Archive for June, 2013

Late Night Listening To Music

Posted in writing with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2013 by cueball

What the hell am I supposed to be writing?

I’m in that part of writing a novel where you have written the first draft, you have read it, you have measured it, and you have found it wanting.  I’m past the joy of accomplishing the first draft.  I’m in the deep weeds trying to remember what the hell this thing was supposed to be about in the first place and find my way out of this maze.

My solution is to add a whole new set of characters.  Actually, it isn’t a whole new set of characters it is a group of characters that were in my initial preparation of the book.  It isn’t a complete wholesale rewrite either because of how I constructed the narrative with parallel yet non-intersecting stories.  Trust me it makes sense in my mind.

The idea of the structure comes a little from The Sweet Hereafter.  That wasn’t intentional, but it is such an important book to me, that it just sort of happened.

Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.  I’ve learned a lot from this whole process.

It’s just late night and I’m listening Billy Bragg’s “St. Swithin’s Day” over and over again.  I’ve found when I get stuck and can’t figure out what direction to go in with the writing (and more and more my life) I do two things.  First, I try to do what Hemingway said he did when he got stuck: Write the truest sentence I can think of.  Second, I listen to music that has that truth Hemingway spoke of.

That is the thing that was most disappointing in rereading what I wrote.  It doesn’t feel like I let myself tell the truth.  I got close and danced right up to it a few times, but I didn’t quite get there.  (“Must I Paint You A Picture” is now playing)  I realized I hadn’t even come close to telling the truth when I bought and listened to Jason Isbell’s new album Southeastern.

The rawness and honesty of every song on that album is what I aspire to find in my writing.  It is heartbreaking to see how close it is I’ve gotten in some passages of the book, yet I see how I turned at the last minute.  I have to find that place.

So, I sit and I listen to Billy Bragg, The Clash, Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Public Enemy, Fishbone, and others hoping they can help me find my version of that truth.  The ugly, necessary thing we turn away from because it is too hard and reminds us of our own failings.

“…virtue never tested is no virtue at all.” – Billy Bragg

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It Is No Longer A Game

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , on June 23, 2013 by cueball

 “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

North Dallas Forty

First, I love college sports.  I went to UNC Chapel Hill and have loved college basketball since 1982.  It is a part of my DNA.  Second, I believe in education for education’s sake.  I think you education opens your world to many things, some of which can’t be measured by money.  I certainly disagree with the current governor of North Carolina that universities are glorified vocational schools.  Having said that, over the last year or so I have come to believe that, barring a complete dismantling of the current structure of college sports, college players should be paid in some form or another above their grants-in-aid.

Notice, I did not call them college athletes or student-athletes or any other Orwellian term coined to hide the fact these are indentured laborers.

If coaches weren’t becoming millionaires and athletic departments weren’t basically for profit businesses and conferences weren’t billion dollar corporations, athletes would be regular students who used their God-given abilities to get an education.

However, the world where this is true no longer exists for football players and college basketball players.

The fans, the media, the coaches/administrators, and the athletes all view sports differently.

Fans sometimes think of the football team or basketball team as the university and forget that there is an institution of higher learning supposedly represented by those teams.  The attitudes of many of these fans is a paternalistic (and maybe something else) attitude that the athletes should just be happy to get the opportunity to play for Old State U and their legendary god-like coach.

Media members are caught in a maelstrom of loving the sports and most of the people involved in the sports and watching a ridiculous system lurch towards its own demise.  Most of the coaches and administrators are good people caught trying to make this lurching, belching, and dying system function in some semblance of logic.

Then there are the athletes who remind me a quote from the book Dune:  “He who can destroy a thing has the real control of it.”

Should athletes be paid above their scholarships?  In the strictest sense, no they should not.  However, when the highest paid state employee of many states is the head football or basketball coach of a state university maybe they should.  When EA Sports and the NCAA make money on video games using the likenesses, jersey numbers, the athletic profiles, and statistical profiles of players from the immediate past and sometimes still active, but then claim they aren’t using that player’s likeness because they changed the name, yeah the athletes probably should get something for their troubles besides having to write a paper on Beowulf.

We are passed the “should stage”.  Once the NCAA v. The Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma case was decided and schools/conferences could control their own television contracts, the floodgates opened.  Money is flowing to everyone except the individuals upon whom the whole system is based.  It has taken 20 years, but those individuals are starting to understand their power in this situation.  They are starting to understand that without them the system may not collapse, but its value will be greatly diminished.  Now that, that is happening the whole system will change regardless of what the decision is in the O’Bannon case.

College sports is no longer a game, it is a business and like most businesses with shady labor practices it will have its reckoning.

