Thursday, December 11, 2008

Assignment: Why I can't attend a reading

Why I can't write a blog about my attending a poetry or prose reading, especially one in New York City, where I'm sure the readings are more interesting than those held at the local bookstore in suburban New Jersey. Well, technically my opening remark is not necessarily true. I'm sure I could write about it, but it would be complete fiction. Hey, we're writers! If we don't have first-hand experience with something, we can just make it up and if we are any good at what we do 9-out-of-10 people would be none the wiser. However, I'm a big proponent of truth, which is why I can never imagine myself working in journalism. Therefore, here are my reasons for not being able to complete the original assignment of blogging about a reading I attended:

This is a night class and like most students who sign up for night classes, I work full-time during the day and can barely make time to attend the class, never mind attending anything additional outside of class hours. While I understand the value to us as writers to go see a "pro" in their native environment, for me at least, time is a luxury that is in very short supply. To be able to take a day to travel into the city to attend a reading, or even part of a day to attend one locally, is unfortunately not a realistic expectation of a night-class student. Between commuting time, working hours, and other adult responsibilities to home and family, it's simply not a realistic expectation. And that's just the aspect of time.

Then there's the financial component. Between transportation costs such as fuel and tolls, parking, food, drink, and finally admission to the event, this is a rather spendy proposition when all is said and done and whether we're full-time students or full-time employees with families, this is no small inconvenience, and for some is simply not financially possible.

This kind of assignment really needs to be relegated to the realm of extra-credit, and not a requirement that can adversely affect the student's grade if unable to be completed.

Assignment on writing and . . . grief

There are a couple of activities I find therapeutic when it comes to dealing with life's little detours and upsets. One is riding a motorcycle. I once read something somewhere about an observation that you never see a motorcycle in a psychiatrist's parking lot. It's true! And there's a very good reason for it that only those who ride understand. But living in the northeastern US, the weather is usually only warm enough for riding about 5 months out of the year. So what's a biker to do without their two-wheeled therapy for the rest of the year? This leads me to the other activity, more pertinent to this assignment: writing.

I find that my best writing comes when I write from the heart, and this not only applies too all the syrupy sweet stuff that pours forth when love's muse has inspired us, but even more so when tragedy strikes and we're forced to deal with the not-so-happy aspects of being human. Just as fiction requires conflict, writing about grief-inspiring issues tends to be more visceral and readers seem to identify with it easier, than say, a fluff piece about little Susie getting upset because she accidentally lost her homework. When the writing deals with more negative, base human experiences that all but the very young and/or lucky have experienced, the reader has a more vested interest in how the issue will be resolved. Call it morbid curiosity, but it's human nature. Why else do newspaper headlines focus on crisis instead of the upcoming Girlscout cookie sale season? People love tragedy, when it happens to someone else. And writers get to choose whether to bring their own experiences into their writing or objectively report another's experience.

I find the deeper I allow myself to bleed onto the page, the more deeply the reader will identify with it. But even omitting the reader's response, I find it helps me to put my psyche on paper. Perhaps it is the constant revisions requiring me to examine and reexamine the experience over and over and over that allows me to work through the experience while I rework the text, but for me at least I find that by the time the writing has reached a suitable level of polish for publishing, I'll have come to terms with the issue and, forgive me for using psycho-babble, reached "closure." Perhaps the expression "closure" refers to the metaphor of the raw, open wound that while initially painful to the touch, over time it heals, or closes, to a point where it can be touched (upon) without pain. Hmm.

I'm sorry but our time is up.
That'll be $100.
See you next time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Review of a book read in another class (#2)

I'm taking a Children's Lit class (if you didn't already guess that from my last post on Where the Wild Things Are) and another of the books we've read was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Treasure Island was published in 1883, at the peak of the Victorian era and is probably the most popular example of the boy's adventure story. Written for the author's son, Treasure Island was intended to include everything a young boy would find exciting: guns, fights, pirates, chases, mutiny, oh, and of course a treasure map. While modern little girls may also find these things entertaining, at the time this story was first published there were very distinct and diverging gender roles at work. Little boys were encouraged to be adventurous, brave, and violent when necessary. Little girls were expected to be pure, innocent, and gentle.

One of the reasons for this encouragement for young boys is because at that time England was all about building their empire and exploring the wide world and claiming as much of it as possible for the crown. As such, England needed brave and adventurous men, so as William Wordsworth put it earlier that century, "the child is father of the man", this genre of boys adventure story began appearing to foster these qualities in young boys.

