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!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Spy in the House of STEM

I was about to post a blog piece that was introspective, soul-searching, and serious, but thought better of it.
Who wants to read such boring prattle? I used to fill up volumes with that kind of crap back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Let me tell you about something I did recently that made me feel good.
As of recent, circumstances have driven me into the employ of a company that provides afterschool “enrichment” programs for grade school children in the area (and a number of places around the country, so I’ve been told recently). Originally, this company provided chess classes, but not they have branched into “robotics” and allegedly engineering-related classes. The kids spend an hour a week assembling remote-controlled vehicles built from plastic parts in kits – sort of off-brand Legos. Each kit has a few cheap motor, a battery pack, and the remote control. 
The purpose for this is, allegedly, to interest kids in STEM-related stuff. For parents and school officials, STEM is big. STEM is what’s going to save their kids from abject poverty, scrounging through dumpsters and sleeping in underpasses. While the rest of the world (or at least the neighborhood) collapses into naked savagery and cannibalism, STEM kids will be heading for air-conditioned offices in their auto-drive cars, ready to spend the day designing plastic robot dogs that catch ping pong balls, or managing the folks who do.
I could go into this in greater detail, but why bother? The folks who designed the courses and manage the program haven’t, so why should I? Teachers in this program are “trained” through a series of videos that, needless to say, provide them with very little that resembles the reality of what they’ll find at the ground level. It’s sort of like finding oneself in a full-scale firefight after having just completed Basic Training. One is promised some sort of calculated strategies, and instead receives – mayhem!
In a few brief months I’ve gathered enough war stories to bore you and annoy you all through the coming cold winter months. Some kids actually want to put together stuff from the robot kits. Some are actually quite good at it. Some kids just want to exercise their right to refuse to do anything you ask them. Some want to throw things around.
Only a few – but a significant few – we’ll either raise their hands, or step up and ask you, “Do I really have to do this?”
All I can tell them is, no. You don’t have to do this. What do you want to do?
A few of them asked, “Can I color pictures?”
I said, sure. Would you like to color pictures of dinosaurs?”
They look up, their eyes suddenly bright at the prospect, and nod.
After the first week, I started to bring downloaded coloring pictures of dinosaurs I found online. “Be prepared.”
They’re not robots, but we can call it STEM, because ... science.
Is it what my supervisors want me to do? Of course not. Is it what the parents want me to do? I have no idea. Do they want me to indoctrinate them into a world of engineering that will allegedly guarantee them relevance and value in a changing world? Or do they want me to simply keep them busy for an hour a week so that they don’t get into some greater trouble.
What am I supposed to “teach” these kids?
I can teach them what my supervisors expect me to teach them – but no. The kids never listen to me the way they listen to other teachers. They sense the anarchy in my bones. They know I have no “authority.” I’m a stranger in these parts. They can do what they want, whether it’s playing with robots or not playing with robots.
All I can teach is what I am, and what I love. That’s all the authority I’ve got.
And what I am, and what I love, often includes dinosaurs.
Last Thursday, one of the students in a “circuits” (i.e. circuitry) class I’m subbing for gets up from her table, walks to the place on the floor where the jackets and backpacks are being stored. She can’t be older than a first-grader. She lies down on one of the jackets as if it were a cushion. She looks tired, bored, and sad. The other teacher I’m working with asks her, “What’s the matter?” Doesn’t she want to learn about circuits and play with the motors and propellers attached to them?
She shakes her head. No. She looks even sadder.
My co-teacher asks her, “Is there anything you want to do?”
Even sadder shake of her head.
So I ask her, “Would you like to color some pictures of dinosaurs?”
Her eyes light up. She rises from her improvised cushion like Lazarus rising from his tomb.
We walk over to the box where I keep my teaching stuff. She chooses one of the dinosaur coloring pictures from my folder. She races back to her table with the picture and finds crayons … somewhere. Soon, she runs back to me and shows me the result of her coloring.
“See my dinosaur!”
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her. “I especially like what you did with the green.” I point to the region along the dinosaur’s back.”
She runs back to her table. Somewhere, somehow, she’s found a pair of scissors. She carefully cuts the dinosaur away from its paper background, then runs back to me.
“See my dinosaur!”
“Beautiful!” I say. “You did an incredible job of coloring the dinosaur and cutting him out.”
“Can I take him home?”
“Of course.”
“I love my dinosaur!”
“Who wouldn’t?”
The class was the last one in a session, and it’s part of the regimen to hand out medals to the groups and teams that did the best with projects and a final competition. A lot of the kids get a kick out of the medals, and that’s understandable and great. I’m not on competitions, so I don’t stress those kinds of things, but if my supervisors want competitions, I’ll do what’s needed to comply. Everybody gets medals.
But what warmed my heart on that last day of class, so close to the Christmas holidays, was the girl with her crayon-colored dinosaur. She was more proud of her dinosaur than the “STEM” medal. And that’s fine with me. Some kids do robots. Some don’t. Some are big on engineering. Some want to color dinosaurs.  We need as many kids coloring dinosaurs as we do building robots. More power to all of them.
I’m a lousy employee.
But I may be a decent teacher.
Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Not In Our Stars

