Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Write What You Know...or Feel



We've all heard the dictum: "Write what you know." We've also heard all writing is "biographical in nature". And so we tie these two phrases together. Often these words have been used to tell writers who are writing outside their experience that perhaps they should stay with the familiar. A blue collar worker writing about life and death in the arctic circle? A teacher in a small town writing about mountain men in the early eighteen hundreds? What?

Perhaps we need to examine the above dictums from slightly different perspectives. Perhaps we should listen to Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Perhaps writing "what we know" isn't a concrete direction about environment, but a direction to peer within, to seek the truth of the internal. Writing "what we know" is allowing ourselves to experience an emotion, to feel it truthfully and deeply, and then to convey that feeling through the written word.

If we don't "know" the feeling of isolation, if we have never felt that, then it is difficult to convey that feeling. If we don't "know" the feeling of joy or the feeling of profound sorrow, then we can't share that feeling with a reader. However MOST ADULT WRITERS KNOW A TREMENDOUS SPECTRUM OF EMOTIONS. So, the key, the key is to be able to tap into your feelings and communicate those feelings through words to your reader; to write so that your readers are able to feel what you feel. When that happens your writing assumes a mantle of truth.

Steinbeck wrote: "No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself. " Writing is about knowing yourself. Then, it's about helping others know you while at the same time identifying with universal traits.

"Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other.
"--William Faulkner.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Surf's Up!!!!

Can you tell something about someone by the links that sit happily in their bookmarks folder? I flipped through mine and I think the answer is: "Absolutelymaybepositivelyperhapsnonotatallldontevengothereforgettaboutit".

Um, if you need to check the spelling of that word, be aware I'm using the reformed Latin. My links tend to be dominated in three categories: film, politics, and sports. Seeing that, I was a little disappointed. Where were the lofty educational links that one expects from an educator? Where were the multitude of literary or author links that showed my devotion to writing?

I will share with you my top ten to fifteen links, to give you some insight as to how I waste um...spend my time. Some of these links aren't necessarily my time consumers but rather they sit there in bookmarks calling to me. I invite others to post your own interesting or favorite links from your bookmark folder this week.

First up? Harry Knowles. The man who created one of the best film sites based on his own fanaticism about film. He gets the best rumors and his contributors have interesting takes on what's coming out of Hollywood. The site? Ain't It Cool News. Another cool site for reviews of everything from film to dvd to games is metacritic.com. Seriously. I love this site!

The next here? Fancast! This site, completely legal, lets you watch an enormous variety of television shows you may have missed. "Family Guy","Kitchen Nightmares", "Ghost Hunters", "Star Trek", "The Office", and at least a two hundred others, including vintage shows from the seventies and sixties.

Political junkies, or rather, left wing political junkies should be checking out this site on a daily basis. I go there about three times a day. I'm talking about Rawstory.com
You'll have to sort through some absurdity here, but if you factcheck a bit, you'll find information that isn't covered in traditional news sources until two or three days later. If you're a right winger, you'll have to tell me what source you like to check. Not Drudge please, too often that site has given a series of false leads.

I'm a gamer. I celebrate that. I know. I know. Old fat guys with titatnium knees and thinning pates shouldn't be sitting around playing games. But dammit, I like my XBOX360. As a gamer, let me recommend this site to my fellow gamers. I am sure though, if you are a gamer, you already know it: gamespot.com

Want to meet people with similar interests? Want to know who in your area is a garden freak? Want to join a book group for people interested in women without teeth (just giving an example)? This is a fairly cool social site, the goal being to put you in touch with people with similar interests in your area. I like the idea because the goal is to actually meet these people. No, this is not a romantic site, although I am sure some people use it for that. Check it out: Meetup.com

Some people may have noticed I widget I had on my blog for a while. It tracks the price of oil. I'm sorry. It's something I pay attention to. Did you know that a recent report has shown that eighty percent of the trading going on in oil commodities is done by speculators? Did you know that eleven percent of that is held by one oil investment firm in Sweden that regularly manipulates that market. Close the Enron Loophole friends, and the price of oil will fall. I promise you. Here are my favorite three sites for keeping track of the business world and the world at large: Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. I am constantly reading and doublechecking news stories.

In additional to these sites, there are countless sporting sites I visit, sites dedicated to writing, and blogs. But I thought I would list these. Hope you find something interesting here. I'm interested in seeing what you come up with. I'll be visiting your blogs and watching.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I Like To Drool---or Is It Grammar?

If you ask people whether or not they think grammar is important, they will stare at you for about a minute before answering: "Why, of course it is." Or, they might answer: "It don't be."

