The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Guest Post: The Man with the Golden Pen

[Please join me in welcoming Laura Shefler as a guest blogger here at Writing About Writing. I hope you all enjoy her elegant, direct prose and poignant story as much as I did.]

The Man with the Golden Pen
by Laura Shefler

How proud I am to have you as a daughter. Something in the circled sentences on the attached page tells me that you haven’t learned one of the most important tricks of the writing trade. I was twice your age before I learned it. If you want to talk about it, let me know.

This was a note that I got from my dad when I was in my mid-twenties and working as an associate editor for the University of Pittsburgh’s alumni magazine. Written on a piece of dad’s mini-stationary, the message came stapled to a photocopy of an article had written for the latest issue. He had indeed circled a couple of sentences, and I couldn’t see anything wrong with them.

Pitt Magazine was a vehicle for public relations fundraising, yes--and a publication with high literary standards, if I do say so myself. We worked long, intense hours, the editorial staff, most of us graduates of Pitt’s equally intense writing programs, rewriting, clarifying, polishing, banging out heads against the wall to try to dislodge a witty transition or sparkling headline. Only years later did I realize that not everyone has to put in that much effort to earn a living.

Anyway, my dad’s note was a clear violation of the agreement that he and I had reached that he would stop pulling his golden Cross pen from his shirt pocket and marking up my already-published articles. When he did this, I felt tortured. In those days, I was simply excited to have written something. Even more importantly, I had said something about the importance of some professor’s stem cell research or the tension at a campus event where US Vietnam War veterans had met with a visiting veteran of the Viet Cong. (The Americans were asking the visitor about months and years and places, trying to figure out, in all earnestness, whether they and he had been trying to kill each other.) At that point in my life, I wanted acknowledgement for my content rather than tips about style.

But I have so much experience, he had pleaded with me. I just want to give you what I have to offer as an editor.

I already have an editor, I answered. I need you to just be a dad.

It was true that he had a lot to offer a young writer. From his Depression-Era, no-heat, dandelion-leaf-eating, outhouse-using urban childhood, he had made himself into one of Pittsburgh’s best-regarded corporate writers. The vigor of his prose, along with the relatively lavish business culture of that age, enabled him to command an hourly rate that I will never see, even after decades of inflation.

He wielded an elegant and encyclopedic fluency with grammar and style, and I took to heart the five-page memos he used to hand me when I was in high school on issues such as comic timing, the pros and cons of the Oxford comma, and the proper use of that and which.

All the same, this unexpected note, sent through the U.S. postal service even though we lived only a few miles apart and saw each other once or twice a week, made me scream with aggravation when I read it. In the privacy of my narrow apartment kitchen, I doubled over with the kind of family-motivated rage that I knew was better to exaggerate than repress. I let loose with the kind of obscenities seem to be required for a guest post on this blog, but I’ll leave them to your imagination.

In general, I believe that writer should receive feedback with grace and maturity. Accordingly, I went to next day at work and gracefully, maturely yanked his subscription to the mag.

Six months later, though, he mentioned that he hadn’t been getting his issues, so I put him back on the mailing list. We worked out a new arrangement, where he would do his editing right in the printed magazine and then put them on a shelf in a seldom-used small bedroom. I was free to look or not look at what he had done. Eventually, as I grew more self-assured, I did check his suggested changes.

Most of the time, his edits were dead-on. Other times, where he was applying out-of-date standards, overly formal for magazine writing, I could see the reasons for his not-quite-appropriate advice and shrug it off as no big deal. Still, I never asked him about the circled sentence on the attached pages. I needed him to know that I was serious about my boundaries, and so one of the most important tricks of the writing trade went with him to the grave.

Ultimately, though, the most nurturing gift that my father offered me as a fellow writer was his jealousy. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes eloquently about the green-eyed loathing that one writer feels for the success for another. My corollary is that being on the receiving end of the envy provides shameful, delicious satisfaction.

One day he just came out with it, my dad. He, too, was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, as were many of his old friends, and they, too, got Pitt Magazine. (And so did most of the educated folks in the city. You know you’ve made it in the ‘Burgh when your doctor’s receptionist recognizes you from your byline.) Some of them were also writers. One was a Third Circuit federal judge.

They were phoning him, my dad finally informed me, and leaving messages on his answering machine about how much they were enjoying my writing. Why, my father blurted, aren’t they leaving messages about my writing for me? Consummate bluffer that he was, he could have hidden his feelings, but he chose to share them, for my benefit, I’m pretty sure.  Confiding in me, albeit in this plaintive tone, was his way of letting family bonds take precedence over collegial rivalry.