“It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal”

On an afternoon I’m supposed to be writing, I get up and walk around. I fidget. It happens when something isn’t coming out right.
I’m in a library. Books surround me. There are times when this can feel oppressive to a writer with a work in progress. So many books. Why add to the noise of language? What will one more work add to this vast outpouring of story?
There are other times when the shelves and shelves of books feel like a resource. I have an army of allies. At the right moment, you can hear the books whispering to you. Some of them are whispering answers. Some of them are trying to help you finish your story.
You take from a random shelf a random book and turn to a random page. Except it isn’t a random choice – you have been pulled by some uncanny magnetism to the right book at the right page at the right moment.
Or it could be truly random. Outside the framework of causalities real and imagined, most everything is.
This time I reach for David Gerrold’s book on science fiction writing, Worlds of Wonder, because I don’t have a copy of it at home (well, I do, but it’s from the Columbia library, which means it one day has to return to their shelves).
The “random” page I turn to is under the chapter title “Transformation” (page 101) and addresses the matter of fictional characters, specifically protagonists, and ways to think about the problem of change that most every fictional protagonist has to face.
The whole matter of characters in fiction has been on my mind a lot. Science fiction has always been perceived as having problems with the creation of vivid characters. For much of its history, the criticism has been valid, with many and varied notable exceptions.
The criticism remains valid. I had been reading through the most recent “Best of” anthology for science fiction, looking for stories I wanted to assign to my students for class reading. I found many great stories with many wonderful characters, but I also waded through pages and pages of depictions of empty people, dead inside, psychologically opaque, mechanisms suffering “hardware issues.”
It wasn’t that these characters weren’t interesting in their deadness, so to speak, but that this same kind of character kept on showing up again and again and again until it sounded to my reader’s ear like a pianist banging on the same key over and over.
Today, we have better writers, better schooled in both sciences and arts, and the ones who pursue short fiction are rarely burdened with the necessity to hammer out one story after another to make a living. There is no living to be made from writing short stories. So why should all these protagonists be so similar? Why do so many of them seem to be simply going through the motions?
I have an interest in this question as a teacher. I want my students to be the writers who will break this contemporary convention. But I also have an interest as a writer myself. Have I fallen into the same morass? Or will I, eventually? Is there something I can keep in mind so that I can maintain my own standard that places character at the core of any successful story?
At the outset, Gerrold tells us, The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.” The story can go no further without it. It’s the reason for everything included in the story and the reason why the story is about this character, not someone else.
In boldface: “Transformation is the reinvention of the self by the Self.” The problem, or nemesis, or obstacle, the character faces is not so much what prevents the transformation, it is the self, or “Self” defining the obstacle as insurmountable, at least by the character. Gerrold describes the character as saying, “I can’t handle this,” then continues, “By choosing to make this situation the problem, the hero creates himself as the source of the problem. Until he recognizes his own authorship of the dilemma, he cannot create himself as the source of the resolution.”
Forgive me if my summary makes this idea seem too convoluted. The simple version, best as I can manage it, is: “The real conflict of the story is not between the character and the external obstacle, but the character in conflict with him/her/it/they self.”
Which reminded me a lot of William Faulkner, in his Nobel lecture: “… the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
An obvious, and fitting, connection.
What it also reminded me of was this passage I encountered in Louis H. Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea, his last great statement to beliefs in art, and nature, and its reflection in his architectural work, published the year of his death in 1924. Sullivan writes of himself in the third person, which can be a tad annoying for twenty-first century readers, but bear with him here. He describes the moment when his aesthetics all clicked together for him:

