Tag Archives: Writing

A Buffet on Cheat Day


I used to steer away from nonfiction books the way you steer away from cliffs or angry moose. What, read something that isn’t about story? Something from which I can’t learn about character and plot and structure and all things writerly? Nonsense. I only have so many hours in the day; that’s time wasted.

And, well, I used to be a lot dumber than I am these days, too. (Which is not, by the way, to say that I am not currently dumb. I am currently very dumb about a great many things. But not, I think, as dumb as I used to be.)

Because if fiction books are good (we hope!) for learning about all those things in that top paragraph — awesome, deep characters, twistedly perfect plots, etc — nonfiction books are infinitely better for learning what your stories are really about. The world we live in. The private worlds that exist inside our heads. The nuts and bolts of reality. The often harrowing stranger-than-fiction stories that have really happened to real people.

I can’t believe I used to turn my nose up. Thanks to my re-discovery of the stunning awesomeness of libraries, I’m diving into nonfiction with a passion.

But the time! I hear my former (and current) self crying. Reading a book is such a significant investment of time and mental energy — how do you pick?

Well, here’s another secret I’ve learned about nonfiction: you don’t have to read the entire book. (This goes for fiction, too, but the sense of commitment to characters is a lot harder to overcome.) In fact, it’s a rare nonfiction book that I’ll read cover-to-cover, unless the writing is just dynamite (in which case there are things to learn there outside the subject matter of the book itself).

I treat my nonfiction books like a buffet on cheat day. Sure, the salad bar is there. And I’m welcome to fill up a plate with the leafy greens of statistics and deep technical jargon of astronomy or sociology or the mechanics of religious faiths. But what I really want are the slabs of steak and greasy chicken with piles of mashed potatoes and everything that’s fried: the raw, personal anecdotes and shocking first-person accounts and fascinating glimpses into the invisible.

So when I pick up nonfiction, the first thing I do is scan the chapters like I’m scoping out the buffet on the way to a table. Ooh, I definitely have to have some of that. Maybe a nibble from over there. Not going anywhere near those. And I’ve got to save room for dessert.

Not only does this make reading nonfiction — which has a bad rap for being a bit dry and tasteless — more fun and mentally engaging, but it paradoxically encourages me to read even more widely on things I might not have bothered with. I know I’m not making a week-long commitment before I even crack the cover; I know I can put the book down and move on to something else if it isn’t moving me.

All of which leads me back to one of my personal axioms not just as a writer, but as a teacher and a human as well:

All reading is good reading.

At best, you’re learning new things and improving yourself in the process. At worst, you’re learning what not to do and what to avoid. Win-win, baby.

Pass the mashed potatoes.

(Actually, don’t. Tomorrow is cheat day — I’ll just take them in a doggy bag.)

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It’s Still There


Thanks to being back at work, and restoring some semblance of normality, I was able to sit down and do a little bit of work on the ol’ novel again. And as I opened up the document and began to type, I was worried it would feel a little weird. Like seeing that person in the hall who used to be a friend, but then you stopped saying hi and only nodded at each other in the hall, and then even that stopped, so you had no idea what had happened with your relationship.

Me and my novel were like that. Not estranged, just strange with each other.

Luckily, a collection of words is incapable of holding a grudge or getting salty about unsent thank-you cards or misremembered first names. The discomfort with the work lasted about thirty seconds.

I’ve found this often to be the case, though I always seem to forget it when I most need to remember it: the story is there, waiting for you, whenever you’re ready to pick up the pen. Or the brush. Or the typewriter. Or whatever. Just because you haven’t written anything down yet doesn’t mean you never will. Just because you haven’t worked on it in a week, doesn’t mean you can’t work on it today. Or tomorrow. Or next week after that Thing In Your Life That’s In The Way loosens its chokehold on your windpipe just a smidge. When you finally decide (or become able) to make time for it again, the words will come.

