Thursday, March 19, 2015

Popova on Steinbeck’s Self-Motivation Through Journaling

At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova talks about how John Steinbeck's habit of keeping a diary helped him write The Grapes of Wrath. Excerpt:
Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary—that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up. ...

The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move.
Read the whole thing. Motivation. I've known people who've used journals to chronicle all sorts of things, everything from daily routines to the oscillations of marital relationships to internal emotional responses to life’s big events. But I've never heard of anyone who's used it to motivate himself to write. The cynical part of me finds it somewhat ridiculous, a sop to those who worship at the altar of self-help. However, science says I very well might be wrong—old science. According to NPR, in 1911 a pair of neurologists examined the link between the mind and the body, using physical constraints to test subjects' self-concept. (The scientists "noticed that when women who habitually wore the big hats [that were in vogue at the time] walked through doors, they ducked" even when their heads were bare.) In other words, the way we conceive of ourselves impacts our actions, and we can influence that self-conception through mental effort. Psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan thinks that so-called self-talk really can work. “What we find," he notes, "is that a subtle linguistic shift ... can have really powerful self-regulatory effects."

Yeah, I know. It still sounds a bit wonky to my ears. But who can say? What worked for Steinbeck might just work for you and me.

(Picture: CC 2007 by Stephanie Graves)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ship of Destiny Sails Smoothly

Someone famous once said that the end of a thing is better than its beginning. That’s definitely true of Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the final volume in The Liveship Traders Trilogy. Bingtown, the longtime home of the Vestrit family, has been destroyed by raiders without and treachery within. While Matriarch Ronica Vestrit tries to hold down the homestead in the aftermath, her oldest daughter Keffria has fled with the children up the caustic Rain Wild river. Only their hope of sanctuary has been leveled by a mighty earthquake and fearsome creature has risen from the rubble. Warships from the motherland of Jamalia bear down on Bingtown in the wake of the ruling Satrap’s disappearance during the fighting. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Althea has requisitioned an insane liveship named Paragon to help rescue the Vestrit’s own sentient vessel from a megalomaniacal pirate called Kennit, a fool’s errand that may end in utter disaster.

You can tell within a handful of pages that Hobb wants to wrap up the series with the proverbial bang. Whereas you could almost call the previous two volumes cozily domestic in their focus, Ship of Destiny gets epic pretty quickly. Massive naval battles. A ferocious monster slinging destruction left and right. Destinies of entire races hanging by a thread. Still, despite how impressively Hobb crafted those elements (and a multi-chapter, edge-of-your-seat nailbiter of a conclusion), I found myself more interested in the themes she addressed.

Ship of Destiny makes it seem as though Hobb wanted to use the trilogy to examine male and female power dynamics. Sounds dreadful, right? Yeah, only it's not. The books walk a middle path between the old damsel-in-distress trope and the joyless feminist ideal of the strong womyn who don't need no man. Ship of Destiny seems to say that it's good for women to get their hands dirty in self-determined pursuits. It's good for men to want to defend them when danger threatens. It's good to recognize every individual's sexual sovereignty over her—and his—own body. Yes, the series even manages to handle the combustible topic of rape with remarkable sensitivity and insight. In a time when genre fiction seems mired in the morass of identity politics, Ship of Destiny shows how stories can sail smoothly toward the subjects that make us human.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Caneles)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Black Mirror Reflects Propositions

What are stories supposed to do? I know it sounds like a pedantic point, but stick with me for a moment. Should they provide a thoroughly realistic portrait of the world as it is? Ought they to reveal the historical milieus in which they were composed? Do they show the universal archetypes that buoy human experience? Should they subvert binary heteronormative gender distinctions? Uh, sometimes, often, maybe, and no? All these subjects could prompt long, spiraling conversations best suited for sophomore dorm rooms. Still, the initial question is still worth considering because it not only influences our reading but also our writing. On the most basic level, I’d argue that stories communicate propositions, basic truth claims about the nature of people and the world. Rarely have I seen that supposition so as in “The National Anthem,” the first episode of the British television show Black Mirror.

Critics have compared Black Mirror to The Twilight Zone and for good reason. It has the same high-concept sheen as Rod Sterling’s long-running series, only with a tighter focus on technology. Each episode riffs off of the titular reflective surface. A TV screen. A cell phone’s display. A computer screen. The lens of a video camera. Each of these plays its part in “The National Anthem,” the inaugural episode. A British prime minister gets woken in the middle of the night by a call from his security team. (In a delightful bit of symbolism, the episode opens with the vibrate function of the PM’s cell sending the phone shimmying across a bedside table until it plunges off, thumping on the floor.) Princess Susannah, a social-media savvy royal, has been kidnapped, and footage of her interrogation by an unknown abductor has appeared on YouTube. Copies have sprung up faster than the authorities can take them down. The kidnapping has started trending on Twitter, as have the kidnapper’s demands. The princess will die unless the PM commits bestiality—on live television.

