Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Joy of Browsing

I miss the CD store.

Which is not to say that they're all gone, though to the best of my knowledge a lot of the major chains have either folded or closed up a lot of shops since the 1990's. There are still places where you can go to buy CD's, should you be so inclined. I am not including the big box stores here, or even the more specialized retailers like Borders or Barnes and Nobles. I mean the CD store that, aside from a small smattering of posters and other music paraphernalia, only sold music. I know that there are fewer of them, where once they were almost as prolific as Starbuck's.

Perhaps not quite so numerous, but close.

I don't even listen to most of my CD's anymore, honestly. Most of the time I'm on my laptop, and so that's where most of my music is. Not all of it, by any means, as storage limitations mean that the large items like operas or the complete Beethoven's symphonies have been left on CD. The vast majority of what I listen to on a frequent basis is, however, stored digitally, and I confess most of those are the music of known quantities. Musicians where I was already familiar with they're work, and wasn't taking a chance.

Not that some of it doesn't work like that. There are any number of places where I can find new music, and for a not unreasonable sum even purchase it and take it home. (Or download it, if the artist is giving it away for free. Which some of the more esoteric ones I listen to do.) Yet browsing through a blog or an online music store doesn't have quite the same feel to it. Maybe it's not having the CD in hand, or being able to - sometimes - turn to the store clerk and ask about the music in question. Maybe it's the lack of those sections where they say "if you like this, you might also like this."

A lot of it is simply not being able to find those rare gems you might otherwise overlook. One of my favorite blues CD's, for example, came from this little store in downtown Chicago, found while I was getting lunch and killing time until my train arrived. It was a small store, less than the size of the 7 Eleven across the street from it, but it had a steady stream of college students browsing the aisles. It aimed at mostly jazz and blues music, and while I know there are plenty of blogs out there devoted to that stuff, there is an inherent problem with those.

Mainly, they rely on someone's opinions. If a person is posting about music on their blog, it's a reflection of their tastes. And while, for a professional reviewer, that might mean a broader sampling, it still imposes certain limitations. Limitations you were less likely to find in a music store. Even simple things like crossing genre lines, and browsing jazz and blues over here, then new age over there, are made a bit more cumbersome online. Maybe not more difficult, as there is built-in convenience from shopping from home and all that, but you have to hunt in more locations rather than just going to the one spot.

Mostly, I miss being able to walk in and hear something over the speakers which you might never have listened to. Sometimes it was crap, sometimes not, and just sometimes it was something which, after asking the clerk what it was, you'd walk out of the store with. You don't get that online.

Monday, August 23, 2010

An 18-Minute Gap in My Memory

This is one of those times where, quite some time back, I jotted down a brief bit of notes, consisting of less than a sentence. At the time, I had a clear idea of where the idea was going to go, what I was going to say, and how it was all going to make sense. I freely admit that sometimes I only manage two out of three... and sometimes only one. But I always have at least one.

In this case it had something to do with the coincidence between the length of Arlo Guthrie's most famous song and a corresponding amount of blank tape from the Nixon White House. That's a subject that has been tackled elsewhere, and at length probably exceeding the eighteen minutes of the song. I heard it while listening to a version of the song - and it would count as "a" version because it seems to change upon each telling - that included a commentary about that coincidence. The song itself remains a remarkable bit of largely extemporaneous storytelling, I must admit, enough so that the last time I heard it on the radio I was content to listen to the whole thing instead of searching elsewhere.

But whatever I had originally intended to say about that has long since vanished into the ether. Which is the problem with taking only sparese notes, or jotting down random one or two line ideas. Most of my idea book is filled with stuff like that, and for the most part I elaborate more than just one line. I may include a short little description, or a list of things, or something else to help jar my memory and get my mind back into whatever groove it was in when I wrote the idea down in the first place.

For example, I have the phrase "Dr Doolittle with insects" which came from a dream I had about a boy who could talk to scorpions, among other things. (Yes, I am well aware that scorpions are not insects. Regardless, the dream was of the boy and bugs and things in terrariums, including scorpions. .... Yes, I have odd dreams.) That story idea may not be written out completely, but I haven't forgotten it, and it's still there.