One of the things I found very interesting about Treasure Island was the type-casting of the adult male role-models in the story and how Stevenson painted the main antagonist, Long John Silver, not as the stereotypical "bad guy" (dark greasy hair, long curly mustache, vulgar, violent, stupid, etc.), but rather as the most charismatic of the bunch. He's polite, he's intelligent, he's honorable, but at the same time he's supposed to be the bad guy.

I love that Stevenson did this. Otherwise, the story would be predictable and boring. Instead, you get this character that is completely unsuspected as a bad guy because he doesn't fit the mold of the bad guy. He's cripple (wooden leg), he's a respectable pub owner, he's well-spoken. And yet we find out by the end of the story that he'd throw his own mother under a bus to save his own hide when it came down to it. The character of Long John Silver strongly reminded me of the character Keyser Söze played by Kevin Spacey in the 1994 movie, The Usual Suspects.

The idea of using this kind of complexity in character development has definitely affected my own writing. Anyone can create the basic flat character stereotypes; i.e., the good guys wear white, the bad guys wear black. But truly entertaining characters are far more complex. Bad guys can be likable. Good guys can and should have issues and may not always be very likable. Appearances can be deceiving. It makes for more interesting reading and writing.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review of a book read in another Class (#1)

OK. Let's see. One of the books I've read for another class this semester is Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, which is about a young boy, named Max, who is a terror to his mother due to his wild behavor. He's sent to his room without supper as punishment when he talks back to her and it is from his room that he runs away to an island where he meets monsters and becomes their king.

This is a picture book for the most part, so upon first read there's not a whole lot to it from an adult's perspective. A few lines of text on one page balancing a large illustration on the other. This is presumably done in children's books because young children seem to initially take in new information visually, so these books try to get the child's brain to start associating textual content with visual content. Over time, as the reading level advances, childrens books contain fewer and fewer pictures and more and more text. The goal being to get the child to use their imagination to form the pictures themselves in their heads, rather than requiring an illustrator to create it for them.

However, the careful observer will notice while reading Where the Wild Things Are that as the story progresses, just the opposite occurs. The story begins with a lot of text and a small picture on one page, but as you turn each page and the story progresses, more and more of the two-page layout is filled with picture, slowly edging out the text until finally both pages are completely filled with illustrations and no text. But then the text begins a slow comeback taking back the page(s) until the final page of the story, which contains only text with no accompanying illustration on either page.

The text is supposed to represent the logical, rational, and lawful part of Max, while the illustrations represent his imagination and "wild side." In Freudian terms, the story is basically about a child's struggle to gain control over his impulses. At the point in the story where both pages are filled by illustration and there is no text, Max is completely immersed in his imagination (note his eyes are closed on those pages) and has given himself up entirely to his desires and impulses. However, a turning point is then reached where he realizes the value of controlling these impulses (he gets hungry). At this point, the illustrations recede until Max returns fully to reality and finds himself back in his bedroom, where he finds a hot supper waiting for him.

When read at face value, the book is honestly pretty lame if you're older than 5 years old, but upon deeper inspection, there is actually a whole lot going on in this book. There really isn't anything illustrated without a purpose, so the closer you look, the more meaning can be found.
Pretty darned cool. But the big question is this: Did the author and illustrator purposefully set out with the intention of putting all of these more complicated meanings into the design of the book, or were they simply setting out to tell a story to entertain children, with illustrations based simply on what the illustrator imagined when they read the text? Is meaning defined by the artist or by the beholder? Opinions vary, but to quote old Siggy, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Literary Excellence

What is literary excellence? Well, literary pertains to literature, which is the writing/reading of books, poems, essays, etc.. Excellence basically means to surpass, be superior to, or outdo others in the same area, in this case, literature.

So what makes for excellent literature? In my opinion, if a writer can master the basics of their writing form, e.g., setting, plot, character, etc. for fiction, and then imbue it with a creativity that makes the reader care about what they are reading, then they have gone above and beyond the norm into the realm of excellence. Many are those who can write a story. Few are those who can write something where the reader truly cares for, identifies or at least sympathizes with, the characters described by these little, black, squiggly lines thrown together into words and sentences. When an author can elicit an emotional attachment to the writing, then I'd consider that writing as literary excellence.

