Friday, December 27, 2019

After the Fall (term) ...


Traditionally (well, for a year at least), I try to assess how things went during the fall semester. It was a hectic term, where I taught three classes for a time, as well as “running” the writing workshop for the Windycon local sf convention, as well as a writers group made up mostly of my former short story writing students. Add to that writing a couple of book columns for a science fiction magazine. I did a lot of reading and wasn’t able to get my own fiction-writing projects, the frustration over which I am still trying to cope with. 
Not only that, but the courses I taught at the college level were not exactly my “home turf.” Fantasy writing is in the neighborhood of science fiction, but not quite the same thing – otherwise, why call one “fantasy” and the other “science fiction”? I didn’t feel at home, and for good reason: I wasn’t. Not in the way I feel at home with science fiction. 
It wasn’t that I felt unfamiliar with the forms and conventions of fantasy, it’s just there are so many, and so many forms differ from one another. The gamut runs from Franz Kafka to Brandon Sanderson, from Lord Dunsany to J. K. Rowling. My predecessor set up her class to teach fantasy writing as a publishing category in popular fiction. Up until then, that’s what I believed her students wanted. I believed they wanted to be the next Patrick Rothfuss, or Tomi Adeyemi, or Django Wexler, or Kelly Link. Or something. 
Instead, I found that many of my students don’t even know who these writers are. And whatever it is they want to write isn’t necessarily geared to what is currently selling in the publishing world. Frankly, half the class seemed to have trouble identifying what fantasy literature is, exactly (or even approximately). A number of them told me their reading of fantasy was drawn from the worlds of manga, graphic stories, and gaming. And a couple of students seemed to have little familiarity with any kind of fantasy beyond the oldest and dustiest examples; they were of a “literary” bent, and were taking this class to explore what they might possibly do in the form. 
I don’t wish to disparage manga, or graphic stories, or gaming, or literary writers. Except for the latter, I don’t feel comfortably familiar enough with any of the forms to express any opinions one way or another. Luckily, I don’t have to, but for a while I wasn’t sure of that. The role of a teacher somehow gets inexorably muddled with the role of an “authority.” After all these years teaching science fiction, and short fiction too for that matter, I should have known better, but it didn’t occur to me soon enough. 
In fact, it occurred to me to me only after I lay in bed one early morning before class, worrying about what I was going to do, what I should do, and what I thought I was expected to do. I worried and worried and couldn’t get to sleep until a clear, sharp, direct little voice sounded in my head: “Hey, this isn’t your class. It’s your students’ class. You’ve got sixteen other minds at work on these same problems. Now, some of them are just trying to figure out how to get through this class with a passing grade and the least amount of effort, but the best of your group not only are here to learn something, but to contribute something to the conversation you started in the very first session: What is this kind of literature we call fantasy?” 
What I can’t teach them, they can teach me.
I felt incredibly relieved. 
Of course, it’s never as easy as that sounds. On the contrary, it’s total chaos and madness, but I get to share in the process. But that process, of necessity, includes trial and error, and getting things wrong. 
This was also true for the Fiction Writing Workshop: Beginning I taught. Trial and error. Getting things wrong. True, I managed to do a number of things right, and I believe that with a few notable exceptions my students did their best. They were a great group, too. I had at least three students who were already capable of work that could be seriously considered for publication; two more who were very close to putting out publishable work. The one thing I never have to worry about at Columbia is having enough good students for a class. Yes, there are plenty of students who aren’t uniformly great at every facet of the creative process, but still, so many of these students are extraordinarily gifted. Even an academic bumbler like me can look like a good teacher. 
But I wouldn’t want to be judged so on my performance this term. If anything, right now, I feel less than competent.  
But I know, I think, what I can do better next time. 
The learning process extends to me. If I’m to learn anything at this gig, I have to allow for my own mistakes. I have to allow that I can learn from them. And allow that I can do better next time. 
For the Fiction Writing Workshop, I give myself a B-. For the Fantasy Writing Workshop, a C+. Short Story Writing is a non-credit continuing ed class, Pass/Fail … I think I pass, but after 28 years, I should be able to get it right.  
Mostly, at least. 
If I teach these classes next year, I’ll be going for As. 
This spring, I’m scheduled to teach Foundations in Creative Writing, which I’ve never taught before. I expect to make more miscalculations, but I already have a batch of ideas that will at least be fun to try. 
My science fiction writing class was canceled because not enough students signed up for it. So it goes. I guess most students don’t think science fiction has anything to teach them anymore. A science fiction writer like me should feel a little bummed out – and I did. It took me a while to remember that one of the most important aspects of my view of what science fiction is – is really – rests on sf’s ability to subvert the norms of any system or culture it finds itself in. Here at CCC, that means cultural, literary, and academic. 
If you’re a science fiction writer, or even just a science fiction thinker, you don’t shed that viewpoint when you leave the science fiction cave, so to speak, and venture out into all the little elsewheres available. 
Wherever I go, I take my science fiction with me. 
If the students won’t come to science fiction, I’ll simply have to take science fiction to them.  
It may not be much, but it’s what I do.