He had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution. That a postulate which does not contain and suggest its own solution is not in any sense a problem, but a misstatement of fact or an incomplete one. … he had reached the advanced position that if one wished to solve the problem of man's nature, he must seek the solution within man himself. ...

In other words, chosen by that author with an uncanny penchant for finding “other words” that live forever, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. …”
Or, as Gerrold states it, “The moment in which the hero recognizes, ‘I’m the problem – ” he also recognizes the corollary: “—therefore I’m the solution!” His commitment becomes ‘I can handle this. I will handle this.’”
Story structures can vary. In a “realistic” story, the problems may not be so apparent. In a science fiction story, the science-fictional concept may serve to define the internal conflict. The concrete representation is external and tangible, but the solution is internal – is personal, even if the subject is personhood itself, as it can so often be in contemporary sf.
It may seem overly self-reflective to say that the character’s plight echoes the plight of the author in writing a story. The solution is to found in the problem itself; if the problem is within the author’s imagination, so is the solution.
Let’s throw this in, just for the hell of it, a little something I picked up in a faculty seminar when novelist Nami Moon was teaching at my school. Conflicts can be divided into two groups: “Chronic conflict” (long term, over the course of the character’s life), “Acute conflict” (the immediate situation which spurs the problem within the story).
There’s a distinction here that’s useful in most any kind of fiction, but may work with exceptional success in a science fiction story. The science-fictional problem in the story reflects what has long-dogged the central character, in fact, defines that character.
Science fiction can and very often does explore the concrete representations of emotional and metaphorical hopes and fears – we fear change; we need change; we fear the “other”; we are the “other.”
What makes the form so thrilling and interesting that it can expand upon these basic emotional dichotomies to limitless dimensions. We have more than one universe to play with.

It’s just important that, in making these stories memorable and resonant, that we remember where to seek the solutions to their immense and wondrous problems.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Insist on Your Cup of Stars

When human beings, or even dinosaurs, fail to deliver consolation in times of doubt, uncertainty, and maybe even a little despair, there are always libraries.
For instance …
This afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. It’s been a bad week, in some ways. Not so bad in others. One part of me wanted to just sit at home, lie on the bed, and contemplate my misfortune. Luckily, I recognized that doing so never solved anything. I have a lot of work to do – work that I want to avoid, and still have to some degree.
And, of course, I have writing to do as well, which I don’t want to avoid, but I had a hard time working myself to get any done. I’m in the dumps.
My fall class at Columbia was canceled.
And this time, I can’t really blame the administration, the department, or anyone but the students. They just didn’t sign up.
Not enough of them. Just nine, I think. And I thank those nine for signing up. And I also apologize that now there won’t be a course for them to take.
But when you get ready to put on a show, so to speak, and no one comes, you can’t help feeling bad. Feeling like a failure. Or an outcast. I have some experience in feeling like an outcast.
And when you feel like an outcast, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to soldier on and produce new work. Even if you’ve had some relative success, all you can remember are the failures, the empty rooms, the silence.
So, sitting in the library, I started writing, then looked around. Who needs any more stories? I’m surrounded by five thousand books. Who needs to read anything by me? What the hell do I know? I think science fiction will not only save literature, but maybe save the world. How dumb can you get? If readers don’t want Tiptree, Delany, Sturgeon, Lafferty, on and on and on, who the hell wants me?
Well, this is no good, I thought. I got up and started checking out the shelves, looking for something to read to remind me what good words look like when put together. Good sentences. Good storytelling. I also wanted to see what books I have loved are still hogging shelf space. On previous scans of the shelves, I’d discovered a number of my favorites had been “disappeared” to make more space. Catalog searches proved they were gone. Kaput. Outta here.
But I did find this: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
Memory is the ultimate censor, but if I recall correctly, Jackson’s novel was the first “grownup” novel I read, excluding books by Wells and Stevenson, which some considered “kid stuff” (the Wells novels were in editions specifically marketed to children).
I had also included the novel in a list of books that made a great impression on me or were favorites. I had read Hill House in many years. I retained my very first copy of it in my library, but handle it with care, afraid it might turn to dust if I finger through it too rapidly.
Did it still retain its power?
I took the edition off the shelf, flipped it open, and started reading at a random page. It’s early in the novel: Eleanor’s car trip to Hill House. It’s a section that fascinated me when I first read it as a kid and which still fascinates me. You would think a boy, especially a boy living in Chicago, in Garfield Ridge – a place of mediocre little schools and mean-spirited, mediocre little minds, a paradise for the venal and the superficial – would be bored by all this. “Come on! Let’s get to the house! Let’s get to all the haunted stuff!”
But no. I didn’t know who Eleanor was, but somehow I detected a kindred spirit in her. She didn’t feel at home at home. She is wandering, heading off to Hill House, daydreaming along the way.
She stops at a “country restaurant” and notices the family at another table, the only other customers at that time of day: parents, a young boy and a little girl.

