand the genre in the same way House of Leaves did over a decade ago. Some might reply that if the genre isn't broke, we should not fix it; however, in this age of upheaval, the time is ripe (as Danielewski himself proved with HoL) to plumb further depths. 

But FYS is not without its merits. Danielewski's language is, by turns, cummings-esque, Whitman-esque, and--most importantly--Poe-esque. After all, what kind of writer would Danielewski be if he didn't pay homage to experimental authors of the past? FYS also has the distinct advantage of being less dense than its predecessor, Only Revolutions, which I must admit I never finished reading thanks to its complex eight-pages-at-a-time structure (those of you who have encountered it will understand this; those who have not might heed my warning to give it a wide berth). And it perhaps serves as a gentler entrance point for anyone interested in Danielewski's work. After all, House of Leaves is a complex and intimidating tome that--if I am to be honest--scared the hell out of me, though I'm not known for my fortitude when it comes to horror stories, though I'm not sure I'd be so impressed with Danielewski if I had started with FYS instead.

Ultimately, Danielewski still makes me want to be a better writer, or at least a better book designer. His imagination is boundless and labyrinthine, his tics unmistakable, and his influence undeniable.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Write Choice

When I was 17, I had to make a huge decision about the future of my writing life.

These were my pre-college days, when I was narrowing down my list of potential schools. I knew I wanted to study some form of writing. The options were clear to me: screenwriting or creative writing. They appealed to me equally; I had wanted to be part of the film industry for years, but fiction was (and remains) my first love. After months of debate--and having applied to programs of each persuasion--time was a-wastin', and I had to take every aspect of the schools in question into account.

Ultimately, I went with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. The fact is, I knew I had to give myself an opportunity to explore as many forms as possible. In college, I studied fiction, of course, but also poetry, non-fiction, and screenwriting; I touched on playwrighting, as well. If I had gone to school for screenwriting, I would have studied nothing but how to write films or television shows. 

There are days when I wonder if I chose poorly. But for the most part, I'm confident in my educational history. I feel more well-rounded in my abilities, and thus more equipped to take lessons from the things I read. I've also expanded my horizons as far as my own writing is concerned; before college, I would never have considered poetry as a viable medium, nor would I be blogging about my personal experiences. 

It is true, however, that as the Oscars draw ever closer, I do kind of wish I was part of that world. It's mostly because I want to wear a pretty dress and walk the red carpet, though. After all, who doesn't want that?