I don't think I truly learned grammar until I taught it to myself as an adult. No, don't respond by wagging fingers and badmouthing the educational system. Instead, ask yourself if knowing grammar (being able to recite rules and diagram sentences by drawing roadmaps that would make sense only to the most medicated) really makes a difference.

Language is intuitive.

We learn by sound. We hear pauses in speech and understand how to pause in a sentence. When teaching grammar, one thing I do is to have children talk and ask other children to transcribe their words. They listen for pauses and try and pick up a flow of conversation, editing out that which doesn't make sense and elaborating where necessary so that their writing becomes immediate. Another thing I'll do is have my students E-Nun-Ci-Ate in an exaggerated manner, painfully pronouncing each word, each syllable. Why? If I am correct about the sound of a language being important, then pronunciation will help students become aware of exactly what they are saying as opposed to what they think they are saying. It also slows them down and forces them to think about the logic of the sentences they are stringing together.

So do I teach writing or grammar? Depends on the group. Last year, I spent an eternity on helping students recognize and correct run on sentences. It was purgatory. Satan himself kept passing through, shaking his head sympathetically and offering to usher off some of the students. When Satan pities a teacher, that teacher really really deserves to be pitied. However, this answers the above question regarding grammar: is it important for a student to learn the difference between past perfect and future perfect, etc? No. Is it important the student knows what makes a proper sentence and be able to construct a complex sentence, perhaps with parallel construction? Yes. I don't care if they don't know how to label what they are doing, as long as they do it correctly.

Some writers who ask me to read their work will ask that I ignore the grammar and just concentrate on what they are trying to say. I respond to this with a dull look. I drool a little, too. Some writers have perfect grammar, yet their work goes nowhere. I still drool.

I drool a lot. It actually has nothing to do with my "people" skills. I just enjoy drooling.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What's With Urban Fantasy? Jim Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton Feel Free To Respond



So I took one hundred and fifty pages of manuscript and butchered it to change the book into a contemporary urban fantasy. Prior to this the novel had more of a mystery novel feel, with characters developing casually, plot unfolding, tension building. However, a few friends convinced me to go the Urban Fantasy route. Bang. So I started the rewrite. However, after three chapters, I'm thinking: I need to go even more radical don't I? I need to shoot steroids into this work.

So let's talk about Urban Fantasy. Help me get a handle on the genre. Right now I am under the understanding that urban fantasy isn't just fantasy in an urban setting (I recently argued with my wife that Dracula could have been urban fantasy at one time). No, the genre seems to have certain conventions that I need to begin adopting instead of resisting.

1) The novel needs to be series of action sequences strung together by occasional bursts of plot [unfair?]
2) Like any good fantasy, the rules of reality and fantasy need to be consistent and logical.
3) The protagonist [at least most of the current popular ones] are flawed characters, often suffering from issues with self esteem. They also are often outsiders and deal with horrible relationship skills. Their choices of partners suck or are doomed to fail. Another thing about the heroes, they are often (in keeping with the best of Campbell) reluctant.


Butcher, Hamilton, any one else out there who writes Urban Fantasy, or who feel they know the genre well, what am I missing? Let's get a discussion going here. I need to get my head around this and right now, I think I know what I am doing but the voices keep telling me I don't. What about you, Mark Rainey? William Jones? Sidney Williams? Charles Gramlich? Calling all writers. Let's debate and discuss.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What Makes A Writer?

Gloria: My mother died when I was six.
Arthur: Jesus! Don't they know what they do to kids?
Gloria: My father raped me when I was twelve.
Arthur: So, you would say you had six relatively good years?
--From "Arthur" 1981

What experiences in childhood forges a person? What experiences do writers use when hammering out a work? Even the most fantastical literary journey is ground in some reality. No one invents a character. Not really. Characters are hodgepodges. They are bits and pieces of experience stirred together.

Below are five writers' early lives. See if you can guess the writer based on the thumbnail sketch.
1) His mother keep his son from contact with the outside world. She treated him like a girl, and made him wear his hair long until the age of six. His father, a traveling salesman went mad, probably from syphilis, and had to be institutionalized. He died when his son was five. The son would suffer from terrifying nightly disturbances and nightmares which lasted until his own death.

2) This writer never forgave his mother for dressing him as a little girl in his youth. His father, perhaps to compensate, taught his son to love the out-door life. Unfortunately, his father committed suicide after losing his health to diabetes and his money to a bad real estate venture. The son went to public school, showed some promise as a writer, and abandoned a career as a reporter to join an Italian ambulance unit during WWI.