“The National Anthem” is possibly the most painful thing I’ve ever viewed and a great example of how horror can be a conservative genre. Writer/creator Charlie Brooker grounds the story on a remarkably unambiguous propositional foundation. What do the assertions happen to be? Bestiality is bad. (The lengths to which cable-news anchors and their guests go to avoid even naming the act is bleakly humorous.) Social media can be dangerous. (Brooker recreates the comment section on the abductor’s YouTube video with cringe-worthy accuracy.) Politics in the digital-age cares little about anything but popularity. (When polls start plunging lower hour by hour, it’s sickening to watch the PM’s primary advisor put the screws to him.) An audience partakes in the malefactor’s guilt simply by watching. (In the end, there’s … well, I won’t spoil it.)

True, it’s simple to slip assertions into high-concept stories such as this one. But every narrative advances them in some way, shape, or form. When discussing sentences (out of which written stories are naturally formed), University of Iowa’s Brooks Landon says, “The relationship between propositions and sentences is a little hard to pin down since a sentence will always advance or express one or more propositions and a proposition will always be in the form of a sentence. The key here is to think of a sentence as being a visible piece of writing and the propositions its advances as assumptions and ideas not necessarily written out.” Stories do lots of things. We can argue about the specifics, if you’d like. But they never do less than communicate propositions.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Craig Sunter; Hat Tip: David Lanier)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Music To Write By: Mat Kearney's "Just Kids"

Why Listen? For an example of iterated creativity; a downbeat, mellow tune great for background listening.

Surely I can't be the only person who wants stories to spring Athena-like straight from his head. Nothing discourages me quite as much as the nearly constant process of composition and revision, rewriting and repeating. Why does it take so much work to make the tale in my mind match the one on the page? I have no idea. But the title track off of Mat Kearney's fifth album Just Kids reminds me that creative iteration can yield fascinating results.

At first, "Just Kids" sounds more like the idea of a song rather than a song proper. It's deliberately spare. Squeaky samples punctuate a simple piano riff, and snapping fingers buoy Kearney's downbeat, monotone rapping. But that doesn't last long. Elements slowly start piling onto each other. Modulated hums bump up against tremulous strings. A fat, arpeggiated guitar flourish sweeps into lush synthesizer chords. Kearney's warm, melancholic tenor soars above a muted base drum. Then everything coalesces into a slick, fully realized pop bridge. It's almost breathtaking the first time you hear it. Of course, isn't that true when any successful creative endeavor melds its disparate elements into a cohesive whole?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Turchi on Narrative Flow

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova discusses the insights offered by Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze on the flow of good stories and good games. Excerpts:
In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.”
This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow -- that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger -- Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative. ...

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:
1. clear goals
2. no distractions
3. direct feedback
4. continuous challenge
The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance.
Read the whole thing. Dear reader, I have a vice, and it’s not pulp SF and splattery horror. (Well, I mean, those are some of them, but not the ones I want to discuss.) I like me a good video game from time to time, as you can probably tell. That’s why I find fascinating Turchi’s insights into the congruities between great stories and good games. Either can make hours move like minutes. With games, Turchi argues this state of flow owes to the interplay between challenge and skill. Too much of the former leads to anxiety, while a surfeit of the latter causes boredom. But when it comes to books, he states, “Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. ... The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

Of course, stories can increasingly challenge us. We simply don’t notice it at first. During an initial reading, we’re just peeling back the outer layer of plot. The best books, though, give us a reason to read again, and during that process, we sift through the strata of symbol and metaphor, character and theme, setting and style. And contra Turchi, such books needn’t necessarily be serious. There’s no natural divide between complexity and delight.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Adrian Askew; Hat Tip: @JRVogt)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Wind Never Quite Fills Mad Ship's Sails

Note: This review contains very mild spoilers.

I'm fascinated by the dynamics of trilogies. You'd think that this de facto path winding through virtually all fantasy epics would be worn wide and deep by now. But that's not the case. The narrative ebb and flow of three-volume stories is surprisingly varied. For instance, take The Star Wars Trilogy (of which I recognize only one, darn it). It started strong, reached the apogee of its excitement with The Empire Strikes Back, and finished with the surprisingly thinly plotted Return of the Jedi. (Note to George: Special effects never trump story.) From a flow perspective, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is more rutted than a backcountry dirt road. Interludes of exhilaration bump up against descriptive dips, and the action plunges into a ditch with the incongruous second half of The Return of the King. Of course, Tolkien's thematic commitments and desire to have his magnum opus read as a single large story explain much of that. I wonder if some similar dynamic is at work with Robin Hobb's uneven Mad Ship, the second volume in The Liveship Traders trilogy.