… The light from the stream below touched the ceiling and the polished tables and glanced along the little girl’s curls, and the little girl’s mother said calmly, “She wants her cup of stars.”
Indeed, yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.
“Her little cup,” the mother was explaining, smiling apologetically at the waitress, who was thunderstruck at the thought that the mill’s good country milk was not rich enough for the little girl. “It has stars in the bottom, and she always drinks her milk from it at home. She calls it her cup of stars because she can see the stars while she drinks her milk.” The waitress nodded, unconvinced, and the mother told the little girl, “You’ll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from the glass?”
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
“You’re spoiling her,” the father said. “She ought not to be allowed these whims.”
“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.
When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gray stream tumbled along below her. …

This is an incredible moment that a lesser author would have probably cut in an early draft – “No, let’s get to the action. Let’s not dawdle.” Or an editor would have made the same suggestion. “No one wants to read about country restaurants! Hell, let’s get this show on the road!”
But the show is on the road. The show is Eleanor. And in this little moment we get the answer to the question I keep asking students and fellow writers when I read their work, and so often – so very, very often – they cannot answer with even faint success: “Why the hell should I care what happens to this person?”
Eleanor wants her cup of stars.
We all want our cup of stars.
Eleanor knows. She was trapped into being like everyone else, at least on the outside. You concede your cup of stars and for the rest of your life you struggle to get it back. Eleanor and the little girl exchange this wisdom silently, and it is not simply Eleanor imparting wisdom to the little girl – she isn’t. The little girl is imparting as much to Eleanor as Eleanor is warning the little girl.
I don’t pretend to know what great literature is. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that I know good storytelling, and good writing, and how to bring a notion across to its most powerful effect. And this is certainly great storytelling, great writing – a brief moment, a stop on the road to destiny that tells us almost everything we need to know about Eleanor while revealing a startling awareness of our own secret dreams.

There’s a lot of talk these days, especially among folks of my generation, about whether books we read when we were young “stand up” today. Maybe they have a point, because a lot of what they read (me too) was a lot of crap. Earnest crap. Exciting crap. But … crap.
But then I think: stand up? To whom? Who has appointed these arthritic bozos the Grand Jury of Literature? They were stupid enough to read and love the crap in their youth. I should take their judgments seriously now?
Perhaps it makes one feel cool and wise now to eviscerate the giants of our youth, to call “Fraud!” and “Foul!” on former heroes. Perhaps that’s an exercise everyone needs to perform to understand how the world changes and how we change within that world.
But perhaps a few moments should be spent not in judging how the works we read in youth stand up for us, but how well we stand up against the works we read.
Have we kept our cup of stars?
I went back to my reading table and scribbled out a few more pages of words, most of which I will probably cross out and try to come up with better ones, reminding myself of something I’ve been telling myself a lot: All great stories are love stories. All great stories are about loneliness. These two sentences are not mutually exclusive.