It's different when I lose an idea completely. That has happened, and I can remember one such instance clearly. My memory of that incident is helped by the fact that I wrote about it shortly after, but I also distinctly remember it. Precisely because I can't remember whatever it was I thinking at that moment, just what I was doing. While frustrating, it's less frustrating than staring at a line in my notebook, knowing I took the time to write it down, and being completely at a loss for why I wrote it down.

(Which is not the same thing as being at a loss for words, obviously.)

It may eventually come back to me, what it was I meant to say with this post on that topic. Or it may not. Odds are, having written this about it, whatever else I meant to say will get shunted to the side, replaced by this set of thoughts. That's just the way my mind works, and I know it.

If it does come back, I promise to make sure I write it down more completely in my notebook, so that I don't end up back here again.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Real Life Fiction

I read a little bit of everything. And I do mean everything. I've been known to read a romance novel or two, even. (Admittedly, one of those two was accidental, as I had no idea it was romance when I ordered it off of Amazon.) I run through phases where I read poetry or non-fiction or philosophy, and while those often coincide with there being nothing new from my favorite authors in my local library, sometimes I'm just in the mood.

The one thing I tend not to read much of is "literary" works. Those quotes around it are mandatory, as that category has taken on a life of it's own, often to the exclusion of other works that would be "literary" were they not written by the wrong sort of author.

Now, unlike some other genres, there's no real reason for this omission. I don't read much romance because it all tends to be rather formulaic. Which I understand is the appeal of the genre, to a certain extent, but boy meets girl gets a little old when it follows the same formula. (Case in point was the accidental romance novel I read, which was some sci-fi thing. It was well written, and I had no complaints about that, but the next installment in the series was a carbon copy of the one I had just read, only with new characters.) I don't read much chick lit because, well, because I'm not a chick and I found Sex in the City to be, by and large, shallow and uninteresting.

On the other hand, most of the literary works I have read I do enjoy. I find them to be the thought provoking exercises they are meant to be, and that, I've decided, is half the problem. Generally I read the genre books I read because I'm not really looking to do a whole lot of thinking. I want a smart read, don't get me wrong, but I read novels as an escape. If I'm looking for mental gymnastics, I'll pull down one of those aforementioned philosophy texts, or some of the poets I read. (Poetry, for me, seems to straddle the escapist and intellectual reads, but that's another post entirely.)

My other issue with them is that they aren't very escapist. One of the things that separates the genre is that, by definition, they are supposed to deal with real life things. Updike does not write about Martians, and by the same token one would not expect Bradbury to talk about middle-class, middle-age life without resorting to Martians. I like the escapism. I like reading about things that only nominally resemble my own life, in terms of the themes they deal with. I may not be middle-aged yet, but I know enough about the humdrums of modern American life to want to get away from it when I read.

Of course, that is also part of the appeal of the more literary authors. That examining of the life we all lead. More or less, of course. I recently read - well, more appropriately would be to say I was turned on to Philip Roth, and while one of his characters was in a profession and a life that is actually plausible as a path my own life might have taken - sans Martians - there were definite aspects that would just not happen to me. Or anyone else I know. Which is a good thing, considering.

But, it's that deconstruction of modern life, the examination of the mundane, the requirement that you think a little (or so I would hope) about what you're reading and what it all means and the themes involved, that makes the genre of "literary" fiction a pleasure to read. I can get something out of it that, for the most part, I am not going to get from King or Kellerman. Not to say the two, and the rest of the genre fiction crowd, don't make me think, but for the most part if they're dealing with themese I'm ignorning them, not poring over the text to examine them.

Does that mean I am going to be checking out more "serious" books from the library? Probably not. As I said, I read to escape, and for fun, mainly, much the way I watch movies. I like my fiction smart, but not necessarily requiring a mental warm-up before I engage with it. Yet when the mood strikes, as it does for poetry and philosophy and non-fiction, I won't be adverse to wandering through different sections of the library than I normally find myself in.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Mascot

There was a commercial some time ago that, as part of the montage of scenes, featured a cat jumping on to the keyboard. In a classic case of Hollywood realism, the person at the key board made no attempt to shoo the cat off, or gave any sign that the cat had just typed gibberish into whatever the person had been typing just seconds before. No, instead the human just reached down and scratched the cat's ears, all lovey-dovey. It might have been a cat food commercial, now that I think on it.