Meditation On Music First Thing In The Morning

Posted in music, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2013 by cueball

Why do we like the things we like?

What attracts us to certain music, literature, movies, television?

Do we like a certain song by a certain artist more than a similar song from another artist because the first has cooler clothes?  Is it the aesthetic or the talent?

Similarly, why do we like style of music over another or another type of fiction over another or drama over comedy?

Why do I prefer Jason Isbell and The Carolina Chocolate Drops to Daft Punk and Kanye West?  Why would I rather read Light In August instead of Ready Player One?

Are we born who we are or are made into who we are?  I think a lot of it is inherent.  A genetic predisposition to certain chemical responses in the brain created by what we see, hear, and read.

I also think on some level we each decide everyday who we are and what life we want to live.

I started thinking about this as I tried to figure out why I like human beings playing guitars much more then I like electronic music.  Intellectually I can hear the artistry and skill musicians who dwell in the electronic world.  I can appreciate the complex nature of the sounds they are putting together.  However, I can’t hear the humanity.  I almost always feel when listening to electronic music that its beauty is rather antiseptic.  I prefer the messiness of real people.

To my ear and to my mind there is a vibrancy that comes from an imperfect human interacting with an imperfect string instrument.  It creates moments that even if they are recorded are lost to history.  You can record a live concert and listen to it again in the comfort of your home or car, but you cannot recreate that moment between you, the band and the rest of the crowd.

It isn’t that this is impossible with electronic music, but again to my ear, those moments seem prescribed.  I actually like listening to electronic music.  I think a better description then antiseptic of what I often don’t like in it is over-intellectualized.

Often when I hear or read a music critic or fan talk about electronic music they describe it in ways that sound like a computer program.  They talk about the use of rhythms and string effects and modulation and how all this comes together to make a beautiful piece of music.  It is in those moments I start to think, “Yeah, why didn’t they just plug in a Stratocaster, turn it up to 10, hit a big E chord, and see what happens.”

Let’s not get it twisted.  I don’t want some dumb cave man screaming and yelling nonsense over silly chord progressions.  I love singer-songwriters and want to hear intelligent lyrics sung over great musicianship, but we shouldn’t over think it.

Sometimes the more we know the easier it is to lose the humanity.  We must be careful in all aspects of our lives that we keep using the tools we develop and not let them use us.  I think this is especially true in art.  Artists, writers, and musicians must retain control of their tools to use them to augment their expression of humanity instead of letting those tools dictate their expression of humanity.

Or maybe I just don’t understand electronic music.

Too Much Time To Fill and Too Many People Trying to First and not Right

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 21, 2013 by cueball

We live in a blockbuster culture where because everything is the most important thing to ever happen, nothing is very important.  The internet and social media has made the world a smaller place and connected people to each other in an unprecedented fashion.  It has given many who would be isolated and alone a sort of family.  The internet has also allowed almost unlimited access to knowledge and information to everyone with access to the web.

However, the downside of this connectivity and access to information is that we lose the perspective of what actually matters.  If every fact, theory, and bit of rampant speculation is given the same weight we lose the ability to process things in their level of importance.

I’m not going to pretend that I only use the internet for scholarly pursuits.  On a daily basis most of my use of the internet is to read about soccer, basketball, beer, and random bits of pop culture information.  Those things are usually in pursuit of avoiding doing the work I need to get done like finishing writing my by September.

We consistently elevate the mundane and ridiculous to the level of the important for two reasons:  1) There is no filter and everything comes at us constantly and we have no time to decide what matters and what doesn’t, and 2) The internet is fueled by a culture of being first.  People want to be the first to get their opinion out on the new Kanye West album.  They want to be the first to tell you how Tim Tebow is going to be the Patriots starting quarterback/tight end on opening day.  To hell with being right as long you are first.

We lurch around Facebook, Tumbler, Reddit, and Twitter looking for the next slightly outrageous things someone said or did so that we can spend the next 8 hours wallowing in the indignant backlash to what happened, then in the backlash to the backlash, and finally we settle on why this really didn’t matter anyway because this much more important thing to get indignant about just happened.

I understand that most of the time, there is nothing to terribly important going on the world and the internet is a 24/7 cycle of information that needs to be fed.  I just think we have forgotten the importance of perspective.

I don’t want a world where everyone sits around navel gazing contemplating Kierkegaard and Sartre thinking about the existential meaning and weight of Leonard Cohen’s last album all the time.  Occasionally that is fine, but all the time?

I like perspective.  I like understanding that the import and long-term effects of things that happen can’t be determined in the first five minutes.

