Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Blog Hop; or Form Follows Fun!ction

Amy Gentry tagged me for this "getting to know you" Blog Hop, which seemed like a good idea at the time, for some or perhaps all of the following reasons:
  • I've been intermittently blogging here for a while, but I never really introduced myself;
  • I love self-replicating memes;
  • Maybe answering these questions about current projects would get me to finish some of them?;
  • As a narcissist, I enjoy talking about myself;
  • and answering questions about writing sure beats writing.
I've browsed some other previous blog hop entries, and it's interesting to see how each person shifts the questions a little to make them more applicable to their own deal. With that in mind, here are the questions I'm going to ask myself:

What do you write about and why?
On my blog, I write about anything that catches my interest, which is often politics and media--or politics in media. I often leave a movie/put down a book/turn off the tv and ask myself, "What is the writer saying with that line? Why did the creators choose that?," etc.

(Digression: The two classes of people who are most interested in ferreting out the politics of works of art are a) English professors and students in grad school and b) conservatives who seem to take to heart Zhdanov's principle that all art should reflect the party line. I'll let you guess which class I fall into. (Or rather, which class I fell into and then fell out of, bruising myself on every hard surface along the way.))

So I might write about Colbert's irony and liberalism; nostalgia in James Bond; why Andrew Sullivan is wrong about ____ [fill in anything there, because he's probably wrong about it] and how his rhetoric trips him up; or, for a change of pace, what it's like to live in Texas or to co-write a sketch show while telecommuting from Texas. (Shorter version of that last issue: it's hard.)

I could come up with an argument about how aesthetics and political ethics are related, something like: the cultural imaginary is defined by entertainment, e.g., 24's presentation of the "torture interrogation vs. ticking time bomb" scenario is a powerful current in the American embrace of torture. That's true, I think, but it doesn't answer why I write about that particular nexus on this blog.

Why? I write mostly about politics in art because I've recently become interested in politics in the real world; I've always been interested in the narrative arts (and all art is narrative if you're wired the way I am, but that's another story*); and that this is one way to help me bridge the gap from my old interest in art to my new interest in politics.

*All art is narrative? In 2005, my girlfriend and I went to see an exhibit at the MCA in Chicago that featured some Dan Flavin light art. One work of Flavin's repeated the same light across almost an entire wall, until the rightmost light, where the pattern broke, and I laughed. My girlfriend asked why I was laughing and I pointed to the repeating pattern of light--"Setup"--and to the broken pattern--"Punchline." We're no longer together.

Where besides the blog do you write (and why)?
For love: Over the past year, I've been trying to get back into writing fiction, specifically short stories, usually science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Even when I write in other genres, I like a little fantastical element. For example, after reading several romance submissions in my writing critique group here in San Angelo, TX, I decided to write a paranormal romance, which was an interesting challenge: dragon-shape-shifter--easy; avoiding words that make me giggle in sex scenes--hard. (Hard! Oh.)

I tend towards speculative fiction rather than literary fiction because I find speculative fiction offers more potential scope, seriousness, and fun than literary fiction. It's surely unfair to judge all of literary fiction by the dregs found in university-affiliated reviews, but the world does not need another story about adultery, unhappy dude professors seduced by their nubile students, or the melancholy of going through a dead loved one's attic.

(Seriously: I used to read slush for Chicago Review and we kept count of overused tropes, among which melancholy professors and adultery featured prominently. Now I read slush for a science fiction and fantasy magazine and the quality is not worse.)

You might argue that "commercial fiction" or "genre fiction" shows slipshod sentence craft compared to lit fic--but you'd be wrong and I'd be glad to give you a suggested reading list of beautiful prose writers working in speculative genres.

I'm not saying that there's no good work being done in literary fiction these days. Have you read Jennifer Egan or Junot Diaz? (Oh wait, both of them play with speculative tropes, too.) I just have a certain amount of bile built up over years of hearing that X was normal and Y was the abnormal choice, whether that normal/abnormal pairing was white/color, male/female, hetero/homo, or realism/speculation.

To that end, surprise surprise, I'm more interested in fantasy quests where kingship and patriarchy are investigated and overturned rather than reinforced as the divine order. But what the hell, let's speculate: what would kingship look like if it really were reinforced by divine power? Hmmm...

I've also recently gotten into writing webcomics through no fault of my own. A few months ago, my college friend Chris Van Dyke drew a picture and asked for a story to go with it, and we just kept going after that. We finished a short short story, a full-issue fantasy about a dragon-slayer, and are working on an ongoing comic about a Franciscan monk lost in fairyland. I'm pretty proud of the work we have done so far, but I'd be happy to hear your opinion of the comics. Pretty nice, right?

For money:
For money, I write student guides for literature for, which I like because they're a little irreverent; and I write Kirkus Reviews, though I'm not sure if I like that so much. Reviewing not-so-great self-published books feels kind of like kicking someone when they're down.