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Notes Toward a More Coherent Essay, Someday, Maybe (Part 1, on the Fourth)

You know, writing something that is worth reading takes a long time. Maybe not for you, but for me I need at least a month to clear a comma from a lengthy prepositional phrase. I don’t want to just throw words out into the pixelverse. I want to write something that someone else might understand and maybe even appreciate.
In the meantime, I’ll scribble out this or scrawl out that – writing replies or replying to someone else’s queries. Some of these things echo what I’d like to say if I had the time to sit around and do what writers are supposed to do – and nothing else.
For example.
A writer friend for many years is getting back into the harness, sold a nonfiction piece and a short story to one of the pro-zines recently, has been asking me for advice – on particular stories and the field in general. He also read one of my recent book review columns for Galaxy’s Edge magazine (Am I a book reviewer? I am now. That doesn’t mean I’m a book critic or a scholar or a literary essayist. Circumstance has so far spared me from those fates). But he decided, since I was there and convenient to ask: “Is there something missing in my apprehension, something that will block my progress as a writer, if I simply cannot fathom some of the works of the so-called greats in the literary sf field?” He continues, I am willing to give PK Dick another try. But honestly, I have tried Le Guin, Delaney, Russ, others, and in each case I cannot go more than a few pages before putting the book aside, confused and irritated.”
He went on to describe a recent encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, where he got halfway through before giving up “in despair.” He liked the TV adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven, though, and thought maybe he should try again with that.
I replied that maybe he should. I think The Lathe of Heaven is still a favorite of mine (except on those days when The Left Hand of Darkness takes over). I also admitted that at times I find The Dispossessed a little too ponderous for me, but let’s not pursue that any further now, since I know many who consider it a masterpiece and love it dearly. It’s a great book no matter how I might stumble through it. The fault is all mine.
But my friend asked an honest question, so I tried to answer as honestly as I could:

That there’s so many books in the field of science fiction that we don’t want to read is part of the beauty of the form. Authors can write in so many ways, incorporate so many styles and techniques, and it’s still science fiction. To speak briefly of other “difficult” writers, I don’t think any other literary category, except perhaps fantasy (however one defines the boundaries of that field), contains the equivalent of Delany’s Dhalgren, or Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, or Lafferty’s Past Master, or Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise. Etc., etc., etc.
Science fiction is a coat of many colors, but we don’t have to like every shade of them.
Sf has had its crews of cultural movers and shakers over the years. … I try not to judge books by critics. A book review is a creative response to a book by one person. Often, I'll like a book lauded by a reviewer – but not for the same reasons.
Reviews and awards, at times, are a way for a culture to, consciously or unconsciously, try to impose a uniformity upon literature. Some might see it as “quality control,” and that’s fine. I’ve nothing against quality control (depending upon the qualities being, or not being, controlled), But in general, I don’t think much of uniformity – and neither does literature (in the widest sense of the term, without the capital L). Literature, in the widest sense, is bigger than that. It’s bigger than everything – almost. If we can read what we love and love what we read, the literary world would be a whole lot better off.
And any time I feel like I’m being forced to read a book – either in school, by compulsion, or through the influence of peers and “betters,” it distracts from any enjoyment I may receive from the task, if enjoyment is to be found there at all.
I want to meet the book on its own terms, and not the terms as defined by its supporters or detractors. Exceptions granted. But the whole notion of having books shoved into my face doesn’t help me figure out what I do or do not enjoy or what I value in my reading.
So, I wouldn't worry too much about what one “should” read in the field over what one wants to read.
If any of those highly-touted books keep calling to you, you’ll get to them, when the time is right. And if you don’t care for them, the “Lit Police” can’t take you away. They have no tin badges. They have no authority. Reading should be an exploration and an adventure, but it should probably contain equal measures of the familiar and the uncharted.
The best thing about books is that you can open them and go nearly anywhere.
The second best thing about books is that you can also close them and put them back on the shelf, whispering, “Not this one. Not now. Maybe not ever.” If reading can’t be an exercise in freedom, what’s the bloody point?