I started thinking about this post as this year’s NBA Finals moved along.  The talking heads on ESPN kept lurching from conclusion to conclusion depending on who won the game before and in this series up until the last two games the teams’ alternated winning.  That led to many hours of radio time, podcast time, words spilled on the website either burying the Heat or praising them.  After one game the Heat were going to be broken up with the whole Big 3 era a complete failure.  Then after the next game they were on the short list of the greatest team in the history of the NBA and LeBron was cementing his legacy.  This was akin to someone reading Ulysses and writing a complete book review after every chapter.  Too much time to fill and too many people wanting to be first instead of right.

This blog and this blog post are ultimately meaningless.  I know that.  A few people may read this (Thank you!) and fewer still will like it (Thank you! Thank you!).  I understand that.  I’m not saying anything new nor terribly insightful or intelligent (Okay, maybe a little intelligent).  I do hope I’m still around in 30 years and have the mental awareness to see what has become of how we use the internet.

I Spend Way Too Much Time In My Own Head

Posted in writing with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2013 by cueball

Melancholy – noun.

1.  an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression

2.  a : depression of spirits : dejection

b : a pensive mood

My natural state is that of melancholy.  I have no idea where that comes from.  It isn’t a depression of spirits, however.  It is the pensiveness that dominates my personality.

That can be good or it can be bad.  Part of the definition of pensive is deeply thoughtful.  In the good is that it is what makes me want to write.  The notion of expressing all of the ideas that I think of is the main reason I want to write.  Occasionally have a good idea that I want others to read and think about themselves.  So, I write.

However, there are two ways that being melancholy and pensive can cause me problems.  The other part of the definition of pensive is “thinking deeply about something, especially is a sad or serious manner.”

So, I frequently overthink and I overthink in a sad or serious manner.  That often leads to stasis.   I stop worrying about getting things done and actually accomplishing something and instead worry about all the possibilities of failure as well as success.  So, I do nothing.

I go into a mood of wanting perfection.  Perfect conditions to work and perfect outcomes of the work.  One thing life should teach us all is that connotative ideal of perfection is a myth.  We think of perfection as something without flaw or defect.  In actuality, most definitions of perfection or perfect have some variation of the phrase: as good as it possibly can be.  That doesn’t mean without defect, it is a real world definition that acknowledges that we and this world we live in are imperfect, but we can and should get as close to it as possible.

What am I talking about?  I seem to be wandering all about today.  I have been thinking about this (there is that pensive thing again) as I have been trying to revise and edit the book I wrote during the NANOWRIMO Camp in April.  It is going rather badly.  I have been trying to work on it in the perfect conditions as I try to make it a perfect distillation of what is in my mind.

One of the things I did learn during the camp was that there are no perfect conditions and that the act of writing is writing and get something on paper (or computer screen).  However, I’ve been paralyzed by something that manifested itself in the search for perfection.  I think what my issue is, is that the story I wrote in April is only part of the story I wanted to write and it isn’t the most honest part.

Looking back at what I wrote in April, I see a nice start.  It is a safe start.  It is a start that doesn’t get to the heart of the story and ideas I want to express.  The story I wrote and the characters I wrote took me on their journey.  That is fine, where those characters ended up is a fine place.  The ideas those characters and their actions expressed are valid.  They just don’t say everything I wanted to say.

The best way I can put it is like this:  The characters that came to dominate this first draft are at best half of the story I want to tell and they are the nice and acceptable half.  The harder and darker half of the story is still waiting to be told.  Those characters are still waiting for me to talk to them and tell me how they see things.   I didn’t find that honesty that art needs to be vital.  That honesty is from myself and from the story.  Individual sentences and certain scenes had that honesty, but not the work as a whole.

The other reason I’ve been having trouble writing is (back to the pensive and melancholy) is the over thinking about the outcome of trying to achieve the thing you want.  If you say want something, but don’t try for it, you will always have the possibility.  You will always have the “what-if” story you can tell to some other sad sack in a bar.  If you go out and try something and fail, then you know you weren’t good enough and then you have to deal with that.

The problem with that thinking is, not knowing is worse than knowing.  At least if you try, something will happen.  It may not be exactly what you want, but something will happen that you will still like.

The One Where I Think About The Biggest African American Filmmaker and Romantic Comedies

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 11, 2013 by cueball

We all have the capacity for good and evil within us.  For me, a good writer doesn’t judge his characters and understands that very simple fact.  I’m not saying a writer shouldn’t have morality.  I’m not saying a story can’t end with the good guys prevailing over the bad guys.  I’m saying it isn’t the writer’s job to judge his characters only write what happens to them and do so in an entertaining and elucidating way.

I have never actually sat through an entire Tyler Perry movie.  I have tried to watch one or two of them only to find them poorly conceived, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted and ham-handed  morality treatises. 

