Tag Archives: Writing

Turns of Phrase


The great thing about having taken about nine months in between drafting this novel and now running through it for the first edit is that I really get to read it with fresh eyes. I’ve totally forgotten some of the gems and turns of phrase that I used the first time around.

My favorite from today’s session?

In the late afternoon sun, the towering house loomed dark and silent, its shadow spilling down the hill and toward their feet like the runoff from a broken sewer line.

I mean, come on. I’d read that.

Other notables, maybe not so awesome or thematically coherent:

Trees “…thick and gnarled and knotty as the hands of a retired coal miner.”

something “…as stealthy as a camel in clown shoes.”

“perfume that reminded you of your next door neighbor, who somehow smelled like the fifties must have smelled, all cigarettes and sock hops.”

I mean, I don’t know if any of those are going to survive the edit. But they’re sure fun to rediscover.

 


Hirsute Spheroids, née Hairy Balls, and Your Story


I’m a bit of a physics nerd, by which I mean I love physics oddities and learning macro concepts about how the universe works without actually getting my hands dirty in any of the intractible numbers involved. That fascination often leads me down rabbit holes on youtube, whence I arrive hours later, head buzzing with cosmic understanding or mind shattered from inability to process.

Today’s SOCS prompt is “hair”, and while it’d be easy for me to write again about my lack thereof, my mind immediately leapt to the hairy ball theorem (which is, if nothing else, a perfect example of how badly scientists need help naming things — the “hirsute spheroid theorem” would prompt no more than 1/5th the giggles). In short, the theorem states that if you have a hairy ball (*snicker*), there is no way to comb it in such a way that all the hair lays flat. (And there’s nothing worse than a hairy ball with a cowlick.) The math proves this, though I don’t care too much about the math (that’s the department of my sister and her husband, both Georgia Tech grads who do the rest of us the favor of making sure that the numbers support the buildings that stand up around us and the rockets that put our fancy things up in the air or shoot other countries’ fancy things out of it). What I care about is concept. Hairy ball. Can’t comb it flat.

Here’s a brief explanation of the theorem, if you want a better explanation of it (and Minute Physics is worth the subscribe, by the way):

But this is a writing blog, not a maths blog, so why the hockey sticks am I blerping around, getting all hot and bothered about a physics conundrum?

Because writing stories is a bit like the hirsute spheroid theorem. (Nope, still makes me giggle, if only 1/5 as much.) Stories are these weird little hairy balls. The ball (giggle, snort) is the world of the story, where the characters frolic and screw up and alternately threaten the safety of the world or rescue it from deep-sea humanoid squid monsters. The hair (chortle, cackle) is the characters and their frolics. And like the follicular matter in the hirsute spheroid theorem, there’s no way to have those frolics or those characters line up perfectly. Like a lump in the carpet or, well, like the hair on a ball (okay, seriously, I’m done laughing at that), when you flatten it down in one spot,  it springs up anew somewhere else. Lay a perfect plotline that neatly traverses the entire surface and you arrive back at the beginning to find a bizarre cowlick sticking up.

For a writer, this seems like a problem, but it’s not. Note that the hairy ball theorem is stated as a theorem, not a problem. An observation of reality, not a lament of the way reality ought to be. It’s only a problem if you assume that your hirsute spheroid must somehow attain a measure of perfection, which it never will anyway — the perfect being the enemy of the good, as it is.

Stories have flaws, in other words, and it’s a fool’s errand thinking we can iron them all out. Instead, embrace the flaws, iron out what you can, and accept the odd fact: bed-head is, for some reason, in style.

Image result for bed head

Also, a note: careful with your googling if you go searching the hairy ball theorem. Also, just for the lolz, the Wikipedia entry for the hairy ball theorem cheerily points out that, on Wikipedia at least, “‘hairy balls’ redirects here.”

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Pitiful Excuses


Pitiful excuses for the week: I’ve got a few. Not that every week doesn’t come with a few excuses, but some are more pitiful than others.

Of course, this week’s big pitiful excuse is bigger than the average pitiful excuse, which is: a stomach bug tore through our house like a honey badger (I almost wrote an angry honey badger, but then that’s redundant, innit) on peyote. First my daughter had it (barfing all over my wife, which she enjoyed about as much as you’d expect, my wife being something of a germophobe the way our new president is something of a Twitter user), then my son had it, then I had it, and finally, my wife has it.

So it’s been a stressful, and kind of miserable, week. Add in a couple of snow days* to the mix, and the beginning of rehearsals for our school’s upcoming musical, and the fact that the new semester is starting so new students are popping into and out of my class like quantum particles winking in and out of existence, and it makes sense why my productivity would take a hit.