Of course, that sort of help would still be far more welcome than that "Clippy" character from whatever incarnation of MS Office that was.

My own feline assistant doesn't put paw to keyboard all that often. In what's either a reflection on the state of my desk, or the training of my cat, she stays off the top of my desk. Despite being a lap cat, my office chair is not one she's inclined to share with me, either. Mind you, I'm not complaining about that, but the commercial did get me thinking about the unofficial role my cat plays as my writing mascot.

She has a bed in my office, and during the day that's where she'll curl up while I sit pounding away at the keys. She may not offer much in the way of constructive criticism - unless I so interpret her attempts to trip me coming down the steps - but she does keep me company. Which is nice, because writing is for the most part a somewhat solitary occupation. There is an online community to which I belong and participate it, but that's not the same as having an actual physical presence here in the house. (Especially once summer vacation is over.)

I'm not the only author with a cat, and certainly not the most famous author with a fondness for felines (mine has the normal amount of toes). But I think I'd rather be a writer with a cat, than without. Or a dog, or just something to keep me company and for me to bounce the occasional idea off of, even if that bouncing doesn't get me much more than a twitched ear. It's nice knowing no matter how frustrated I get at times, there's a fuzzy ball of stress relief over in the corner.

Just so long as she stays there, and not on my keyboard.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Loss of Ideas

I have misplaced my notebook. My writer's notebook, to be precise. Something I've carried around now for literally over a decade (I know, because I know where I was when I jotted down the first item on the first page). In this notebook go all my odds and ends, those ideas that are either about things I am working on now, or possibly might be, or just have no home beyond having popped into my head and my having determined they were worth writing down. I have even gone so far as to color code it, using different color inks depending on whether it's a short story idea, or a poetry one, or for which novel it might be intended.

(Yes, I am aware that I am more than a little odd, and possibly somewhat compulsive. But the colors are pretty, and provide me with a quick visual organizational tool.)

It also contains a list I keep of possible blog topics. And I seem to have put it someplace other than where it belongs. (This is not an excuse for why there's been almost nothing here for the past few months. I have no excuse for that, it simply didn't get done.) I have my ideas about where it might be, but for the moment those are unconfirmed. All I know is, it's not where it should be.

I could use this to reflect on both the perils and pluses of being organized. On the one hand, when you are, you know where to find things and, to my mind, your workspace looks better. On the other hand, when you put something where it doesn't belong - and it will happen, sooner or later - it can result in a fair amount of disorientation. I know my notebook is in the house, somewhere, and I have a couple of guesses as to where those somewheres might be. Regardless, it's going to take some searching for, most likely done while wearing a very perplexed expression on my face.

Story elements can get misplaced, too. I am not someone who outlines, as for the most part I don't find them useful. Before I get much beyond a chapter or two in a novel, whatever I had outlined will be long since detoured away from. Certain things do have their place, though, and if you put them down somewhere else, it can take you off on tangents that you didn't want to go on, far away from the crux of your story. I have had this happen in a couple of stories. A line of dialog, no matter how well crafted, just doesn't fit. Or a scene. Or a confrontation. Or, heck, an entire sub-plot. Though it's been a while since I've mislaid a sub-plot.

Which, yes, I recognize may be an argument for outlining, and one may wonder why someone who color codes his idea notebook - nay, buys different color pens specifically for the purpose of color coding his idea notebook - does not find outlining useful. To which I answer: life is full of things that don't make sense.

Like my notebook, eventually these misplaced elements turn up, often during revision. And like my notebook, once found, they will then be returned to their proper place - which, unlike my notebook, includes the option of the great big idea folder in the sky. Not all misplaced elements get a home. Some, sadly, are deleted. Eventually. Most of them find homes, though. They will end up where they fit, where they belong, so that I can sit back, with satisfaction, and revel in how neat and organized it all is.

