Sunday, February 24, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending 2/23/2019

Another week, another one of these.  3 weeks in a row!

I'm just making it up.

Having a deadline is (can be) a good thing.  It forces me to keep writing through the weekend, which is good as long as I'm not sacrificing the important stuff (thus far, it's meant sacrificing my reading time on Saturday and/or Sunday mornings, which isn't too bad), and as I've re-evaluated what this little weekly overview is for -- not just as a catch-all to log what I've been ingesting as far as entertainment, but to actually think and consider what it means that I am enjoying these things, while also asking What lessons can I take away from this (these)? -- it's become a good gauge for where I am, as a writer, where I want to go, and how I might be able to achieve that.
**with the caveat that, truthfully, I don't have much of a clue what I'm doing; like Indiana Jones, I'm making it up as I go along.

Anyway.  Further ado aside, let's get to it.

VISUAL MEDIA (or tv & movies, with a play or musical if y'r lucky):

This week, my wife and I took our 11-year-old son to the touring musical SPAMALOT! at the Collins Center for the Arts, on the University of Maine campus.  Our boy has seen "Holy Grail" and we've watched a number of episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, so he was familiar with many of the bits in the show.  But he still couldn't stop laughing, and that made it so worth it.  He was quoting the show, and laughing about it, for days after.  Which was nice, since the poor kid broke his wrist last Sunday, while snowboarding.
Obviously, the intelligence and comic timing of the Pythons' is nigh-unimpeachable.  Aspiring to the heights of their writing is a worthy, if seemingly impossible, goal.  Even so, the way they set up jokes, or the manner with which they slyly distract the audience, in order to set up a gag, such as the Black Knight losing his legs in battle (easily done with editing, in film, but more challenging with live theater), are things I can try to include in my own writing.  Having examples to look at, from shows like this, and forcing myself to think hard about doing more than just telling the story, from point A to point B to point Z, is certainly worthwhile and attainable.

I introduced my son to TOMBSTONE this week, as well.  One of my top 5 westerns, all time, this viewing did not disappoint.  Russell, Kilmer, Paxton, Elliott, and crew lean into the tropes of the western film, while attempting -- and succeeding -- at telling something with more depth and heart than a typical western.  Tombstone is a story about relationships -- marriages that are strong, or not, the connection between three brothers and their connection with the town of Tombstone, and the friendship at the core of this story, between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, a friendship where you know one will take a bullet for the other and vice versa, and there would be no regrets on either side.  What a great film.
The most important lesson I can take from this film is the idea that one can use the artifice of genre to lure an audience in, but with the right approach, a more fulfilling story can be told.  And maybe that story didn't need the genre trappings, but when you can meld the two, something magical can be the result.

We've reached season 4 of COMMUNITY . . . yeah, that season (the one where Dan Harmon was fired as showrunner).  And, from the jump, my wife and I could tell something was different.  It's not a stark difference, but it's enough to be off-putting.  The characters still act in a relatively familiar ways, but it feels like the characters are "acting" like they think their characters would act, rather than being the more fully realized characters we've enjoyed in the first three seasons.  The specific point my wife made was that she didn't like what they were doing to Abed, instead of being a lovably idiosyncratic character with poor social skills, he now comes off as the butt of a joke, a "freak" whose strange characteristics are something to be laughed at.  I'm glad there are only 13 episodes in this season, but I wonder if Harmon, when he returns for season 5, will be (was) able to recapture the magic of those first three seasons.

WRITTEN MATERIAL (or books and comics and such):

I'm currently reading MY HALF CENTURY, a selection of prose from Anna Akhmatova, considered by many to be the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th Century.  Censored and banned from publishing by the Soviet Union from 1925-1939 and 1946-1956, she may be the greatest poet you've never heard of.  I'm about 70 pages in, but already I can see the intelligence and lyricism in Akhmatova's prose that must be present in her poetry.  She paints pictures with words, and the connections she makes between childhood memories and the world order at the time are impressive.  Inspired by Warren Ellis (see below), I decided to share some quotes from the book, with my own thoughts included.  The first of these posts can be found at the link below:



Warren Ellis is one of my favorite contemporary authors (that's a long list, mind you).  Mostly known for his comic work, including the amazing TRANSMETROPOLITAN, he has also written a few novels, in recent years.  Early in his career, as the internet was just starting to expand, he understood the power of having an online presence and over the years has curated a number of discussion sites, as well as a series of email newsletters for fans of his to subscribe to.  His current newsletter is titled ORBITAL OPERATIONS, and you can sign up here, if you like.  It's a weekly look at what is interesting and inspiring him, in the way of music, books, and other creators' ideas/thoughts/essays/newsletters.  He drops a lot of links into the newsletter, which sends me skittering across the plains of the interwebs to seek these things out and see what's wot.  Part of the inspiration for this weekly summation comes from this.  So, it seems only natural I should start dropping in links to things I've read online, which came from my linking through from links in Ellis's Orbital Operations.