Still, in my imaginary Hall of Fame for difficult relationships, Father-and-Daughter and Writer-to-Writer wrestle for the title of Most Fraught, stirring up a ruckus in my soul.  It’s a good kind of ruckus, though—a resource for me as a writer, an inner thrashing that works through me, enabling me from time to time to throw a few energetic words onto a page.

[Laura Shefler is a writer, artist, writing coach, and tutor in Albany, CA. She blogs about life forces, creative processes, and the occasional identity crisis at Title to Come (http://laurashefler.net/blog). She also plans to stop procrastinating and get a better blog title, really, really soon.]

If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Quite the Week of Pushing Back

It's been quite a week.

My time is mine!  Damn it!

I'm still struggling with my new schedule and how behind on everything I constantly feel. I'm fiddling with the knobs, but it's slow going. Unsupportive Girlfriend is constantly asking me to do stuff, and now I'm equally likely to be cornered by The Brain and asked if I will do quick child care for The Contrarian. I don't think the two of them really understand how much the other is asking of me and how quickly that time adds up. There has already been some angst as I pushed back on a few scheduling issues already, and at least one attack by giant preying mantises has been completely ignored out of spite, allowing them to destroy a city block in Berkeley before they were stopped by some second rate vigilantes and Bug Dude. There was a really good Mexican place there too, so I'm a little upset.

Writers have to be savage about their writing time. It's not enough to schedule it; they have to be ready to defend it as well. A working writer might be able to disappear during regular day hours, but most writers (even those working ones) have to be fiercely protective of whatever time they spend writing. It is (essentially) all their free time and all their social time and all their not work/not sleep time taken up by one activity. They have to guard it from "fun" and people with the best of intentions and "can't you just do this one thing" and "what if you knew this was coming ahead of time" and even from chores and bad time management, and their bimonthly lament that they could be getting laid a lot more if they just socialized more.

My life is usually punctuated by the reactionary swing to letting frivolities eat away at my writing time. Then, one day there is one last violent head twitch and I go artistically feral. I leap up with a great cry, stand rigid on a table or something with a swirling aura of "Do. Not. Fuck. With. Me." surrounding me (and my pen) and I tell the next person who tries to encroach upon my writing time that they're going to learn why during my brief flirtation with being an anti-hero, I was named "The Shiv."

I've been pushing back a lot lately. It's not that I can't handle The Contrarian. It's that some other people think that I can just drop 25+ hours of watching a baby into an already impacted schedule and nothing else is going to change. The gnashing of teeth as I push back is pretty gnashtacular around here. Especially once we realized there was no more really good Mexican food.

I got mugged on Saturday.

Well...that's not true. Someone tried to mug me on Saturday. They were big (which to me is anyone over about 5'10"), but they were also drunk, and I managed to knock them over and get away. I don't usually get profiled by the professional criminals. (Though some day I know someone's going to pull a gun and I'm going to just be out an iPhone and some cash.) So far (five times in my life) it's just been idiots who thought I looked like easy pickings and ended up with a fat lip or a bruised cheek for their trouble. They don't know that I actually spent a chunk of my twenties in a dojo hoping to be a professional martial artist, and that my reaction to the fight or flight instinct may be ridiculous for someone who's 5'6", but it at least tends to have the benefit of surprise.

Unfortunately, even smacking a mugger and knocking them over can be unsettling. Adrenaline dumps and paranoia have marked most of my weekend. I didn't mean to hit him as hard as I did (he kind of helped me by running toward me), and I kept replaying the event in my head through most of Sunday, wondering if I could have used less force to get away. Half my friends were cheering me on ("You show that asshole, Chris!") but in my mind, I am a gentle person who abhors violence. I don't even like to actually fight crime (which is why I do things for the Hall of Rectitude like raise baby superheroes and write our promotional materials). It's actually a little unsettling to me that I go all Borne Identity--even if it's on bullies.

Plus I'm just imaginative enough that of COURSE there were roving bands of this guy's friends scouring Oakland looking for me and no where was safe. I went out on principle, but it kind of sucks to feel unsafe in one's own neighborhood.

I've finally had enough of Facebook's shit.

Tuesday Facebook's latest attempt to leech ever more money from its program rolled out. My organic reach for posts went down to something like 30 people. My Facebook page (I refuse to link it) has been liked by nearly 14,000 people, but only 30 of them see a post if I make it. That's less than one quarter of one percent for those playing our home game.