So there.

And … Speaking of freedom, have a wonderful Fourth.


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Style Isn’t Story

Sometimes, not too often, but still often enough, I get a student who believes that what you say in a work is less important than the way you say it.
“It’s all style, man! Who cares what it’s about?”
Yes, dear friends. These poor unfortunates are still with us.
Stories, if they’re to be considered at all, are just excuses to exercise one’s style – or should I put quotes around that word? Because what “style,” as these students practice it, consists of, for the most part, are certain distinctive traits of other authors placed in other contexts by the students emulating them. They insist they’re being “themselves,” but they’re really trying on stuff, experimenting, exercising – trying to figure out not who they are, but who they want to be – which is perfectly okay. That’s how you do it. That’s how you find out who you are: as a person, as a writer – as a person who is a writer. They don’t know it yet, but they will eventually.
How do I know?
I used to be one of them.
Back in the 1970s, when there were so many styles to choose from, like so many different hats to try on. And the “literary” side of the street had grown bored with telling stories. More so: they believed it was all in the technique, that the pyrotechnics was the show, and to settle on telling a compelling story to an audience was to lower yourself as an artist. It was like designing a chair that someone might actually enjoy sitting in. How dull! How utilitarian!
The artists above, the rabble below.
Usually, I shrink back from using terms like “elitist,” because they’re usually engaged in political forums and take on political taints that can’t be rinsed off. But one cannot view aesthetics that distinguish “highbrow” from middlebrow, to lowbrow, to no-brow, without feeling a sort of tyranny of exclusivity. “Don’t try this at home, kids. This is high art we’re talking here. Go back to your comic books.”
Well, move over, literati! I was going to show them what real art was all about.
Yeah, right.
Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have a mind that was particularly attuned to nuance. It wouldn’t surprise me if I wasn’t alone in that, back then, for kids my age, with overactive imaginations and a great yearning to be nearly anywhere except where they were. I wanted spectacle and pyrotechnics and just about anything that blew a hole through the status quo.
I liked the nouvelle vague movies and experimental films that were all quick cutting and filters and effects and jumping around in the narrative, and interminglings of fantasy and brutal realism. I liked the dynamic perspectives of Jim Steranko comics and the surrealism of Steve Ditko (I was more in love with his work on Dr. Strange than anything he did with Spiderman). When I discovered New Wave science fiction, I was all for it. The less I understood of what I read, the better I thought it must have been.
“Wow! This is totally incomprehensible! It must be a work of genius!”
I wanted literature to be a huge ladle dipped into the unbridled unconscious, spread out on the page without benefit of organization or interpretation. The stranger the better. In music, I was thrilled by Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, The Stooges. I was looking for new languages and new grammar in visual expression, in sounds, in written works. No boundaries. No horizons. No walls. No “end” title.
Problem was, I didn’t know what I was rejecting, or if I was rejecting anything by embracing all these apparent manifestations of “the new” (And some of it, in spite of my generalizations, really were brilliant and wonderful; on an instinctual level, I was pretty good; on an intellectual or aesthetic level, I was a complete idiot).
I learned the history of literature backwards – of culture in general. I started with experimental writers and worked my way, years later, back to Chaucer and Beowulf.
Problem was, I didn’t know shit. I didn’t care, either.
But the further my interests went, the further I wanted – needed – to know more of that history.
One of the insights I picked up, as I increased my knowledge and experience, was that much of what I thought of as innovative had roots that went back to the very origins (or as far back as we could find) of the forms that interested me. For example, no postmodernist impressed me more than Sterne, Fielding and Cervantes.
Every age is an age of innovation and discovery. Some of these eras get more attention than others, and the attention varies from subsequent era to era. One period of the past speaks, or reflects, or echoes, a later age more directly than others. That’s when an author, or a whole era of literature is “rediscovered.”
Eventually, it became clear to me what had probably been clear to most of my contemporaries all along: innovations and experimentations in art forms are a means and not an end. The most successful explorations of “style” are the product of necessities driven by other needs. Something we want to say or tell can’t be told any other way.
We do what we have to do to make the work of art we want to make. While we’re doing it, we call it, “getting the job done.” Afterward, we may call it “style,” but rarely before. Style is something someone else calls your writing. You just call it “work.”
Simple enough, but it took me about thirty-one years to get there.
Now, it becomes my job to guide students away from the excesses in which I indulged, and produced reams and reams of unreadable drivel.
Can I do it? Maybe with some students. With others, no.
This is both good and bad. Good because the itinerant student in question has the intrinsic stubbornness that makes for a good writer. But that only works when the writer is, well, right. If not, the writer will spend a long, long time (like me) finding out that the hill chosen to die upon is actually two hills over.
We all live and learn. Some faster than others, but we learn. If you ever stop, it’s almost as if you’ve stopped being a writer. You’re just going through the motions.
Never sacrifice clarity to style. Style should enhance clarity, otherwise it’s holding you back.
Never sacrifice story to style, otherwise you’re just putting fancy wrapping paper around an empty package.
So I think: what the hell do I know? I’m just a guy who stumbled into a teaching job, and what I know about writing should be considered suspect at best. What does someone who really knows about writing have to say?
The nearest book on writing at hand is Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold. I open it up at random and the gods of serendipity smile upon me.
Page 234:

You have to know what you want to say.
If you have no clear goal, then you’re just fumbling around, smearing paint on canvas, pounding randomly on the piano keys, and throwing yourself about on the stage in semblance of a performance. If you don’t really know what you’re evoking, then all the exercises of style and form and tense and person will not disguise it.

On the previous page (233), in describing the New Wave sf writers:

In the breakaway from traditional form, what had also occurred was a disinheritance of the storytelling structure. Much of this experimentation was necessary, creating an important expansion of the range of ideas and treatments available to authors, yet it also gave comfort to the idea that traditional forms were worthless and should be discarded. The result, for a while, was a nihilistic abandonment of story.
Fortunately, this trend didn’t last long –

That’s the word from David Gerrold, and he does, without dispute, know a thing or two about writing.

So – do what you have to do. And may the light shine upon you sooner rather than later.


Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Cathedral and the Story

At the risk of infuriating my students and colleagues yet again, and doing so in the shadow of the recent, tragic fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, I've been thinking recently about the similarities between stories and cathedrals, and maybe how the one helps to explain the other, at least to some degree.
I often refer to stories having “shapes.” I learned the phrase “story-shaped idea” from somewhere and it has never left me. I have had numerous problems with discussions of story structure as practiced in academic and non-academic circles. I learned only recently what a “Freytag Triangle”  (or “Pyramid”) is, and it turns out to be the renaming of a description for “story” I've encountered most of my life, and found true only in the most general (and least helpful) sense.
The Freytag Triangle.  Writers fly into it and are never seen again.
Three-Act Structure.  For the geometrically-impaired.
Six-Act Structure.  Three-Act structure cut into smaller pieces.
Plotto. Pick a plot – any plot.
The Lester Dent Master Plot. Pick this plot!
The Hero’s Journey. A train that only travels in circles.
Narratology Don’t Go There!
Seriously, all these terms surrounding narrative structure are all fine and well (when I'm in a good mood), but they are at best what you might call “analytic.” Some of them apply best to completed works but do little to help the author of a work in progress. Some of them will help an author construct a plot, but a plot is not a story.
I return to the brilliant observation of book editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden: “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.”
Narratives or plots may be “structured,” but stories are shapes, like containers, or vessels.
On a practical level, they must perform a function and contain the elements essential to make the comprehensible and meaningful communication we tend to call a story.
On an aesthetic level, the variations of shapes, colors, materials and the like are limitless. Function may dictate form, but both form and function are determined by that natural force: Story.
We may not know what it is, but we recognize it when we see it.
More or less.
Sometimes function hides in form, but it is certainly there.
Sometimes the form proclaims the function loudly.
Story can’t survive without a structure, and a structure without a story has no purpose.
The same, to some degree, can be said for cathedrals.
They have elements that help define them as cathedrals: narthex, nave, transept, choir, ambulatory, towers, gables, pinnacle, niche, tympanum, rose window … and so on. Other structures may contain these elements, but are not cathedrals, but nearly all cathedrals will contain these elements – and something more.
At the heart of a story is a point. It may not be a “big” point, or a good point, and it may not be one consciously conceived by its author, but if you look at the story long enough, you’ll find it. One may argue that it is there only because you’ve searched for it, and it’s the product of your searching more than it is of the author’s intention, but it doesn’t matter. Stories are for readers, an audience, and this is one of the things readers do with what they read – again, whether it was their primary intention or not. We read stories for many reasons, and some of those reasons we’re not conscious of at first, or even later, or ever.
At the heart of every cathedral, likewise, is a point. It is a manifestation of a view of the universe, of metaphysics, of theology.
It is a model of the universe as conceived by its initial adherents, perhaps, but it is more than a treatise written in stone, wood, and glass. And one doesn’t have to be an adherent to the worldview, or metaphysics, or theology, to appreciate the point the building makes.
It is a design, but it is not the product of any single designer (except for more recent examples); it is the product of many, laborers, craftspeople, artisans.
Each cathedral built along the general principles outlined by what we recognize as common or defining elements to the structure, but each one is distinct, different – its own experience. And every individual who journeys into the structure will find something distinct and, possibly, wondrous within it (and around it), beyond the intended tenets of any specific religion, spirituality, or theology.
And this is one reason why we are often moved so deeply when we visit these places. They are singular structures, but their very singular-ness is an echo of an entire reality – not to be mistaken for “reality” itself, whatever that is, but a response to reality, one of many within the human experience.
Which also can be said, without too great an exaggeration, of a story. The materials differ (thank heavens for that; fiction is cheaper and easier to carry around), but the results, potentially, are often the same.

Neither cathedrals nor stories should ever be taken for granted.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Remembrances of Papers Lost

