The Write Up: Your House

 

Writing a novel is like setting out on an adventure: exciting until you realize it mostly drudgery and despair. Writing a novel is like rowing across a lake: by the time you’re in the middle, you don’t feel like you’re making progress and want to give up. Writing a novel is like being committed: you sit alone talking to your imaginary friends while descending further into madness.

I doubt that any of those analogies are original to this blog. Writing being writing, there are countless similes and metaphors for, well, writing. When it comes to explaining what takes a novel so long to finish, my favorite is thus:

Writing a novel is like building your first house: by the time you finish, you’ve gained enough skill to know that everything must be rebuilt.

Yeah.

Let’s talk about revision and renovation. I am running my manuscript through its last revision before I begin to submit it to agents. At this point, all I’m changing is small stuff. I’m catching typos, cutting fat, smoothing language, and adding details. Essentially, the house is built, painted, and carpeted. The only thing left is touch up, covering the nicks and dings, maybe dusting and vacuuming. After that bit of clean up, it’ll be ready for sale.

However, it took a long time to get here. I wrote the novel from beginning to end. Mostly. There were a few bits where I jumped around or realized I needed to patch the plot together, but mostly, I started at the start and worked to the end. When I got to that end, I not only had grown in skill as a writer, but I had become acquainted with what the novel was. Thus, the last chapters of the books were the best written and the first were the worst.

Imagine a carpenter with five years’ experience returning to look at his high school shop project. That’s what this felt like. The prologue was so useless that I had to completely replace it. The opening chapters showcased an obnoxious, unlikable protagonist. There were adverbs and qualifiers hanging from every sentence. I looked upon mine own works and despaired.

Then I got out my tools, and started the long work of rebuilding. It took time. It took patience. After I hammered down the typos and sanded the pacing, I brought in friends to look with fresh eyes. Oh, they did what friends are supposed to do, they complemented where they could, told me what looked finished, but far more importantly, they pointed out the leaky humor and tripped over exposed plot holes. They showed me where work still needed to be done.

The funny thing is, I kind of already knew. I had a sense something was wrong with these pieces, but either wasn’t sure, or wasn’t sure what the solution was. Still. After each inspection, there was more revision, more renovation. Until this last one.

And just like a house, I could keep going forever. I could upgrade the metaphors, reinforces the tone. I could work and work and work and never stop. And if this was a house I was building just for me, I might do that. But it isn’t. It’s a house I built to sell. I know it will never be perfect. I also know, I’m ready to start looking for the right real estate agent to fetch me a buyer.

As with all things, this metaphor isn’t perfect. But it is my favorite. It’s the one that makes the most sense. It’s the one that acknowledges the immense amount of work to complete long form writing. It also acknowledges how easy it is to keep going, to keep renovating, until the end of time.

I hope this has given you some perspective. Now, go. Write.

 

The Living Arts

Art. Three little letters and a whole lot of baggage. If the subject comes up in some circles people will claim it is the highest purpose of human existence. These people are full of shit. In other crowds, the mere mention of art will bring a sneer of distain. These people are woefully misinformed.

Art is a bitch to define, its effects in society impossible to track. Art can be beautiful and ugly, laden with meaning or absolutely meaningless. A work of art can last centuries. And, sometimes, it only lives for a few moments.

Let’s tighten our lens and focus on performance. Tighten more on dance. A bit more and we’re at the Portland’s Newmark Theatre one month ago for a ballet. Or, more honestly, three short ballets, the first of which was Terra.

The curtains parted and a sullen dimness lit the stage. The first two dancers emerged, wrapped in terracotta red and moving like forces of nature; sometimes with smooth grace, sometimes with brutal efficiency.

That first segment ended with the dancers locked together, one atop the other. I’m sure it was meant to signify an act of copulation, a creation myth, but it looked more like some primordial god, many limbed and formless, red clay come to life seeking a more permanent form.

That two-person vignette set the tone. Primordial. Primal. Earthen. If you’ve ever seen classical ballet, you’ve seen a piece of Terra. If you’ve ever seen a kabuki actor stalk across the stage, you’ve seen a piece of Terra. If you’ve ever seen a Maori war dance, you’ve seen a piece of Terra. But the truth is, there’s almost no chance that you’ve ever seen Terra performed, or ever will.

I haven’t been a fan of ballet long. I like dude-stuff like beer and movies, nerd-stuff like books and video games, and smart-stuff like science and politics. And though I can appreciate a pretty picture, and even like to draw occasionally, art appreciation has never been my thing. It’s always seemed pretentious and full of itself. When people talk art, my mind jumps to galleries filled with rich people lying about what a painting or sculpture means to them. I just don’t fucking care.

So, I didn’t expect to enjoy ballet. The first time I went was a few years back at a friend’s invitation. I went to be nice, have a new experience, and because excuses to dress up are rare. I walked in a skeptic and out a convert.

Ballet is amazing.

So why didn’t I know this years, or even decades, ago? Well, there are two reasons, and we’ve already brushed up against them. The first, of course, is prejudice. I had literally pre-judged the art as something too snooty for me to bother with. It’s something reserved for the wealthy and snobby folk who live far away. If pressed at the time, I would likely tell you that few people actually enjoy it. They just claim to, to look important, like attending opera or golfing.