Until the next time it happens, of course.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Exotic Familiar

We're told, as writers, to "write what we know." There are, I am sure, entire chapters in writing books devoted to this or some variation of it. Like all advice, it only goes so far, and often times it might be felt it doesn't go far enough. For example, what if you've never gone anywhere? What if all you know is middle of nowhere small town America? That hardly seems like enough of "what you know" to be able to hang a story on.

"I don't know enough to write anything interesting," some might cry. "It's all so boring and familiar."

Well, of course it is if you've lived there all your life. But to an outsider, someone who hasn't been there, it may seem as much an exotic locale as Paris seems to the small-towner. Case in point: Las Vegas is not someplace I would ever consider "exotic." It is so not exotic, so familiar, that in fact I feel comfortable referring to it by the short version of it's name: Vegas. (No one does this with Los Angeles, though, at least not to my knowledge. That may well be another topic for discussion some other time.)

Some of this comes from it being an American city. While it's not one I have ever visited, it's certainly shown up in a fair amount of movies and television shows, some even eponymously titled after their locale, so in some way I feel I know it. It's not even like New York City, which I recognize as being so large and complex that despite being a loyal Law & Order fan, other than a generic sense of where things are I don't know anything about it. I couldn't begin to tell you where Brooklyn or the Bronx is.

Vegas, though, tends to reduce itself down to one main feature: the Strip. And the Strip I have seen, from it's early incarnations - courtesy of The Godfather - to it's more recent trend towards themed, family-friendly casinos - courtesy of both CSI and Ocean's Eleven. The remake, that is. I wouldn't exactly file this under "what I know" if we're equating that with having walked it's streets. But I am inclined to suspect that, armed with a map, I could, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman's comment about being a Brit writing about the US, do as good a job as any other person who doesn't live there.

All of which simply points to the fact that, to me, Vegas does not seem exotic. Mind you, it's got show girls, which my home town doesn't have (nor, come to think of it, have any of the places I've ever lived) but it's still not enough of an "other" for me to qualify as exotic. Not the way that even someplace that shares a similar culture and language, like London, for example, would fall under that category. London, to me, is exotic. Part of this is that I half expect it to still retain some intangible connection to the late Victorian-era London of Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens. I know full well modern London no more resembles that than Boston still retains any of its Colonial American feel - with the exception of historic markers and the occasionally still-standing structure. But, to me, it's someplace that I could feel safe in calling exotic.

Then again, I'm not Helen Mirren. (Which really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.) In an interview I was listening to about a month ago, she raised this exact point in discussing why she'd taken on a role as a Vegas madam. To her, Vegas was someplace exotic. London, and by extension England, was the familiar, the thing she knew, whereas Vegas was the unknown other. Listening to her explain this, and actually referring to Vegas as being "exotic," got me thinking about all those times - including for a current project - where I have critiqued my own work as being too dull, too boring, too familiar to be of interest to the reader. Those times where I feel compelled to take a place and make it more interesting, when the truth is, it could stand just as well on it's own, provided I do a good enough job capturing the place.

The truth is, writing what I know may not seem very exotic or interesting to me some of the times, but for someone else, if I do it well, I can transport them someplace that, to them, will be a completely new experience. And that, I think, is at the heart of the exotic. After all, it's all familiar to someone out there.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Power of Words

By coincidence, and the beauty of podcasting, I listened to two similar stories about words and what they stand for in the space of less than 24 hrs. One of them was also a video, so I suppose I did more than just listen, I watched, but it was still largely about the expressive ability of words. Plus there isn't a verb I know of that would allow me to convey the fact that I listened to one and watched another without resorting to complex compound sentences.

Which would probably have been more succinct than the above paragraph. However...

In a piece on NPR, Alix Spiegel (who until just a moment ago I had always assumed spelled her first name with an "e") looks at our use of symbols, in an effort to understand what makes us modern. The whole piece is a bit long, coming in the second half of All Things Considered's first hour, where lately they seem to be doing 20 minute stories as part of the regular format. It's not entirely about words, and language, either, instead focusing more broadly on symbols in general, of which language plays just one part. It is an important part, though, and it makes you think about the nature of language as well as how we understand it.