I’ve been thinking about papers – school papers (as opposed to newspapers or rolling papers) – one especially that I wrote for high school English in my senior year. I broke every rule about how to produce the paper (someday I’ll tell the story how, but not now) and I still received an A+ on it. It was about film editing and how it was one of the defining elements of what makes a movie a movie.
For reasons that so far escape me, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I may have actually said in that paper, wondering if I still believed any of it.
Too bad the paper was never returned to me. I’d had a chance to look it over. Mr. senior year English teacher, Mr. Hurley, allowed me to see the grade he placed on it, but needed it back for whatever arcane recording purposes Chicago Public Schools teachers needed to hold on to senior papers. I saw the grade, glanced over its contents and a few penciled-in comments, and back it went into Mr. Hurley’s folder.
On the last day of classes, my last day of high school, I sought out Mr. Hurley in his classroom. In the corridors, students were emptying their lockers as if they were those German military functionaries you always saw in the World War II movies, where the Allies are advancing and the Axis minions are throwing all their maps and files into big fires. I probably didn’t see any bonfires in the hallways of John F. Kennedy High School, but it looked like the word was out that everything – EVERYTHING! – must be destroyed. The trash cans were filled to the max, so the hallways effectively became the trash cans. The other significant difference was that the students were in a much better mood about dumping textbooks into garbage bins than the gray-uniformed officers seemed to be about torching their precious documents (the moral to this side-tale appears to be that any organization which lives by bureaucracy dies by bureaucracy).
When confronted, Mr. Hurley claimed my paper was in his office and would be “difficult to locate at this moment.” I’m not sure if he was speaking of the paper or his office. Either way, he looked like a man with a briefcase filled with embezzled funds and a phony passport in the pocket of his sportcoat. Or perhaps he was afraid the First Division had already secured that part of the building. Whatever was really on his mind, he looked surprised that I would want the paper returned, but insisted he would get it back to me “somehow.”
That was in 1973.
Since then, I have seen neither the paper nor Mr. Hurley.
Mr. Hurley was never someone you’d characterize as a teacher dedicated to his subject. I don’t recall many literary discussions in his class, nor did he ever endeavor to instill in his students a love for the written word. I do recall we spent a lot of time going over selected cantos from Paradise Lost, but I also recall we were considering them more like a legal document than a work of poetry.
English as a subject for Mr. Hurley was one of those “skills” you pick up to advance your opportunities for advancement in the faceless offices of industry and commerce. Your District Supervisor might note that you can hammer out a letter more grammatically than your fellow underlings, or make a better presentation at a sales conference, and thereby you’ll earn enough to purchase a better grade of white shirt to go along with your double-knit suit and Christmas tie.