Who would I nominate for an award for literary excellence? J.K. Rowling. This author has almost single-handedly brought recreational reading back into the home, when paper-based literature seemed all but condemned to classrooms and estate sale libraries. What was it about the Harry Potter stories that struck such a chord in so many people? Literary excellence.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I owe my life to this book or poem

This post is in response to the question posed by the Professor, "
Have you ever read a book, story or poem that saved your life?"

Since I don't believe I've ever been seriously, intentionally suicidal, I can't really credit anything I've read as affecting me so deeply that it changed my mind from proceeding with any sort of self-inflicted doom.

Nor do I have any fantastic stories of botched subway muggings where my well-worn copy of Catcher in the Rye miraculously stopped a bullet from penetrating my chest, or perhaps a what-if scenario where I thought, "Had I not stopped off at Barnes & Noble to buy Dubliners that day, I would have been on the transit bus that overturned and exploded, killing everyone on board."

I suppose I can, however, credit books in general for changing my life. I was one of those people, you think can't possibly exist, who made it through 12 years of schooling without ever reading a book from cover to cover. Yep. That's me. I won't go into the details of how I accomplished this feat and still graduated high school, but it's true.

Then, when I was 19 or so years old, I used to hang out in a student center at the local community college while a friend went to night classes and I needed something to do to pass the time. I grabbed a paperback from the local bookstore called Say You Love Satan, a true-crime type non-fiction story about some Long Island teenagers, with whom I identified (based on the cover photos) due to their life-style, musical tastes, age, etc., who dabbled in some devil worship which lead to one kid brutally murdering another kid over something petty. Oh, in case you're wondering, the murderer kept commanding the victim to, "Say you love Satan!" and continued stabbing him when he wouldn't, hence the title.

Anyway, it might not have been a literary classic by any means, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading all the way through. I was hooked. Finally, something I could read for my own interest. Next up was a hefty 1000-page fiction set in post-apocolyptic America (very similar to Stephen King's The Stand) by Robery McCammon called Swan Song, which to this day remains one of my favourite books ever.
I devoured it in a week.

Then the beginning of the end came. My future mother-in-law turned me on to the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre, recommending I start with The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. This sword & sorcery trilogy was the beginning of a series of dozens of Dragonlance books, all based on the same setting and history, most of which I eventually read more than twice.

After that, it didn't really matter what I read. I alternated between heavy classics like The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, and Paradise Lost, and lighter fare like the Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.. I don't think I've gone more than a few weeks ever since without being in the middle of reading at least one book.

So how has this changed my life? Well, the love of reading has given me an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, without which I'd most likely have spent the past decade or so doing nothing but playing video games and perhaps working in some dead-end, minimum wage job, or finding myself on the wrong end of some knife wielding satanist, instead of spending those years seeking new knowledge and experiences through travelling or taking night classes in a variety of subjects from Latin to Children's Literature.

Therefore, I have to attribute much of what has made me into the person I'm proud be today to not just one, but books in general.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Conflict in Fiction

One of the elements of fiction that I've gained a new appreciation for due to both classroom lecture, and from reading the works of my peers, is the element of conflict. I had never really considered it as a necessary part of the plot of my writing before. I can spin a 10-page story that contains interesting character development, vivid descriptions of scenery and action, using creative language, and tell a tale about the experiences of the protagonist doing something really cool, but I'm finding that conflict really makes a big difference in reader interest. Why? It's human nature, I guess. But it's true. I am learning that I can take a perfectly serviceable story I wrote, which I had previously thought of as pretty good, and turn it into something really good, just by adding conflict.

Be it internal or external, conflict is a great way to build tension towards a climax. The greater the conflict, the greater the climax when it's finally resolved by the protagonist and it is this element that keeps the reader turning pages with interest. Why? Because they are identifying with the protagonist (hopefully) and putting themselves into the same situation, they know how they might handle the conflict presented, but they want to know how the protagonist will handle it.

The trick is finding new and interesting ways for your protagonist to deal with the conflict that your average reader might not have thought of. That's what keeps them interested. Who wants to read something predictable? And what makes it predictable is when they read your story and think to themselves, "Yep, that's what I thought they were going to do because that's what I would have done. Yawn."
But that challenge of creating something fresh and original is what makes writing fun and exciting. At least for me. I love trying new things. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not, but you won't know if you don't try.