3) During her early childhood, her father suffered from a lengthy illness. When he finally saw a doctor, a case of diabetes was diagnosed but by that time his illness was advanced. His end was fraught with suffering which included the amputation of a leg. He died a few days past her 8th birthday. Her mother was twenty some years younger than her father; they had a cordial relationship. She did well in school and thrived as a writer, but never seemed happy. The guilt of her depression led her to suicide attempts. She spent a period of time institutionalized.

4) One of ten children, life was a struggle for the Edinburgh family. They were poor, and his Scottish father was an alcoholic. His father viewed himself as a failure compared to siblings who achieved some artistic and financial distinction in the empire. He was schooled by the Jesuits, noted having received a fair share of corporal punishment (ah the good old days) and almost became one of the order. He instead went on to become a doctor, writing in the quiet days when he was still building a practice.


Scroll down for the answers....




1) H.P. Lovecraft (of course)
2) Hemingway (what's with the little girls' clothes and these guys?)
3) Sylvia Platt (Cheer up)
4) Arthur Conan Doyle.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dammit, Dammit To Hell


Beauty is a curse. But enough about me...

I recently read that the delightful young girl who performed in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics was not the same one who sang. Apparently, the singer was considered not attractive enough. Now, we're talking about a seven year old girl. According to the person responsible, and this quote is from CNN: "The reason was for the national interest," said Chen Qigang, the ceremony's musical director, in a state radio interview. "The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression. ... Lin Miaoke is excellent in those aspects." And apparently this was a decision which also involved party leaders. It would be like having John McCain or Barack Obama drinking aperitifs and passing on whether or not a kid hit the cuteness meter hard enough.

Now I know kid stars are rejected all the time. I know Hollywood makes these choices. But imagine the affect it has on the psyche. As a writer who is rejected on a regular basis (far too regular, if you ask me...and you aren't ,so screw you, you insensitive bastard) I understand the how it can eventually beat you down. But the effect on a seven-year-old girl must be devastating. Especially when you do the singing and the cute kid gets all the credit.

So here's to the rest of us. To the Imperfect. To the Near-Sighted, Flat-Footed, Over-Weight, Poor-Complected. Here's to the EveryMan, EveryWoman, EveryChild. EveryPet. And don't you worry, little Lin Yang, some day Miaoke will be sweating it over a sink of hot water, her face swollen from hormones and too many bon bons...and you? You'll have emerged like a butterfly to take your rightful place in the world. So THERE!!!! Um...no...um...actually, you'll still be unwashed and unloved and lost in a sea of undeserved mediocrity. Miaoke will still be beautiful. And rich. And they'll probably build statues to her where we'll pause and whisper: "Well, at least she's no Lin Yang". Dammit. Dammit to hell.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Pretty Boy Floyd

I had been meaning to read the work of Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, Evening Star, Last Picture Show, and others. Prolific. Talented. For some reason, I began with a collaboration: Pretty Boy Floyd.

Two things struck me immediately as I read the book. First, that the authors (McMurtry collaborated with Dianna Ossana) were skillful in giving us a feel of the Depression Era as well as keeping the pacing of the book lively. Second, that they painted an astonishingly sympathetic portrait of Charlie Floyd.

Reading this made me pause. By giving us a likable character and not addressing the crimes committed, not really exploring the morality, were the authors somehow doing a disservice, or was my impression of the book colored by my own judgment regarding crime. Or perhaps the writers were only telling a story, all moral issues aside.

Reading this book made me immediately consider the likes of Tupac Shakur or Snoop Dog. Both men likable. Both men confessed criminals (Snoop was a member of the Crips and sold cocaine and also was at one point accused of murder; Tupac was accused of sexual abuse, assault, and attempted murder, among other things). And both men, like Floyd, somehow used their criminal past to help parley their talents (real or imagined) into celebrity status.

Given my own perspective of a life of crime, I read the book with a critical eye. I kept asking these questions, which for me weren't answered satisfactorily: Why has Floyd become a criminal? He is cheating on his wife and his girlfriend, with numerous other women---why has the author made it seem almost laudable that he at least provides some financial support for them from the gleanings of his criminal life? What is there about a criminal life that sparks a perverse celebrity, a celebrity where people are more likely to identify with Charlie or Snoop Dog than they are with law enforcement and law abiding individuals? What does this say about our society? What does this say about the authors?

Some would lean over at this point and say: "Just read the book, dammit." Okay. But the questions are still there, and those questions and comparisons mar the book for me. Just a personal observation.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Elwood P. Dowd


Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.