Case in point:  John Coulthart's blog, feuilleton, and one of his posts from this past week.  Constructive Cover Designing.

Coulthart was pointing to a sample book from 1923, looking at cover designs that utilized paper choice as part of the design of the cover images, allowing the paper to become a background element rather than just the medium on which they presented their images.  It's impressive how the textures and coloring of the paper really accentuate the images.

The first one offered feels like a perfect melding of the paper and the image, creating something that has depth and weight, while also showcasing an artistic ability that's impressive.

The Yosemite cover is another one I really like.  The stark, white background, with the simple but fully realized image is an arresting piece of art.  


Ideally, when writing, I would much prefer to totally overwhelm my brain and let it be subsumed by music, like a sensory deprivation tank. But I'm usually stealing time to write, without the ability to ignore my other responsibilities, so I pop one earbud in and press on.  
I listen to -- or maybe it's more apt to say that I hear -- music differently.  I seem to focus more on the instrumentation and the rhythm, rather than the words, so much so that I can listen to a song over and over, for years, and not know any of the lyrics.  Which is helpful, as I'm unable to write while listening to lyrics that I know or can understand clearly.  For many years, I listened to Tori Amos while I wrote, but I've since come to know many of her lyrics, so I've had to put her work aside and mainly focus on instrumental music -- primarily movie and television soundtracks, with some classical and jazz mixed in, at times.  This week, I've been enjoying Basil Poledouris's music from my all-time favorite western film, LONESOME DOVE.  The softness of the strings woodwinds along with the rousing chorus of brass instruments, with some occasional banjo picking, has been exactly what I needed to get my head in the mood for writing.  


Finally finished the story I've been writing, since just after the new year began.  Inspired by Richard Russo's collection of chapbooks, INTERVENTIONS, available only in print, with paintings from his daughter, Kate.  Collecting "Horseman," "High and Dry," and "The Whore's Child," along with a novella specially written for the slipcased collection, "Intervention," which gives the whole its title, this is Russo at his best -- relatable characters with typical lives who find themselves confronted with something that will change their lives forever.  Russo's prose is sharp and incisive, setting the stage while also cutting right to your heart.  Always engaging, his work is inspirational and aspirational.  And, upon reading these three stories plus one essay, I knew I wanted to attempt something similar, in scope and feel.
I started with the opening scene -- that was really all I had, at the time -- two old friends meeting in a diner, years after they graduated high school and set out on their separate lives, discussing how things went differently than planned, the mistakes they made, and the missed opportunity of not getting together, as boyfriend and girlfriend, back when they were receiving their graduation gowns, on the cusp of that final summer together, for all of them.  In the conversation over coffee, it was obvious the woman was quite disappointed to think they'd not become closer, back then, while the man is either too indifferent or too timid to commit to such an admission.  At the end of the scene, they go their separate ways again, but the woman suggests they should meet up again, soon.  And that was it, all that I had for a story.
When I state, above, that I wanted to write something in the scope of "Intervention," I knew I wanted to write something longer than a short story (typically 3000-5000 words long) but no longer than a novella (somewhere around 15000-21000 words, I believe).  Which meant I would need a bit more detail and plot than I typically work with.  So, I fleshed out the characters and their backgrounds, figured out why the man was hesitant to commit to starting a relationship with this woman from his childhood, considered what had brought this woman back to Maine, and slowly wrote the next scene, and the next scene, and the one after that.  And, in the end, I got roughly 14000 words written and it all tied together rather nicely, at the end.
Of course, this is only a first draft.  There's a lot of work to do to actually make it good.  But, having gotten this draft down, I now have a skeleton to work with.  I just need to tighten up the characterizations, fine tune the details, shove the bits that should be subtext (but which are right on the surface in these initial drafts) down into the dark recesses of the story, and then polish it all, most especially the dialogue, until it's a richly realized narrative.
At least, that's what I work toward.  As long as it's a workmanlike bit of a story, that'll be good too.


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