And then, in a video, one of my other favorite NPR programs, Radiolab (which is one word despite the insistence of my spellchecker), produced an entire hour-long episode also devoted to words. However, I've not listened to that yet. That won't stop me from recommending it, as I would any of their shows, but in particular I wanted to call attention to what I did listen to/see: the short - only about three minutes or so - film that went along with the episode. This short film is also about words, and it seemed to me to be as much about the symbolic meanings we associate with many of our words ("fall" being an excellent one, with a three-second shot it took me a moment to make the connection for), as was the piece from ATC yesterday.

So I thought I would share.

When Did We First Become Modern?


Monday, August 9, 2010

Back to the Beginning

Sometimes you just have to start over. Not saying that's always an easy thing to do. In fact, sometimes it can be downright painful. It can hurt. A lot. Even when you know it's the right thing to do, the knowing, in advance, of just how much it's going to take out of you can be enough for you to want to put it off. That is part of the appeal of procrastination, as we tend not to put off those things we enjoy, but instead delay those things we do not want to do, the things we dread.

I'm convinced there is also the tendency to not want to erase all the work that has gone into a project right up to that point where it becomes necessary to start over. No matter how deep the quagmire, there is the belief that some of what went before could be salvaged. A complete overhaul isn't really required, no, instead it will only take a little tweaking here and there, a couple of edits, and then it'll be easy to pull free of the muck and mire.

That Hollywood seems to defer to a re-boot every time a franchise stalls out may be part of the problem. For every Star Trek - which I still haven't seen - or Batman Begins - which of course I have - there are countless other attempts to rejuvenate a storyline or character just be starting over with new faces. Comics are guilty of this, too, often in the interest of sidestepping a particularly thorny plot issue that the writers backed themselves into. It very rarely goes well.

So the temptation to not hit the universal delete, and start afresh, is a strong one. It can trap even the most well intentioned author. You plug along, you edit, you move things around, but you do not start over because you have already done all this work, and it would be a shame to waste it. Not to mention disheartening, because why, oh why, did you invest all those days/weeks/months (years?) into something only to throw it all away?

All of which belies the fact that we all know it's not only necessary, it is at times the only way out. There was a Micheal Douglas film some years back, Wonder Boys, in which he plays a writer. A famous writer, who has been laboring for years on his latest opus. Laboring and not going anywhere, which as you might expect has not left him in the happiest of moods about writing in general. Ignoring the merits of the film - though I liked it - it stands out for me because of a scene, near the end, where this manuscript he's been working on for years is suddenly, literally, thrown to the wind, with hundreds of pages flying everywhere.

(This was the year 2000, when it was perhaps more conceivable that a manuscript would be in paper only format. I suppose there are still some writers out there who work that way, but I also suspect most of us would view such a scene and ask "why didn't he just save a back-up copy?")

The manuscript, as overblown, tiresome, and voluminous as it had become, was lost, leaving him with no choice but to start over. One jump cut later, we see him typing away on the final pages of his new, much shorter - and presumably much better - manuscript. More importantly, he seems happy again with the writing process, thus ending that part of the movie on a high note. (There's a great deal of other material to the plot, so this is hardly a spoiler if you haven't seen the film.)

Most of us will not have such a divine intervention. Any windstorm strong enough to blow away my laptop is going to leave me with far larger problems. Yet it needs to be noted there is nothing stopping me - or any other writer in a similarly stuck vein - from being our own winds of renewal. I rarely completely delete something, because you never know when you might want to mine that dusty idea for new inspiration, or those few gems buried in the dull dirt of the rest of your prose. However, this is not to say I cannot start over, that I cannot, instead of staring at the same text that has vexed me for days/weeks/months (years?) call up a new document, a blank slate, and take those initial ideas that I found so exciting back in the beginning for a brand new spin on a brand new surface.

Because sometimes, that's what it takes.