Sometimes a character from a book or film puts an arm around you and offers a long friendship. There's something about him with which you deeply identify. Something about that character that moves you and brings a smile to the face. That's how I feel about Dowd. Elwood P. Dowd. If you haven't seen the film "Harvey", released in 1950, give it a quick rental. Or if you haven't seen it in many years and forget much of it, take a second look.

"Harvey" for those who don't know, is the story of an eccentric middle age man (possibly an alcoholic) who has made a break from reality...maybe. He would disagree, of course. A delightful, friendly man, he stumbles through the world in the company of a six foot white rabbit named Harvey. Of course, Dowd would be quick to tell you Harvey isn't really a rabbit, he's a pooka.
Unfortunately, Harvey is an embarassment to Elwood's sister and so she trying to do that which she feels she should have done years ago---have Elwood committed.

A gentle film, with a big smile and a bigger heart. Maybe Elwood can explain it better himself:

"I'd just put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and I just felt that he needed conveying. Well, anyway, I was walking down along the street and I heard this voice saying, "Good evening, Mr. Dowd." Well, I turned around and here was this big six-foot rabbit leaning up against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that because when you've lived in a town as long as I've lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name. And naturally I went over to chat with him. And he said to me... he said, "Ed Hickey was a little spiffed this evening, or could I be mistaken?" Well, of course, he was not mistaken. I think the world and all of Ed, but he was spiffed. Well, we talked like that for awhile and then I said to him, I said, "You have the advantage on me. You know my name and I don't know yours." And, and right back at me he said, "What name do you like?" Well, I didn't even have to think twice about that. Harvey's always been my favorite name. So I said to him, I said, "Harvey." And, uh, this is the interesting thing about the whole thing: He said, "What a coincidence. My name happens to be Harvey."

And then there's Elwood's philosophy of life: "Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" - she always called me Elwood - "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

And then there's Elwood's explanation of how he spends his afternoons:

Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us.

Monday, August 04, 2008

facebooking

I signed up for Facebook, not sure what to expect. I had long ago decided there was no way I was going to join MySpace. Still, I have decided I want to be a greater presence on the web, mostly as a way of self promotion. And because it keeps me off the streets.

The first thing I noted about Facebook was that it tried to find ways for you to interact with people, whether through different gaming activity, or participating in applets that shared information about film interests or books, or ...well just about anything. I've actually enjoyed it. Plus, I've made some friends and reconnected with others. For instance, one gentleman living in California contacted me. He and I went to high school together. Another lifetime. Funny how a name and a face, even one subject to thirty years of change, can spark a rush of memories. They say you live through other peoples' memories of you.

If any of you want to visit me there, just follow this link: facebook Sign up, put me on a friends' list, play a few games with me, write on my wall...whatever. I think the next thing I'll do it put a second blog up on wordpress. Maybe I'll use that site to launch my podcasts.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Cultural Appropriation


I've always been fascinated when someone takes a classic and reworks it. For instance, Grendl in response to Beowulf. Wicked in response to Wizard of Oz. West Side Story as an updating of Romeo and Juliette. Of course, the bible has always been fruit for this, and what better representation than Jesus Christ, Vampire Killer (yes, I saw this and yes, I loved it...especially the scene with Jesus and Santos the masked Mexican wrestler taking on the Lesbian vampires haunting Montreal).

Maybe there's a creative challenge in taking something you love and renewing it, making it something all your own. It explains fan fiction. Maybe it explains that's why I take to updating Lovecraft and reworking his universe. I see at as an intellectual challenge. Of course I write more than mythos, and hopefully in the next week or so, you'll have a chance to listen to some of my other writing by podcast.

Someone once asked if writing mythos is constricting. Hell yes. But on the other hand, it's kind of like playing the blues. You have a eight bar format to follow, and the joy is seeing how far you can express yourself within those parameters.

Of course, when a work is appropriated into popular culture, the author can no longer be said to truly own it.

That being said, here are some interesting permutations for future adaptations. Any other suggestions?

JOAD! The sequel to Grapes of Wrath. Joad and Pretty Boy Floyd team up to wreak havoc in the dustbowl. Yowsa.

DEATH IN A SMALL TOWN... Boo Radley has had enough. A blood drenched night that forces the people of the small town of Maycomb, Alabama to confront their ugly little secrets.

CAPTAIN'S QUEST Cap. Bly of the Starship Bounty finds himself confronted with a mutiny from a crew of clones and their pretty-boy leader Christian Christian.