Facebook is doing this to encourage admins to pay to promote posts. Massive whale companies like McDonalds and Nike use social media essentially the same way I do (for promoting their products) but they do so on a gargantuan scale and post mostly advertisements (not content). Even at 1% organic reach, if McDonalds has 5 million likes (which they can get by running promotions) a post of theirs will be seen by 50,000 people--that's basically a free commercial. So FB has (again) reduced the organic reach of a Page's post to less than 1% of the page's members to try to encourage companies to run paid promotions if they want their posts to be seen by more people. Unfortunately they have designed no tiering system to distinguish major companies from little pages like mine, and no way to separate content providers from advertisers.

Because of course there is no difference between Writing About Writing and Coca Cola.

So a Page like Betty's Homemade Muffin Shop in Alameda that has 450 followers (who signed up to be notified of The Muffin of the Day) will post their daily special now, and it will be seen by only two or three people (unless they promote the post). And a page like mine will be seen by a couple dozen even as I work for hours a day to find new memes and comics and such.

Used to be I would get about 80-100 views when I posted something and a couple dozen more for every like or comment or share. I didn't know for sure if that was worth the effort. Now it's down to less than 30.

It was just the last straw.

The whole idea of my efforts on Facebook has been to offer memes and comics and fun stuff so that the cross posting from here doesn't seem quite so aggressive. The dog and pony show was intended to bring in a few more eyeballs even if most people thought "Well, I like these great puns and wonderful jokes, but fuck that guy posts his stupid blog like two or three times a day!" However, if only twenty people are going to see it when I try to post something amusing, it's not a time sink that's worth it to me. I also sometimes spend money to promote high profile posts (which I will be writing more about on Friday when I deal with some hate mail about it), and I sent Facebook a nastygram saying that they wouldn't be getting any of my money anymore. They just pushed too far.

They are un-wiped assholes.

So this week's theme, if it had such a thing, would be "The week we fought back!"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poll: Best Modern Science Fiction Series

What is the best modern science fiction series?

Our April poll is live. Please go vote! Or look your grandchildren in the face and tell them that you had the chance to make a difference, but you chose to go eat out at the Sizzler instead.

Using the write in nominations from all of you, we have eight names that have made it to the poll.  A few others were nominated but they didn't get anyone to second them, so they didn't make the poll. Let this be a lesson not to forget to come back and second the worthy nominations. We had a lot of good series that didn't get a second and thus didn't make the poll.

Since it's a smaller poll, each of you will only get 2 votes. However, I have discovered a logistical...flaw with "Polldaddy" polls. The IP tracking resets after 1 week.  So...in theory, you can vote multiple times. If you really care about a title, vote early, vote often.

The poll itself is down at the bottom left of the side widgets. It is long and black.  Awwwww yisssss.

Oh and give Diskworld a break; the nominator knew it probably wasn't actually science fiction, but I like to err on the side of inclusion. If you don't think it "counts as sci-fi," just don't vote for it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

30 Ways for Writers to Be (and Stay) Miserable (Part 2)

Return to Part 1

[Upon further reflection (by which I mean obsessive retooling). This "20 Ways" article will be "30 ways." Because there are just that many ways for writers to be miserable.  -Ima Lister]

11- Don't write for yourself.  Follow trends. Follow the market. Listen to "what will sell." Write "what's being published." It doesn't matter if you really want to write hard boiled detective stories with a magical unicorn investigator who solves grisly murders, and then rides a rainbow back in time to prevent them from ever happening by giving everyone hugs. Instead let market trends convince you to write erotica about a sparkly vampire sex maniac who likes having sex with teenage girls without their consent. This is a double dose of misery. Not only will the market be flooded with "trendchaser" clones before you ever get done, rendering your effort completely futile, but a writer has to work for years, maybe even decades before developing an audience or getting published or making a penny, so you'll also spend years doing something you aren't passionate about. Bring on the misery.

12- Fetter yourself to other writers. Don't develop your own voice. Do you honestly think you have something useful to bring to the world?  You???  When we first start writing, the advice of the greats can be so useful. It can give us ideas. It can mold us. A Hemingway binge can make our writing short and declarative (and downright evasive). After a lot of Woolf, we find ourselves writing in a barrage of layered sensual details and loving subordinate clauses folding image upon image with a peppering of simple sentence descriptions to fill in the scene. It's like how we learn to talk by listening to others, but then one day we have our voice and our word choice and our own accent and we stop judging the way we talk against others. But if you want to miserable, don't develop your own writing voice and style. Shoehorn your voice into someone else's because you have nothing to offer.