To Mr. Hurley, from what I experienced, the inherent value of literature as literature was no value at all. He was a notably uninspiring English teacher, though he may have been a good chess player (I believe he also sponsored the school’s chess team).
My adolescent thoughts on film editing are no great loss to the world, I suppose. I just wonder, as I enter (or extend my occupancy of) my dotage, what those thought were. I may have been smart, by accident. Or I may have been stupid in a seemingly smart way. In those days, I was a passionate lover of the cinema. Today, I find myself rather estranged from the medium, with notable exceptions. I find myself ranting over the shortage of great films and great filmmaking – until I encounter a great film, and my love of the form is reborn.
I am curious, though, if the paper might help me figure out if I loved cinema because it was a great storytelling medium, or if I discovered my love of storytelling from my love of movies. The difference may be slight, but it’s the slight distinctions that mean the most.
There are two other of my papers that are apparently lost to the ages, both of them dating from my grad school years at Northwestern University. The professors for whom I wrote them are now deceased.
In one of them, I came up with my most incisive thoughts on the novelist Muriel Spark and her great novel, Loitering With Intent. The paper effectively saved my grade. I was expecting a B at best from Professor Elizabeth Dipple and somehow managed to pull an A- on the strength of that paper. The thoughts came to me, though, in the midst of some 3 a.m. inspiration (and a haze of caffeine and nicotine) and for the most part now escape me. I would like to read over my “brilliant” analysis of Ms. Spark’s novel, in case I ever need to be that brilliant again. But I doubt I ever will (see the paper or ever be that brilliant, take your pick).
The other paper took on Heart of Darkness – a topic my professor specifically warned the class against because, to paraphrase, “I have read everything that has been said or ever can be said about that book, and nothing you can write will strike me as new or interesting.”
Yet I persisted, approaching the novel as a critique of reality, eventually connecting it up to the works of – believe it or not – Philip K. Dick. It all had to do with A.) the frame story, and B.) Marlow’s hatred of lies, leading to the lie Marlow tells in the end. Oh, it also had references to the “fascination of the abomination,” the description of one being “captured by the incredible that is the very essence of dreams,” and Marlow’s regarding his choice of nightmares. I linked all these to Borges, Philip K. Dick and Gene Wolfe.
How I got away with it, I’ll never know.
While I was working on a final examination in class, the professor, Alfred Appel, looked over the final papers that were turned in at the beginning of class, including mine. At a point halfway through the examination, I heard the professor loudly whisper, “Son of a bitch!” I looked up and could see he was reading one of the papers. Either from immodest egotism, or unhealthy self-contempt, I could not help but suspect he had gotten to my paper.
But I did receive an A for the course, whether on the strength of that paper or not, I’ll never know.
I kind of wish I could know, but I can’t.
So I’ll just have to come up with something better.

Happy New Year to all!