Which it did. I missed a run day Wednesday, and I missed two days’ work on the novel, not to mention posting absolutely nothing around here (which is hardly an obligation, but it does keep the juices flowing). Missing days sucks. Even five years into a running habit and three years into a writing habit, I can still feel the black hole of slothitude and couch-lump-syndrome tugging at me with its unflagging gravity. While I know a day here or there isn’t going to knock me into that black hole, the lost productivity is a sharp reminder that the hole is there. Lurking. Waiting. The black hole doesn’t just swallow you up one day; it doesn’t have to. Time is on its side. One missed day turns into two, turns into three, turns into a week, and somewhere along the line you cross the event horizon between taking a break and giving up.

Of course, the reminder that the black hole is there, waiting to swallow you, is good enough motivation to kick me right out of my funk.Even though the week started off decidedly poorly, I still ended up with about 1800 words and a good bit of outlining for the end of the novel, and a nice little mini-arc of action to write that will start me off next week. The writing always goes easier when you know what you want to write before you sit down to write it (would that I always knew when I sat down!).

In summary: kind of a crap week, salvaged. But that’s what you do with crap weeks, innit?

Next week can only be better.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Hardly Moot


The prompt for this week’s SOCS post is “moot,” a funny-sounding word which is one of those weirdly connotated things that no longer means what it actually means. Like literally. (Though internet outrage has kind of fixed the rampant misuse of “literally”.)

About the only way you see “moot” anymore is in the phrase “moot point,” a phrase that comes out of mock trials which essentially means meaningless or without consequence. But I can’t hear the word “moot” without thinking about this:

Image result for lotr treebeard

The mothertrucking entmoot from LOTR.

“Moot” means meeting, and in the second book (and, yeah, okay, the second movie), the ents — the living, sentient trees — hold an entmoot to determine the fate of their forest. The problem? The ents hold this moot in their native tree language, which is “a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say.” (Which could, in fact, be the subtitle for this blog, given how I like to go on and on. The worthiness of the things I talk about to be talked about at length is, of course, another matter.)

Long story short (too late), the ents meet for several days before they decide that they will not meddle in the affairs of men, much to the chagrin of the hobbits who have petitioned them for aid. The world is going to sharknado all around them, the hobbits protest, and ents will be affected eventually even if nothing happens to them right away. But the ents take the isolationist path, pointing out that the trees will outlast whatever squabbles the creatures of the earth busy themselves with.

Then, of course, they learn that actually, the forces of darkness are chewing up the forest to fuel their war machine, and well, that’s that. The trees uproot themselves and wreck shop all over Isengard, because nothing motivates you like the threat of imminent destruction.

(I could point out that this is a pretty thinly-veiled dig at politics and politicians with their endless pontificating bureaucracies, but that’s not the point of this post.)

All that’s interesting and fascinating (though maybe just for me), but ultimately, well, moot in the contemporary sense, because the simple, understood definition of “moot” is that it doesn’t matter. The origins of the word are well and good, but these days it means this, so really, who cares?

And speaking of moot points, the problem is perspective and scope. Much of what we do in life, creatively or otherwise, is moot. Pancakes for breakfast, or cold cereal, or skip breakfast entirely? Doesn’t really matter. Take the long way to work or the quick way? As long as you get there on time, who cares? Read the Game of Thrones series so that you can claim superiority over the people who just watch the TV show, or don’t? Outside of the odd water cooler conversation, there really is very little difference in your life.

Put it on a bigger scale. There will be very little difference on a national level, or even a state level, over the life of one person, even a highly influential one. Things take the course they take, and not much will change it. A bigger scale still: consider, for example, Paris. Unless I have some readers in France I’m unaware of, I really am completely removed from anything happening in Paris. My entire existence, as far as Paris is concerned, is moot. Let alone the world.

But go even bigger. In our own solar system, humans have got some manned missions done in our neck of the woods, and we’ve sent a fair few probes out to the far reaches, but for the most part, all the accomplishments of humans are represented by a tiny speck of light in the night sky. A moot exercise, you might say, as we’ll never have that perspective — but astronauts get that perspective all the time. It’s called the Overview Effect (a thing I literally learned just now!)

If you zoom out far enough, everything becomes moot. And if you’re prone to Nihilistic thinking (cough, cough), the maw of that realization yawns wide beneath your feet at just about any moment. Why bother creating — it’ll all be lost to time and the void eventually. Why bother doing anything?

But taking the long view, while it’s probably good for planning your retirement and your diet, is maybe not the best thing to do in cases like this. Any story I could possibly tell is statistically unlikely to disturb the waters very much, even if it becomes profoundly popular. Those waters are thoroughly saturated already, if you’ll pardon the pun. But that doesn’t mean that, for a narrow slice, the stories aren’t worth writing (or reading!). In a lot of ways, the writer’s self-affirmation is not unlike the teacher’s: if I can reach just ONE student…

The truth is, I don’t think I even need to reach a single reader. It’d be nice if I do, of course — and better than nice if I could reach more than one. But when I create, I’m creating for me. It brings me tiny little pangs of joy to make up characters and bounce them around in the snow globes of my creation. On a global scale, or a national one, or even a local one, that might very well be moot.