Your bio lists a lot of things you do besides writing. Are you a writer, a performer, or...
This question doesn't rally apply to me: right now, my bio is pretty simple. But there was a time when I lived in Chicago when I had a few other plates to spin. In fact, my last year in Chicago was focused on taking classes at the Second City, which were pretty amazing plates, the kind that I wouldn't mind re-spinning. (End of extended metaphor.) I went through the sketch-writing track (perhaps you've heard that since I talked about it endlessly on this blog) and the improv track.

And I highly advise everyone take improv classes sometime. Tina Fey makes all the points in Bossypants, which I'm sure you've read, Dear Reader; so I'll just note that I wish I had taken improv a long time ago. I'm not great at improv, but being great isn't really my goal. My (ongoing) goal is learning to listen to others, to say yes and collaborate with teammates, and to let go of past mistakes. Who wouldn't want that? (Also, I wish I had taken the Voice and Dialect class, just because.)

Unfortunately there's no improv community in San Angelo that I know of, and I've been dragging my feet about trying to put together some class or group here. You might think it's because I'm wholly unqualified, but really it's just because I'm bred-in-the-bone lazy.

I also really liked Second City for the friendships--Second City classes are great if you want to up your "happy birthday" count on Facebook. Also, I got together with a bunch of classmates to make a web video series about a hapless lawn care company. I wasn't as involved as I would have liked since I was busy moving to Texas during production; but I really enjoyed collaborating on the writing. Maybe I should get back into sketch-writing?

Also, wouldn't it be great to do a podcast? I have no further ideas on that, but wouldn't it be great?

Which authors do you find inspiring (for your current work)?
When it comes to authors and books, I'm one of those people who love not wisely, but too well. (Oh, god, is Shakespeare on my list? Put Shakespeare on the list.) So instead of the general list of favorite authors (Jane Austen forever!), I'll tell you who inspires my current work:

The webcomic Voyages owes a lot to Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse, in that I'm trying to write farce; and Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Jack Vance's Lyonesse, in that I'm trying to write episodic, non-epic fantasy. Maybe there's some Woody Allen in there as well.

For my current crop of fantasy stories, my guiding stars are Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose imagination was wide even with a focused point to make) and Ursula K. Le Guin (a didactic author who is never afraid to give the other side a fair shake); Fritz Leiber and William Gibson (for playing with prose); China Mieville and Kim Stanley Robinson (for their overturning of old tropes to show the structural undergirding of our fantasies); Nathanael West and Thomas Pynchon (for their playfulness with form and structure itself); and Theodore Sturgeon and James Tiptree, Jr. (for their sensibility, anger, mercy).

What is your writing process?
Oh, I want one of those--where can I get one? I don't have a lot to say about the "when do you sit down to write, what music do you put on?" sort of logistical questions. Which is a shame because I love logistics and especially am open to music suggestions. I usually sit down to write when I'm not walking the dog or washing the dishes, but I've yet to come up with a solid schedule for that.

Here's one logistical issue I can speak to very directly: I love Scrivener for Mac for multi-part projects; but I still have stacks of scrap paper with scribbled ideas. Over my life, I have consolidated those scraps several times, but they keep multiplying.

As for the planning vs. discovery writing divide (aka plotting vs. pantsing), I've flipped back and forth. If it's fiction, I often do a lot of planning, but those plans don't always survive the writing process. If it's non-fiction, I tend to write a bunch of thoughts and then outline when I know more what I want to say.

I'm also a big believer in rereading and revising until it hurts, but at some point you just have to let go, no matter how much you've grown to love the hurt. When I reread my college senior project--a book of short stories--I continually make marks to change stories; and each time, they're different marks.

What are some of the best books or advice for writing?
Okay, I added this question mostly because I wanted to hear what suggestions other people would drop. After moving from Chicago to Texas, I've lost some of the pleasures of book collecting; but I keep seeing interesting titles out there. For instance, Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters and Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. I can't totally vouch for any of these books because collecting is easy, but reading takes time.

I can vouch for the podcast Writing Excuses, which I wrote a whole post about. They might not work for everyone, and I often find myself wanting to add or edit things they say, but it's a good start for people who want to get back into writing and find themselves listening to podcasts while walking the dog.

But right now I think my favorite writing advice is to write a note to yourself at the beginning of a project outlining what it is you like about the project. That way, when you start to lose interest about the halfway point, you have the letter to yourself to remind you why you started this project in the first place.

Enough about me. Here are some fantastic blogs you should check out:
The Oeditrix: Teacher and freelance journalist Amy Gentry posts extended interviews with authors (which are really just blog hops by a different name, right?) and succinct meditations on feminism

Give me a month or so, my brain is fried. and Seshet's Scribe: Pseudonymous pagan progressive and children's librarian Sesheta offers personal takes on religion, belief, and annoying family members on "Give me a month..."; and up-to-date reviews of books on "Seshet's Scribe"

Perfect Cursive: Screenwriter Christine McKeever offers personal reminiscences and music; learn the lesson she offers and don't get swept up by poker

Voyager Comics: Teacher Chris Van Dyke posts our webcomic and other drawings, including sketches and some meditations on process; hopefully this blog hop will get him to spill his secrets on drawing

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