Friday, January 29, 2016

What's the story, "Sound Space"?

I started drafting "Sound Space" when we lived in the house on 1st Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by feral cats and orchids, across the street from Daryl, the guy with a huge always-accurate clock ticking away on the front of his house and a sign in his yard that warned against letting your dog "go to the bathroom" on his lawn. Those were days when we might think, on a Saturday afternoon, "let's have a party," and a few hours later 15 amazing people whom I love would fill our house, playing guitars and singing and laughing under the light of the moon.

At that time I had a room for writing and creating. The house only had two bedrooms, but one of them was mine to use to create. It's something I miss. I had things taped up on the walls, and weird little things I'd made piled up on the shelves. I tend to collect "interesting garbage" -- like custom-cut cardboard packaging materials that make interesting shapes -- thinking that someday I'll make it into something. And maybe someday I will. I still have it all. But now it's crammed in the corner of a room that Brian uses to process orders of "Write Like a Motherfucker" mugs, behind a baby gate to keep our two little barbarians from destroying everything -- or getting hurt themselves. Our lives are less loose and jolly than they used to be, not that I would trade it for the world.

I had the idea at that time for a character who could hear the sounds of other lives -- other selves who had made different choices or been affected by different acts of chance. And that by the time she was an adult, this character would be able to hear so many different possible selves, so many so similar to her, that much of it would mush into white noise, and the only ones should would *really* be able to hear would be the ones so desperately horribly different that they have nothing in common in at all. I imagined Penelope hearing June. 

I first imagined the story written non-linearly. In fact, that's how I originally composed it: right into inDesign, in chunks of text free-formed and variously floating. I tried to get it published like that for a very long time. I took it with me to an artists' residency for experimental literature, and worked on it there, too. But years passed and the story wasn't getting anywhere. Finally I stripped it all out of its inDesign boxes and sent it out in paragraphs, as a normal-looking story, and it was accepted. It's currently printed in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Louisiana Literature.

I am overjoyed to see this story in print. The day it was released I received a facebook message from someone who'd read my story and had taken the time to let me know how much she loved it (always do this: every writer wants -- needs! -- to hear this!), and that feeling of being acknowledged and appreciated for something you've poured your soul into is, well, utterly beyond words. In that moment, I am made of gratitude, the greatest thing a person can become. But when I look it it spelled out in clean left-right lines from margin to margin, well groomed into its tidy paragraphs, I can't help but feel like something got lost in the process.

The question is: was this a good loss or a bad loss? As the creator, I am biased and blinded, but I can try to assess it objectively, and when I do, I think I come to the conclusion that although the story needed to be written the way it was, in the end, the story was more about sound than sight, and the visual aspects may have actually been working against the musical qualities of the story. The story is very rhythmic, very auditory. Just as a song with an unusual melody benefits from a steady beat, maybe my odd story needed the structures we take for granted -- the shapes of the "standard" page, the blocks of paragraph -- to come together. The character, Penelope, lives in a disordered world of auditory overlap, a near-chaos that makes it difficult to think. Perhaps in trying to reflect that on the page, I was making it hard for my reader to think.

Nonetheless, those are the shapes in which the story was born. And so as the author, when I look at this story, happy as I am to see it in print, the loss will always stand out to me.

Readers often want to turn to the author as the "authority" on stories -- tell us what it means, tell us why you wrote it. Writers rarely know. Writing a story is such an amazingly complex process that at the end of it I usually sit back, read the story, and ask, wow, did I really do that? Especially once a little time passes, the author is as much a "reader" of the work as anyone else.

And then there are a cases like this, where the author has an insight into her own work that nobody wants, or needs.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cruelty, Then and When...

WE THINK OF THE PAST as this awful place where people suffered and died from physical ailments that we no longer fear: tooth problems tortured before they killed, there was no real treatment for earaches, gastrointestinal problems, complicated childbirth, on and on. Things that today we treat, then were horrific ordeals. It's obvious: in the past people suffered, lived short brutish lives, because they lacked the medical knowledge we have today. IN THE FUTURE, people will think the same thing about us today and mental health. They will look back on us and think, "those poor people, it's obvious: they suffered and died, their lives were stressful and short, their society was all f*ed up, because they lacked the universal medical knowledge we have today..."

IN THE PAST, when people suffered from illnesses that were, because of medical ignorance, "mysterious," it was chalked up to God and demons -- moral causes. The sick person was being punished for something. TODAY, it's obvious: that's a cruel thing to do to a sick person, to tell him he's sick because he's been judged by God and found unworthy. But today WE DO THE SAME THING with mental illness: we lack the science to understand the biological causes, and so we tell the ill they lack character or moral strength, that they only suffer from a bad personality.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Electronic Girls Alive and Well and Going to Miami

This video is making the rounds:

Which goes to show that Electronic Girls are alive and well on the internet. Most of the video's online iterations don't credit the artist, Jordon Wolfson, let alone mention that his seductive stripperbot will be featured this summer at Art Basel. I had to work a little to find that. If you're in South Florida, go to 14 Rooms and experience this in person. I would if I could.