But given that this life is the only one we get, it only makes sense to fill it with as much joy as we can.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


On Losing (or, why art competitions suck)


I teach Drama, and we’ve just wrapped up our first production of the year. Wrapping a show is sort of an emotional roller coaster in its own right, but this show in particular was a competition piece, which carries its own unique set of pressures and baggage. And being the new guy in the building and in the program, there was a sort of excitement and uncertainty hanging over the whole thing.

Well, we lost. So now there’s this big ol’ empty feeling hanging around the end of this show. I didn’t want that to be the last thing in my mind, or in the minds of my students, so I wanted to say something to them to sort of tie all this up. And while I could have ad-libbed it, there were a few things I wanted to make sure that I got right, so I decided to write down what I’m going to say to them.

And when I started doing that, I realized, hey howdy, it fits right in with what I’m doing here in my own life, trying to write novels and tell stories and all that. So I’m posting it here.

Maybe my fellow arters will find something useful here.

****

So we’ve been working on this play for the better part of two months. For some of you, it’s your first foray into the arts. For others — my seniors — this may be your last bite at the apple.

We all thought we had a chance. I wasn’t exempt. As much as I know to temper expectations in a situation like this, I still held out hope, down in the soft underbelly of my heart, that we might win. We took this weird little show and this weird bunch of actors and spun it like spider silk into a web of quirky jokes, bizarre moments, and puzzling profundities; we knew we had something special.

It wasn’t easy. We got on each others’ nerves. We struggled to keep our lives in order while it was all going on, and some of us succeeded better than others. You suffered car accidents, illnesses to yourselves and your families, arguments and fights and breakups, and I don’t even want to know what else. And despite all that, everything came together at the perfect moment, and you gave a performance I didn’t even know we were capable of.

But hanging over all this was the competition, and that means that at the end of the day, there are winners and losers. And we didn’t win. Didn’t place. Didn’t even merit an honorable mention.

We can’t mitigate that. That sucks. It feels like a great big thumbs-down from the heavens, like the disembodied voice of God asking, “why did you even bother?”

And it might leave you thinking, why did I sink so much time into this? Why did I give up my afternoons and evenings, all that free time, all that mental energy — to merit not even a mention when it’s all said and done?

This is the problem with competitions in art. With awards and plaques and trophies, with comparing the fruit of your labor to the fruit of somebody else’s. This isn’t like football, where the better prepared, better organized, stronger, faster team wins within the margin of error for luck. This is art, and art is subjective. It means different things to different people. For better or worse — and it’s usually for worse — winning an art competition is about appealing to the right person in the right way at the right time.

And we didn’t.

And again, that sucks.

I can’t sugarcoat it. Even though I was totally prepared for it, it still burns me up. I spent most of the ride home muttering to myself, gritting my teeth, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. I know what this means to you. I’ve been there. And my heart goes out to you, not because we “lost,” but because this feels like a rejection and a nullification of not only the performance, but of everything we all did to make the performance happen. It feels like we did something wrong, something that wasn’t “good enough.”

And if we focus on the trophy — on the “winning” and “losing” and the honorable mentions, then it’s easy to read this situation that way.

But that’s not how I choose to read it. And I hope it’s not how you’ll choose to read it.

Art is not about winning awards. It’s about making connections. It’s about finding those people in your audience who are ready to hear the story you have to tell them. It’s about the ring of the applause in your ears, the accolades from people you don’t know but for this momentary connection, the conversations people have on the way to their cars afterward. Art isn’t the trophy that gets locked in a case to gather dust. Art is the experience that lives in your heart, that warm, giddy glow that you’ll remember when you get down on yourself, that knowledge that you did something that made a difference, that you changed the way somebody thought about you, about the world, about life, even if only for a little while.

That’s what art is about.

We don’t take home a trophy, but they can’t take away the standing ovation you got (and let’s not forget, we were the only group to get one of those).

We don’t go on to the next round, but we delighted our audience. We made them laugh and smile and cheer when heavy and emotional was the flavor of the day; we gave them an afternoon rainstorm in the dead of a hot, stifling summer.

Sometimes audiences applaud out of politeness. Because they’re supposed to do it, because it’s what you do to pay a tribute, however small. But when somebody stands up and applauds? They do that because they have to. Not because they’re forced to, or expected to, but because they have no other choice: something you did moved them to the core. The art got into them, stirred up their insides, and had to be expelled before it tore them apart.

Art is visceral. Art is emotional. Art isn’t about tallying points on a sheet, it’s about scratching marks on your audience’s soul.

You went into this show with claws out. You affected that audience. And that means a hell of a lot more to me than any trophy.

Could we have done some things differently? Sure. Could we have done things better, scored a few more points, fenagled a better ranking? Maybe.

But that show wouldn’t have been this show, and this show is one that I will never forget. And that’s because of you, and the performance that you gave, and because of what we all felt in that auditorium when the curtain came down.

Never forget that feeling. Because that’s what art is all about.

 


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