13- Expect it to be easy. Nothing will make you more miserable than having no fucking conceptual grasp of how much unrelenting, pulse pounding, ass kicking, WORK it is going to take to achieve your goals. If you think you can write a book in a month, you will be mortified to learn that it takes more like a year (or more). If you expect to be able to do a mere grammar polish on a first draft and then pop it off to a publisher, it will be a harrowing experience to discover that the publisher you sent it to is of the opinion that the last time they had too much Mexican food (with way too many margaritas) and ended up taking a massive dump in the urinal (because the stalls were full and it was zero hour), that the splatter patterns of poop on the wall all around were a more compelling than what you just submitted. It will horrify you to learn that you probably need to rewrite the manuscript at least once more (probably twice), revise it at least two more times (or more) before you even think about things like grammar polishing that festering turd. Maintain a naive sense of the industry and how much work successful writers give writing and don't do any fact checking on your expectations--that way you can be miserable every time you get a glimpse of the truth.

14- Internalize rejection. If you get a rejection letter or a nasty comment, don't contextualize it. Certainly don't dismiss it. It's not about that person. It's not about their foibles. It's not about the theme of the issue you submitted to. It's not about a bad fit. It's not about a stylistic difference. It's not about taste. It's not even about something you maybe sent out a bit too soon and could use another pass or two. It's about you, asshole. It's all about you. You are being rejected as a person. You are a fuck up. You suck. Don't have a good cry and move on. Be miserable. They hate you. They really hate you. I hate you! Everyone hates you. Your parents probably hate you. Why would you think you could be a writer?

15- Don't take care of yourself. Treat your body like a garbage disposal. Eat crap. Don't exercise. Get insufficient sleep. Remember that your brain is an organ inside your body. If you treat your body well, your mind will follow. You will end up in a good mood and not suffering and your art will fall to shit. Let your neural pathways degrade from lack of sleep and fill the space in between with sour cream, grease, and extra cheese. (I recommend Taco Bell Nachos for every meal to hit the trifecta.) You'll be miserable in no time. Stay away from vitamin B (6, 12, 18, 36...whatever). To a bad mood, that shit is like garlic to a vampire. No walks for you, the combination of exercise and fresh air could undo all the misery and suffering you've worked so hard to achieve. You've got this.

16- Let "real" shit get to you.  You know those "real" jobs where people make "real" money? They're doing something "real" that makes a "real" difference. Let all that shit get to you. Your fake money and fake job and fake life aren't valid choices. Those people are more real than you because they drive a nicer car and wear designer jeans. Art isn't a real thing that makes a difference in peoples lives. When did writing ever change someone's mind or affect someone's life? You should be fixing pipes on toilets or grooming dogs or something that really makes a difference in this world. Miserable yet? Good!

17- Compare yourself to other writers. The beauty of this one is that you can be miserable almost no matter how you choose to do it. If you compare your career to someone further along than you, you can feel like you're behind. If you compare them at your age to you now, you can feel like you aren't making enough progress. If you compare their writing quality to yours, you can feel like you'll never be as good--or maybe that you're so much better than they are and deserve so much more success. There's virtually no way to not end up miserable if you go this route. Just be careful, the one person you don't want to compare yourself to is you from yesterday. That will lead down the path of improvement and before you know it you'll be happily achieving goals and not even slightly miserable.

18- Hold back. Don't give it everything. Treat your creativity as a finite resource. Keep your best ideas for when your career "really takes off" because you know you're never going to think of anything as good as that again. That's the best idea ever. Hold off that awesome story for when you have an audience to adore it, and are really able to tell it. Work only on your second and third rate ideas because they don't involve a risk. You'll sacrifice your life on work you don't really believe in. You will live at the corner of Misery Way and Suffering Street in Anguishville.

19- Be afraid. Be very afraid. You might get a bad review! Someone might tell you that you're not a good writer. They may not gush about how genius you are. You may not get money as fast as you think you will. God there are some truly scary consequences out there! (Maybe not...like....quite as scary as dirty bombs or smallpox, but we can let any fear consume us if we give it enough power.) Live your life in terror of all those really horrible things that might happen if you take risks as a writer. Because lord knows a plane crashing because the pilots have been killed by millions of spiders (which are now swarming the cabin) as you fall from great height into the shark filled ocean has to at least be as bad as finding out a literary review doesn't want your short story. And as Yoda can attest to, fear leads to being a great artist.

                                          "Suffering leads to great art."  That's the next thing he says. Trust me.