The other reason is more important, though. It’s the reason that ballet is still seen as elite and exclusive. No one knows how to bring it to the masses.

Here’s a question: when was the last time you watched a recording of a concert? How about video of a stage play? Not a tele-drama, mind—a play performed on a stage and recorded by a camera. And how many times have you done that? Over and over as a main form of entertainment?

No. Not if you’re like most people. There is an energy to live performance that is lost in recording. It’s why bands still tour and Broadway still exists. Nonetheless, you don’t have to see a band live to hear their music. Hell, if a play is musical, you can also listen to the showtunes at your leisure. Non-musical plays don’t have that luxury; however, they can be performed night after night, insuring a wealth of opportunities to see them.

Ballet is different. The performers are, essentially, professional athletes. Having them perform every night would be akin to playing back to back to back to back games. No body, not matter how fit or well cared for, will withstand the punishment.

So, you have a form of art that does not translate well to recording, can only be performed in limited installments, and due to those two obstacles, is expensive to attend. Additionally, there are those within the ballet world who don’t want to see it brought to the masses. Oh, they may wish it to be more widely appreciated, more frequently attended, but are revolted at the idea of ballet being fun, new, or cool. There is a large chunk of the ballet world that loves it for all the reasons I was trepidatious: pretension, exclusivity, prestige.

Still, if you were to make it more accessible, how? Film and recording are out. Larger shows? The further you are from stage, the harder it is to engage and feel the performance. It works to a degree, but to fill a stadium you would need one of those massive screens behind the dancers, as rock star acts often do.

Assuming you could get that to work, how would you go about filling the stadium seats? Seriously, how do you convince thousands of people to pay a significant amount of money for a performance so often reserved for the super privileged?

I’m not the first to attempt to solve this issue. Many ballet companies have outreach programs, performing for audiences which would not normally have the opportunity to see them: sometimes for schools of young children, sometimes in free and public venues.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that much of this is to keep the art alive, not to encourage it to thrive. That’s the rub. Many ballet fans are content to leave it where it sits, all alone atop a pedestal, enjoyed by a select few wealthy or connected enough to make shows. And that’s a damn shame.

I know, logically, that it can grow. If there were enough interest, there would be solutions to every problem posted above. However, there isn’t the cultural push to a see ballet and dance as the amazing storytelling arts they are.

So this is my little contribution: Put ballet on your bucket list. Try to check it off sooner than later. It won’t save your soul or fix your tire, I get that. But it is still worth seeing. You might not like it. But, there’s just as good a chance that you, like me, will be surprised.

There’s just as good a chance that you’ll love it.

 

Counter-Pointless

                                                                                          

There are people in this world who have nothing to say, yet won’t shut the fuck up. Some fill the air with constant, meaningless prattle because they fear silence. Some squawk endlessly for the sake of attention. Others simply picked up ever-streaming babble as a childhood habit and it was never corrected, feeding useless noise to useless purpose.

Conversation that serves no point is something that drives me mad. So, when I come across someone complaining about purposeless narratives, stories without messages, I understand their perspective. But I don’t agree.

Escapist entertainment dominates American media. Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t built to convey some central message. Walter White learned no lesson in Breaking Bad. And the Fast and the Furious movies barely have plots, let alone points. These stories, and many like them, have been incredible successes, winning both money and fans.

A curmudgeon will sigh in exasperation and highlight deeper stories. Slaughter House Five was written to deflate the jingoistic veneration of the second World War. Animal Farm is a classic, not because it includes talking animals, but the satire it presents of communist Russia. And Sophie’s Choice presented such a troubling narrative that it became slang.

However, having a point does not a good story tell. Star Trek: Into Darkness was built around a point, one that I don’t disagree with, and yet it was still a crap film.

Additionally, hunting for symbolism in a narrative often seems less like the action of an observant reader and more like someone suffering a Schizophrenic break. What is the universe trying to tell us when Hazel took the middle seat? What did the sea represent? What is the deep and meaningful reason for the color of the drapes?

Infusing a story with symbolism and meaning, giving it a point, won’t by default make it a better thing. But pointed stories do matter. A meaningful and well executed story is likely to stick with someone far longer than some fluff action film where endless set pieces evicted the plot.

If a story having a point is so powerful, why do I defend this brainless storytelling?

Simple. Different stories exist for different reasons. Get Out was a phenomenal film and would not have carried the same punch if it hadn’t been unapologetically ABOUT something. I, like millions of others, loved Get Out.

I also love Big Trouble in Little China, an 80’s movie about an evil sorcerer fucking things up in San Francisco. There wasn’t a point to that movie, it was just a hell of a lot of fun. And human beings need fun. Don’t believe me? Fucking astronauts once went on strike. In space.

That said, people also need narratives that make points, that carry a punch or a sting. We need to experience our world from the perspective of someone else, even when it hurts. Hell, especially when it hurts.

So I defend the escapism entertainment, because people need mindless fun. And I celebrate stories with biting commentaries, because people need perspective. And if you’ve been feasting too long on one, I would suggest sampling the other.