The rumor is that she has been programmed to locate faces, make eye contact, and dance "at" or "to" you, attempting to seduce you, with her sexy robot moves and goblin mask.

Make no mistake: the stripperbots will gain sentience and rise up against us. But until then, enjoy the show.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


In today's NYTimes Frank Bruni used the phrase "hardship porn" to describe "fetishized misfortune," or the cheap use of sob stories to lend seeming-emotional-substance to what are clearly callously manipulative, calculated narratives: American Idol performer stories, politician's tales about their ancestors or past difficulties, and the like.

For years I've been using the phrase "horror porn" to express my inability to watch genre horror films -- or more to the point, what I see and feel when I watch them. The phrase sums up the "emptiness" of the experience for me. However, if you google "horror porn," you're more likely to find videos that combine elements of both genre horror films and actual pornography. My usage hasn't quite caught on.

"Food porn" on the other hand was an established internet visual genre even before Pinterest came along to cement its popularity, and before that the phrase had an earlier life as a statement of feminist disapprobation of a fetishized woman-food connection, and criticism of the food-ad industry. 

The dictionaries I checked (with the exception of Urban Dictionary) make no reference (yet) to this use of "porn," as a noun (modified by another noun), centralizing the negative connotations of the word "porn" while the modifier tells us what category of thing is being disapproved of.

There does seem to be the possibility of confusion -- even "food porn" could be misinterpreted to mean standard pornography that uses food in a sexual way. However, it's interesting to think that someday people might say "sex porn" to refer to what we would just call porn, and use the word "porn" in general to refer to any empty, meaningless, or manipulative narrative fragment designed to illicit an emotional response without an honest or decent (moral) purpose.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Evo / Cog Science and Lit

I decided to start off the summer with a flurry of essays about brain science and literature: Steven Pinker, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Denis Dutton, and a few others. I still have much to read, but a few initial thoughts:

These authors are quick to scold Literature professors for not being open enough to the Sciences and the ways scientific thought can enlighten the understanding of literature and the Humanities in general. It's a fair statement and I'm sure there are many Lit profs who could stand to be more open to the sciences. What's ironic though is that the same authors who are doing the scolding are clearly publishing essays about writing and reading fiction without seriously consulting someone who actually writes, closely reads, or teaches the writing of fiction. If they had, they might have avoided giving the impression throughout their essays that writing and reading fiction is something our brains do easily. 

Those of us who teach story and the writing of stories can tell you quite confidently that constructing a clear and engaging narrative, whether fictional or nonfictional, is a skill that many very smart people struggle with. We can also assure you that people are very capable of reading a book or watching a film without formulating a hypothesis regarding its meaning -- or they might formulate an understanding that is demonstrably illogical, but persist in believing it, etc.

Perhaps if these essays had been written with the difficulty and rareness (what percentage of any population are its storytellers?) of the deed in mind, they might have begun to tackle the question of why people devote themselves to narrative-building and meaning-making (rather than procreation and resource acquisition). 

They might also have addressed the fact that while fiction can be seen as a "safe space" for would-be dangerous vicarious experiences, people very often seek out fiction that is not "safe" for them. There are novels banned because people think the ideas contained in them are dangerous, and there are stories that genuinely freak people out and make them uncomfortable -- sometimes through content, but sometimes through structure! There are many highly acclaimed and admired books and stories that disturb our understanding of the real and unreal and muddle the line between them. I would suggest that the thinkers I've read so far are speaking primarily about children's stories, but children's stories seem "safe" only to adults, or perhaps to children who know the story by heart. The way we talk about fiction is different depending upon whether we are close to it or looking at it from the outside, and I don't think outsiders have an advantage in their understanding here.

None of the essays I've read so far are as interesting as the 11th chapter of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, written in the 1970s, where he introduces the concept of memetics as an analog to genetics and suggests that information in the form of ideas can behave just like information in the form of DNA. Ideas (memes) that are longer-lasting and more prone to replication will be over-represented in the ecosystem, compared to ideas that lack these traits.

I'd like to read a continuation of this idea, rather than mush about poetry lending a male status among females or that imagination is just a side effect of the survival-relevant ability to anticipate the future. Or even the story-aggrandizing theories that place fiction on the high altar of vicarious wisdom. 

Stories, like genes, can seem to have a life of their own. To what extent are there units of thought floating around in the "cultural soup" of our minds (and in the shared mind-soup created by our communications -- our shared experience of the world) and how do these ideas persist, and how do they replicate? How different, really, is the idea of "star-crossed lovers" from a chemical unit of information: a gene for skin pigmentation or long legs or a well-structured heart? The essential difference is that one is physical and the other is not. 

But DNA, while physical, is hardly tangible like a toad or a tomato. We learn about it indirectly, through instruments. Perhaps people are instruments through which stories can be known? I don't know. I'm going to keep reading...