Writing is never easy, but the only way you get it done is to keep going through the tangle of uncertainty and fear and emptiness. Take a break, enjoy your coffee, but at the end of road, Hill House awaits.

Monday, August 6, 2018

With These Hands (and a few other parts thrown in)

As a kid, I was very big on hand-scripting first drafts. In part, it was because notebooks were a lot more portable than typewriters (even portable typewriters) in those days. Another part was because I wasn’t a particularly good typist (I’m still not, but much better than I was). Not that I had particularly good penmanship, either. The choice between typescripts and handscripts was pretty much the choice between scribble over scrubble.
As a young adult, I continued to do a lot of my early-draft work in spiral-bound notebooks. Again, it was the portability. It must have also appealed to me that even though it was a notebook, it was still a book. The covers were thin, but it still felt like a book.
That was when I did a lot of writing, but I hadn’t yet learned, to some extent, how to be a writer.  I still had visions of pages upon pages with nary a scribble or a cross-out. The words came out freely and unhindered – too bad the majority of them were crap.
This is not to say, also, that I didn’t type. I typed up a storm, in spite of being the worst typist in the universe. I think I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I received my first typewriter for Christmas. It was a machine that printed all caps. I was forty years ahead of the times if I was planning to write comments on social media posts. Everything I produced looked like it came off a broken teletype machine. Luckily, my mom had a 1949 Royal Portable typewriter – or what passed as “portable” when dinosaurs ruled the earth. But I put that old Royal to work. When I was in eighth grade and home with some sort of terrible sickness for a week and a half, I used the time to write a book about the movies. Yes. I wrote a book. Not a long one, but a book nonetheless. Not only did I type the whole thing, I typed it with two (2) carbons(!!!).
And yet – I was a lousy typist. A typist of necessity, not of talent. I didn’t type well, but I typed a lot. That’s how you “got it done” back then.
That is still how you get it done, though the keyboard is no longer fixed to a physically mechanical device in quite the same way. Your fingers move over the letters that make the words (and the punctuation) in the same way, and you press down in the same way, though maybe not so hard.
I know writers who never hand-script a thing. If it weren’t for keyboards, they wouldn’t be writers. And I need to add that most of those writers are prolific. Not only do they get it done, they a get a lot of it done.
And that’s fine with me. Every writer has to find what works best. Some have a proscribed methodology. Others work within the confines of a continuous riot. There is order and there is chaos and there’s a lot of room in between. There is an order in chaos as well and, conversely, a chaos in order.
With that in mind, I’d like to suggest to some of you who are still working out what works best for you, that you try an intermingling of both.
Usually, one works at hand-script first, then transfers or transcribes what was written by hand to the keyboard. That’s supposed to be the natural progression of things.
Recently, though, when I worked on the novel, and then on “The Man Who Put the Bomp,” I kept switching back and forth, typing up what I had scribbled, then scribbling what I had typed down. The process was born of necessity. I very often had to work on these projects while in transit, or in spare moments before heading into an office. I didn’t have a laptop computer handy, but I still needed to get work done. Some folks have notebook computers. All I had was the notebook. And a pen. And, very often, a printout of what I had typed up the day before, or a week before, or whenever.