The Vestrit family lies in shambles. Financial straits have forced matriarch Ronica to desperate action in an attempt to keep her estate afloat, including allowing her son-in-law to turn the family's sentient liveship Vivacia into a slave vessel. Incensed by the decision, youngest daughter Althea has left their home of Bingtown for the open sea, determined to prove that she'd be a better captain of Vivacia. Oldest daughter Keffria detests her sister's actions, but has her hands full trying to manage her own daughter, Malta. For her part, headstrong Malta sees little danger in leading on the son of a powerful family that holds much of the Vestrit's debt. And no one at home realizes that Vivacia's maiden voyage has ended in disaster. Against this background of familial strife, storm clouds billow as a self-indulgent satrap turns his eye toward Bingtown, a sociopathic pirate eyes the title of king, and a clutch of deadly sea serpents start harrying the waterways.

Even with all that plot summary above, I haven't touched on the titular insane vessel of Mad Ship. I couldn't find a way to make it flow, and perhaps that hints at the book's primary problem: It's a tangle of subplots that entwine and unravel without ever twisting into overarching action. Characters come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but it all feels as though it's building to a climax that doesn't come. Not to say that it lacks action. Both a shipboard encounter with a sea serpent and a high-speed abduction by highwaymen thrill. Ditto for Hobb's robust take on femininity, which owes more to Hebraic ideas than modern feminism. Yet these are more the sauce than the meat of the story. The wind never quite fills Mad Ship's sails. But given the events set in motion, I'm willing to bet that The Liveship Traders trilogy be exhilarating indeed when read as a whole.

(Picture: CC 2006 by efilpera)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Profanity Needs to Pack a Punch (Blackbirds and Mad Ship)

Note: From just looking at the title, I'm sure you can make an educated guess about this post’s content.

I'm a lazy reader. I don't mean that I have a hard time picking books or that I never finish them. Far from it. The Middle Shelf mitigates both impulses. No, my problem is that my "currently reading" stack all too easily becomes a merry go round with multiple titles getting dizzy while they wait for me to pluck them off. Usually, this renders my reading a bit fragmentary. Disparate characters bump against one another. Plot developments get muddled. Symbols blend together. But sometimes that very juxtaposition can prove instructive. Recently, it made me consider the different ways in which two simultaneously read novels -- Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds and Robin Hobb's Mad Ship -- handle profanity.

Though I enjoyed Blackbirds, I make no bones about being irritated with its liberal attitude toward obscenity. It's funny the first few times that protagonist Miriam Black drops the f-bomb in the middle of a witty bit of dialogue. By the novel's mid-point, though, it's so old as to have gotten downright annoying. Contrast this with Mad Ship, a high fantasy about sea serpents, sentient trading vessels, deadly pirates, and internecine familial conflict. It's not without grit. A couple of scenes describing amputations pre-anesthesia made my stomach flip. But it is almost completely without profanity -- at least up until the following scene.

(Some background, if I may. This scene features three members of the Vestrit family. Matriarch Ronica is desperate trying to stave off the souring of her family's fortunes brought on by the untimely death of her husband. Her youngest daughter, Althea, believes the family ship should've gone to her instead of her brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law's daughter, teenaged Malta, loves nothing more than manipulating Althea and being a general nuisance.)

Malta let Althea get almost to the door before she asked curiously, "Are you going to go see that bead-maker again?" She made a pretense of rubbing her eyes as she set aside her own pen.

"I might," Althea said evenly. Malta heard the restrained annoyance in her voice.

Ronica made a small sound as if decided whether to speak. Aunt Althea turned back to her wearily. "What?"

Ronica gave a small shrug, her hands still busy with the flowers. "Nothing. I just with you would not spend so much time with her, so openly. She is not Bingtown, you know. And some say she is no better than the New Traders."

"She is my friend," Althea said flatly. [...] "Mother." Althea's patience sounded strained. "There is a great deal more to that story than you have heard. If you wish, I'll tell you all I know. But later. When only adults are around."

Malta knew that little sling was intended for her. She rose to it like a shark to chum. "The bead-maker has an odd reputation about town. Oh, everyone says she is a wonderful artist. However, as we all know, artists can be strange. She lives with a woman who dresses and acts like a man. Did you know that?"

"Jek is from the Six Duchies or one of those barbarian lands. That is just how women behave up there. Grow up, Malta, and stop listening to dirty little whispers," Althea suggested brusquely.

Malta drew herself up to her full height. "Usually, I ignore such gossip. Until I hear our own family name dragged into it. I know it is scarcely ladylike to discuss such things, but I feel you should know that some people say that you visit the bead-maker for the same reason. To sleep with her."

During the ensuing shocked silence, Malta added a spoonful of honey to her tea. As she stirred it, the sound of the spoon against the cup seemed almost merry.

"If you mean fuck, say fuck," Althea suggested. She enunciated the crudity deliberately. Her voice was cold with fury. "If you are going to be coarse, why be circumspect with the language?"
Boom. Hobb lets that word fall like a bomb into a book that hadn't featured any language stronger than the very occasional "damn." The effect is palpable. You can almost hear the shards of faux civility come tinkling down. And that's how it should be. Profanity exists to shock, to transgress, to violate. Scattering it everywhere in your story does exactly the opposite (not to mention the negative social effect of deadening readers to it). Obscenity impacts best when used sparingly.

(Picture: CC 2008 by macwagen)