20- Sulk.  Like complaining from Part 1, sulking has the benefit of combining with any other misery trigger and enhancing its effect. You can sulk about how hard it is. You can sulk about how you don't compare to others. You can sulk about how you don't make "real" money. Any situation can make you ten times more miserable for ten times as long if you sulk about it. If you sulk and complain you're just about guaranteed to be able to ride that wave of misery and suffering until the next misery trigger comes along. You never have to feel not miserable again. Then you're a real artist!

Part 21-30 Coming SOON!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Bioshock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid

Among many geeks, it is a source of some tenderness that video games are not recognized, and generally not considered a “legitimate” art form. Of course, geeks themselves know this is complete crap. Most sort of roll their eyes at the fact that a bunch of arrogant blowhards haven’t gotten the fucking memo yet. Still, among prudish tweed-jacketed Humanities professors and their slack jawed, drooling zombie followers, there are those who deny that interactive media could ever be true art. They say it in the same tone of voice that was used to say Rock and Roll wasn’t art, that movies weren’t art, that TV wasn’t art, and even that computer animation isn’t art—never realizing that their prejudice for innovation makes them look like a bunch of elitist douchenozzles.

Plus seriously, I don’t really think too many have actually played video games since they were pumping quarters into Tempest and Q-bert.

Usually I don’t give two shits or a fuck (land-bound or flying) about the divide between what the great white man’s phallus ivory tower thinks is art and what they don’t. They serve a narrow aesthetic at best (too busy patting themselves on the back for their open minded, post-colonial theses to notice how predominately—almost overwhelmingly—white and middle class they usually are). But at worst, they seem to be ever stuck in an endless cycle of praising the prior generation’s ingenuity as “the right way to do art.”

And generally if they want to keep to themselves, I'm okay with that.  If they want to lock themselves in their cloistered halls, turn their discussions into exclusionary circle jerks, pat themselves on the back for having it all figured out, appoint themselves the guardians of the bourgeois aesthetic, hate the art and artists of each generation (who—bafflingly—end up going on being canonized in the next), and then scratch their heads that no one (outside of academics) seems to give a shit what they say about art, that’s their business.

Today is a little different, though. You see, not so very long ago, I watched one of these snide academics tell a friend named Jessica that her MFA in game design—an MFA not officially offered by the university, and an MFA she designed herself by cobbling together classes in computer art, 3-D art, graphic design, literary theory, and film—was little more than a piece of paper and that her lifelong pursuit to bring artistic merit to video games was futile, as they would never be respected as true art.

Today, I’m feeling a little feisty.

“These…video games,” he said (and yes, you have to give it that sneering little pause to get the timber just right), “simply don’t have the ability to be real art. They’re fun. They’re entertaining. Some of them are very pretty. My son plays this one on the X-box that I swear is just like being there. But they’re not real art. Understand that good art actually does have a definition.  It’s not completely subjective—the people that say things like that usually haven’t studied art, but I know you have, so you know this. The composite of the elements has to support a directed vision.  There has to be a theme that is enhanced by the technical aspects of the art form itself.  Video games just don’t have that.  They are just….games.”

For me, all he did was prove he was a complete status-quo-loving tool, without an original thought in his institutional skull for what art even is. It takes a particular kind of disingenuous idiocy not to be aware of how closely developments in art have tracked with developments in technology throughout history. Even if you missed things like the proliferation of literacy and writing after the invention of the Guttenberg Press or the popularity of longer fiction tracking almost exactly with the technological cost of printing, and even if you were unaware of how the 20th century’s technological developments changed art with everything from amplified music, to film, to television, you would have to be straight up fucking asleep not to notice that computers are changing every art medium they touch. From CGI, to computer animation, to auto-tuning, to the entire MDA movement in canvas art. The very idea that video games couldn’t be art is patently absurd.

But he got under my friend’s skin, and he made wonder if she was wasting her life. I even saw a tear while she pretended to be concentrating on her Denny’s fries.

“Jess, these are the same guys who thought theater could never be high art—it was mindless entertainment for the masses. It was ‘fun.’ And then in 1589 my boy, Billy, wrote a little ditty called The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  He made them all look pretty damned stupid.”

I stole one of her fries.  "Okay, maybe they're not the EXACT same guys..."

“I wish,” she said, “there was just a game that could just…end this debate. Just one game. That’s all it would take. If one game could be high art, they would have to admit that the potential is there for the whole medium.”

[Read the rest of my multi-part article at Ace of Geeks.]