Going back and forth between keyboard and pen, I noticed something very unusual, to me at least: we write differently when we type than we do when we write with a pen, scripting out each letter by hand; also, we read differently when we engage in these processes.
It may be that each process utilizes a different part of the brain, or if not that, it uses the brain differently. Typing up scribbled notes is a different task than composing on the keyboard. Hand-writing sentences that have already been typed out applies a different kind of scrutiny to what you have written. You’re looking at the sentences in a different context – it provides you an opportunity to look over your sentences and read them with a greater distance – or if that “greater distance” phrase seems hackneyed, look at it this way: it’s a chance to read your work and separate your self from your words.
I’ve never been into this “your brain is hardwired to do this” kind of thinking. The brain precedes hard-wiring and the metaphor is, as all metaphors about the brain are, flawed. Some researchers, so I’ve read, are catching up with this insight.
They’re also becoming aware that the brain does not work in isolation.
It is tied to a nervous system that extends to the body’s extremities – hands, for example. Brain and hands work together. Brain and eyes work together. Brain and nose work together. And ears. And so on.
We read a page of your handwritten work differently. We read a screen of your prose differently. We also read a printed page of your prose in a way that puts your sentences into a different context. The writing and reading of your prose in various ways involves processes that are substantially different but not unrelated to each other. We learn from each of these processes and, with a little thought, we can use their interrelations to become better writers.
Years ago, when “right brain thinking” and “left brain thinking” were all the rage, my prof at Columbia, John Schultz, would make a point that he included in his text, Writing from Start to Finish, that this notion was an oversimplification. Early brain scans demonstrated that people who were writing used both “parts” of the brain (and a few parts not usually counted) – sending messages back and forth. “Logical” brain was as necessary as the “aesthetic” brain to create a vivid piece of writing.
And that work was done over a half century ago. Today, my guess would be that every part of the neural network – every part that can be utilized – has been observed contributing to the process. Brain, eyes, hands, fingers, feet, gut – you name it.
Over all these regions of the neuro-system, memory rules. You remember your fingers scribbling out a phrase, or tapping keys that produce figures on a page – the way you remember how to run, or ride a bike.
Which is to say: a great part of the writing process is visceral. It’s exercise. The best kind of exercise your entire nervous system can get.
Not to mention your mind.
And it doesn’t hurt your writing, either.
I’ve noticed over the years, and even now, that when I ask my students to read from something they’ve just started working on, a good half of them will pull out notebooks, filled with words they’ve placed there by hand, printed carefully or in cursive script. When I see that, my fears that the end of the world are near significantly alleviate. There is hope.
In the meantime, if you spy a writer in the library who has both a laptop and a couple of notebooks spread out before them (along with a few old books and a cup of coffee) you have found either me or an ally.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Doing It Right, Maybe