Kinda like the tap around back of that old abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the woods. You’d think the water company would shut off service, but for some reason, once you fight your way past the murderous crows and rampaging squirrels and the nest of poisonous vipers that for some reason have twined themselves into a humanoid mass that chases you for miles through the dark wood, you brush off the cobwebs, twist the faucet, and out comes a stream of cool, fresh, water. And, probably, the water is laced with as-yet-unidentified bacteria that will slowly eat you from the inside out, but you won’t know that for weeks. But that’s a problem for future you. For now, you’re happy.

 


Don’t Forget Your Library


Writers are supposed to read, right?

And we’re supposed to read widely and prolifically, right?

Here’s the truth: in years past, I haven’t read enough. Not as much as I liked, and certainly not as much as I should. Why? Because books are fraggin’ expensive. And a major commitment. You go and drop forty bucks on a handful of books, not knowing if you’re going to enjoy them. But because you’ve spent the money, you feel obligated to read through the whole thing, whether you’re enjoying it or not.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be buying books. (As a guy who very much hopes you may buy his books when they become available, that would be pretty much anathema.) But for whatever reason, I had forgotten about the most obvious alternative: the library.

My wife recently started her specialist’s program, and had to do a bit of research. So off she went to the library. And because, you know, libraries are good for kids books, she took the kids along, and I went, too. And so I got a chance to browse around as well. And, hey, here’s a John Scalzi book I’d been thinking about reading — I read Lock In and loved it, but wasn’t sure about his other stuff. And there, some Neil Gaiman — somehow I haven’t read much of his work, but I’ve heard very good things. And then over there in nonfiction, a bunch of titles by Malcolm Gladwell — I’ve been listening to his podcast, and it’s excellent, so why not?

I went home laden with a bunch of titles I wouldn’t have read otherwise, feeling basically no commitment or obligation to any of them. Which is really the best way to read a book — with no expectations.

I read a few, and it was good — but I quickly became a little disillusioned. Our local library is pretty tiny, and the selection isn’t much to speak of. But — what I didn’t know until recently is that basically all the libraries in the state are networked, which means that you can browse the entire selection of books in all the libraries (which is quite a lot.) Then, if some library carries a book that your branch doesn’t, you just put in a request and within a week or so, the book shows up at your library.

This changed everything.

I’ve now got a queue of books ten deep and a stack of five or so on my bedside table. I’m reading books on philosophy and sociology and nuclear weapons and all kinds of things that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on before, for whatever reason. (The fact that it’s summer helps.) You might even say I’m reading so much it’s to the detriment of my writing, but that’s a discussion for another time. (It’s easier to pick up and put down a book at will than it is to pick up and put down your novel.)

Point is, I’m shoving words into my facehole at an unprecedented rate lately, and it’s entirely because I’ve rediscovered the library.

So, you know. Visit yours. Check out a book. Learn something new.


Lots of Time, Not Enough Time


Summer is weird for my writing process.

I do my project writing at work — arriving early and carving time out of my lunch break to get my daily word count in. Which is great. It’s regular, it’s very rarely disrupted, and it’s (for the most part) uninterrupted. The big problem with it is: I’m a teacher. Which means that, for two months out of every year, and on the odd week here and there, my writing routine hits a speed bump. Except it’s less speed bump and more an entire clutch of trees fallen across the road.

trees see GIF

Because when we’re on vacation — and man, I’m not complaining about vacation! — so many of the elements I like to have in place are out of place. I don’t have my usual space. I don’t have the relative quiet. I definitely don’t have the lack of interruption.

Instead, I’m trying to work on the sofa in the living room, or the desk downstairs, with the kids running laps through the house and asking me endless questions. There’s no such thing as quiet. There’s no such a thing as even an interrupted five minutes.

I have all the time I could want, but I can’t buy the moments.

Like having reservations to a fancy restaurant on the night of my kid’s graduation.

Or having a membership to a swanky gym on the opposite side of town.

The thing is there, but it might as well be behind bulletproof plexiglass. I just can’t get to it. It’s frustrating as hell. I have so much time in the day, but I can’t — or at least, haven’t figured out how to — use that time.

Which means that, yet again, the project is stalled, until I can find a more reliable way to work on it. Which may well be going back to school in the fall.

Ugh.

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)


There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

Related image

Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.


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