Science fiction, if you’re doing it right, is reality in tight focus.
That’s the only sentence left from my first draft of this post, which for me was getting on a soapbox and complaining. (Okay, so I threw in a few more sentences once I got rolling, but I really did want to change the tone from a grumpy tirade to something more.) I looked it over and decided that complaining will get me (and you, and everybody else) nowhere. I want to do more. I want to actually understand what’s going on.
In the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of students who’ve wanted to indulge in the accoutrements of science fiction without really taking advantage of what can, potentially, be at the heart of this form. They want the smell of the burger, but not the meat – or, when it comes to science fiction, they want the rockets, ray guns and robots, but not the who, what, when, where, and why. They want to play in the dirt, but they don’t want to tell you what’s in the dirt, or where it came from, or why anyone would want to play in it in the first place. It’s a game. It’s a joke. It’s an evasion.
Escape literature is one thing. It helps define what we’re escaping from. Evasion literature is another. It altogether denies the thing we’re escaping from.
So … why? Why go for the easy stuff, other than that it’s easy? The problem I have with a literature of evasion is that it always travels on the same tracks, stops at all the same stations. It moves right on schedule. The changes are superficial. Red shirts become blue shirts. Desert planets become ocean planets. Robots become scary aliens, and vice versa. But it’s always the same trip taking us to same place. So what?
So bloody what?
A literature allegedly devoted to wonder and awe cannot run on schedule. It cannot rely on conventions. It should not settle for competency and mediocrity, even if that’s what sells. This is not to say there should be no schedules, no conventions, no competency. But somewhere, somehow, someone’s got to mess with the rules, switch the tracks, surprise us without getting us all killed. Someone has to write more than a variation to a theme, perhaps change the theme altogether. And when that theme becomes a convention, subvert that one as well.
Then again – we’re talking about young writers here. And I have to remember what was important for me as a young writer. In honesty, I have to say that nothing mattered to me more than what was called at the time “emotional expression.” I think that’s what we still call it. We want feelings to guide every element of storytelling we take on: character, setting, motivation, conflict and complications, resolution. In one sense, we’re right. Feelings are what we have to return to when we’ve labored at everything else. And labor we must, because none of this easy, especially for writers whose main influences are graphic stories, TV, and – dare I say it? – popular fiction.
I don’t want to denigrate “popular” fiction categorically. The best of what sells is usually something that transcends category, and in doing so creates its own niche. But it also narrows one’s perception as to what can be done in the field of written prose, not to mention science fiction in particular. There are books in the “unpopular” category that can do as much to widen a young writer’s perspectives as anything sitting in the racks at the airport concourse newsstand.
The problem with young writers relying so greatly on “feelings” alone is that young writers, in general, have a blurry, indistinct notion of what those feelings are. They are too busy “feeling” them to successfully render them on a page. It’s like trying to render a self-portrait without the aid of a mirror, and more – while one is in the process of doing something else, like running, or operating heavy machinery, or making a salad, or playing a video game.
It’s the process of writing, the actual work of putting the thing together word by word, that helps makes sense (every way in which that term can be used) of the raw feelings we feel so desperate to convey in our work.
When we’re young, we don’t know so much about writing – no mystery in that. We learn by doing, and the more we do, the more we learn. Or so we hope.
The truth that gets forgotten or overlooked is that when we’re young, we don’t know much about feelings, either. We know we have them, and that they shape us and direct us, but that’s not saying a lot. We can fly as passengers in a plane and know nothing of the basics of aerodynamics, either. We still get to places, though we don’t know how.
Writing is a place we can learn more about our feelings. We can examine them, test them, put them to work. We may not be conscious that this is what we’re doing, but we do it. We write to learn, whether we’re aware of it or not.
And one of the things that has most intrigued me about science fiction in particular, apart from the process of fiction-making at any level, is its natural tendency to put what we know to the test. When Philip K. Dick tried to “explain” science fiction in his speech, “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” included in the collection I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, he boiled it down to two questions: 1.) What is Reality? and 2.) “What constitutes an authentic human being?” – this second I place in quotes because Dick’s wording is important. Dick has perhaps oversimplified the issue and defined what science fiction is for him, though not for everyone else, but a truth hovers over his assessment. Science fiction does – or at least can – include as much metaphysics as physics, but is not necessarily about the metaphysics. It’s about us. It’s about what we believe and what we desire – and what we feel. It’s about all the things we look for and often discover when we read what’s often referred to as “realistic” fiction, but then takes that and applies an even sharper lens to this “reality.” It allows for alternatives to the status quo. It allows for glimpses into what we cannot know – the future – through what we do know, or think we know.
At its best, science fiction can do this.
Would that we do it more often, especially now, when “status quo” and conventions have become the objects of constant struggles – when science and technology may play an even more important role in shaping a world culture than even money and power. Science fiction need not be a limitation, not a simplification, of human experience, but an opportunity to expand our experience and comprehension of it.
And our feelings toward it.

If we do it right.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Preparing to Remember

I’ve been saying recently that until I wrote the novel that’s currently floating around to publishers (called The Va-va-va VOOM! but may end up being retitled North Side Girl), I’d never really written about the neighborhood where I grew up.
I was wrong.
I wrote two short stories. One of them was called “Neighborhood,” and the other was called “The Tigers of Wrath” (I think, I don’t have a copy around for me to confirm). I also wrote at least one poem, “Michele Constance,” and maybe a lot more in a book-length batch of poems I’d never dream of inflicting upon you, called Intensive Care Ward.
The poem wasn’t bad. I forget where it was published, but it did get into print (now I remember – it was the magazine Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff edited called Oink!). The stories were probably good, too, or better than I’ve thought they were for a long time. They were pretty much universally rejected, though they received some interesting notes from editors. They were strong stuff. They dealt with revenge and cruelty. They had a very hard edge, and there was really nowhere to place such stories at the time.
The literary magazines and journals were looking for “New Fiction,” which was fiction allegedly all about itself. It was about technique, and cleverness, and blandness, and about being above your material. It was about the authors discovering that fiction was fictional, which was about as profound as discovering that an iceberg is made of frozen water. But it was all the rage, and no one was interested in a story about how the iceberg was going to sink the ship everyone was sailing upon.
The stories were sent to dozens of places. They always came back. I consigned them to the back of my file cabinet until Northern Illinois University asked me if I wanted to contribute some of my papers. They received them, and a number of other stories I couldn’t sell, and I never thought about them again, until now.
You probably wouldn’t like them anyway. A lot of bad things happen in those stories. The language isn’t buffered. The cruelty isn’t cloaked in innuendo. The narrators are sick, though they not sociopaths. They are deeply injured, and they do terrible things. The stories do not absolve them, nor do they allow their narrators to absolve themselves. We see more than the narrators think they are revealing. One might compare them to early Nelson Algren being grafted to early Hubert Selby, Jr. The implicit message was: danger! These people are there. They have wounds we can’t even imagine how to begin to heal.
We see those same wounds today, still festering, still incurable, still unanswered in our culture. And those same wounded people, I humbly submit, are still infecting the culture (or what’s left of our culture).
In way, they were horror stories, but they did not contain the one or two things that would qualify them for the short fiction “horror” markets, so those publications had no interest in them either.
So I wrote that stuff. And it didn’t sell. I moved on and wrote other stuff, because writers don’t give up after a couple of stories. And writers don’t keep on writing the same kind of stories over and over again, do they?
Not that I was going to write that 1970s-era “New Fiction” malarkey, which is still highly praised. Much of it, though, to me reads like a package without a product – an empty container.
At least my packages always contained something, even though when the editors opened them, the contents bit them. My submissions came with return stamped envelopes, and editors were unanimously all too willing to use them.
I do, now, remember one rejection, that came from a college literary journal, and it was sent by one of the assistant editors, one of the first readers, not from any of the “big” editors – big as one can get when the circulation of the publication was no more than 250. It was like once of those comments whispered to you when no one else is looking, one of those comments that begins like, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but …”
The rejection went on to say, I’m paraphrasing, from memory: This is really good, uncompromising, vivid … but we can never use it at our publication. We haven’t the guts. I hope this story finds a place that does.”
At that time, I was a fairly depressed kid, or young man, stuck in a dead-end job, my academic training unused and apparently unusable. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong world. It wasn’t that I missed the bus – the bus stopped running. I was built for one job – making stories. I didn’t know much about how to make them, but make them was what I had to do. Except – kids from my part of the world weren’t supposed to do those kinds of things. And the world wasn’t ready to break any rules just for me. I was going to be one of those in the multitudes of failures – one of those who may have not failed for lack of ability or determination, but for no good reason at all. Like one of those millions of soldiers in millions of battles in millions of wars – the soldiers who didn’t survive for no other reason than that the bullet went here instead of there.
Rejection slips, the personal ones  – they were these little notes slipped to me that both confirmed and negated my status in a world I chose to live in. You’re good, but it just doesn’t matter. Good we got. Millions more good writers than we’ll ever need. Sorry.
Well. What can you say? I tried to do it right, and what I got was “Sorry.”
The literary landscape faced one way. I faced another. I could try to write the stuff the literary editors liked, but … wasn’t that what my teachers taught me writers do in the “popular fiction” markets? Wasn’t that the thing we were supposed to avoid because we were real, true artists who didn’t pay attention to the beck and call of editors and readers?
So – “literature,” the light of civilization, turns out to be the same sort of marketplace that guides and guards this world with invisible hands.
Not that I’m complaining, or was complaining at the time. All I regretted was that I didn’t receive the memo sooner.
If you’re going to the market, you better bring something someone wants to buy. Eventually, I found something I could sell, and sold it.
But it wasn’t my old neighborhood. It wasn’t the people I knew. It wasn’t all I had grown up with, the things I observed, the feelings and the explicit  expression of those feelings. Nobody wanted to read that shit, so I stopped trying to sell that story – until now.

Maybe this time I’ve figured out how to tell the story. Maybe this time I will find an audience that’s ready to listen.