Let’s start with the morality dialectic he operates under and ask the same questions Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post asked a few months ago:  Does he believe if you cheat on your spouse you automatically catch HIV and die or does he believe the people who go to see his movies think that and is just hustling to get them and their church groups into movie theaters?  The first I disagree with the second is cynical and disgusting.

Beyond the overly-simplistic Christian morality, of which I am sure I have friends and family who agree with Perry (everyone is entitled to their opinion), is the greater sin of bad art.  Artistically, his movies are still-born.  Their first and fatal mistake is that the characters all seem to be lists of traits and actions and not actual characters. 

Again, we all have the capacity for good and evil, the writer’s job is to make it clear (without judging) why a character makes the choices they make.  I’ve said it before, people don’t make decisions outside of their character and in fiction the writer must establish the character from the beginning so as to earn any and all decisions the character makes. 

Characters are not simply plot movement devices (outside of Michael Bay movies, which also never watch).  That isn’t to say plot isn’t important.  If you setting out to write a morality tale, you have to hit certain points to get from sin to redemption.  The skill is in making the journey to those predetermined mile posts seem like a natural extension of the character’s journey and making it seem like the redemption is always a question right up to the point where it comes to fruition.

This is why I love genre fiction and genre movies, especially romantic comedies.  Romantic comedies all have the same plot (except for the ending of Roman Holiday):  Boy (or girl) meets girl (or boy), loses girl (or boy), gets girl (or boy) back, the end.  The best writers, directors, and actors do a good job of making the journey seem natural and the ending earned.  The key to a good romantic comedy is the break up and reconciliation part of the movie.  That is the part where the characters take over from the plot.  That is what separates The Philadelphia Story from some Lifetime/Hallmark Channel movie.  By the way here the Paste Magazine list of the 50 Greatest Romantic Comedies of All Time. 

Anyway that is where Perry’s movies and television shows fall down.  He is too busy telling us about the wages of sin and showing us the path of righteousness he forgets to make good art.  Of course, with as badly written and directed the movies are (from the bits and pieces I’ve seen on television) it is possible he doesn’t have the skill to make the movie I would want to see.  Maybe his best skill is the ability to tap into that underrepresented movie market (the black conservative Christian market) that he has sewn up and not actual movie making.

Maybe that is where my problem really lies.  Outside of sports and music, African Americans are seemingly limited to “the one” to represent all African Americans in that endeavor and Tyler Perry has been anointed the one for movies, and I wish for the sake of the art that it could be someone more talented like Kasi Lemmons or Lee Daniels.

It’s Been A While, But I Still Recognize The Place

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2013 by cueball

I have become interested in how our perceptions, past experiences, and expectations effect how we appreciate a piece of art.  When Roger Ebert died I was listening to a podcast (unfortunately I can’t remember which one, but I think it might have been Do You Like Prince Movies) and one of the hosts (film critic Wesley Morris?) gave an Ebert quote that has stayed in mind:  Review the movie you are watching, not the one you wish you were watching.

To me that means going into each movie (television show, book, album, play, etc.) and judge it on its own merits.  Does it succeed in what it is trying to do?  If you are going into a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson movie, does it succeed at being a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson movie?  It isn’t going to be Shakespeare, but is it funny and entertaining?

I read fewer movie reviews then I used to.  I used to read a lot of reviews and go to a lot of movies.  Part of the reason I stopped is that I don’t really like most of the movies that are made and get a wide release.  I enjoy a good comic book or science fiction movie, but I also enjoy quieter and slower movies.  In fact as I age, I enjoy those movies more.  So, I don’t go to as many movies and therefore don’t read as many reviews.

However, I read a lot of television reviews and recaps.  With the internet there are dozens of sites dedicated to reviewing and discussing television, some much more intelligently and interestingly then others.  Of the many, many reviewers there are probably only a handful worth reading and keeping up with on a weekly basis.  If you read a lot about television you know who they are so I won’t list them right now.  Even among this select group of smart, funny, and intelligent writers, there is the tendency to go against Ebert’s admonishment.

Often when I’m reading some of my favorites, I get feel they are reviewing the show they wish they were watching and not the one they are watching.  There are two things at play here:  One, the changing nature of television, and two, the fact that even the best reviewers bring their biases and prejudices to what that they are watching.

I have touched on the changing of how technology and visionary creators have started to change how individual episodes are written.  With streaming services, on demand, and the pay cable channels it is possible for a creator/writer to make a show with episodes that are chapters of a much larger novel-like work (If you watched The Wire you know that as Dickensian.).  That changes the nature of the episodes.  In traditional network television, episodes can primarily stand alone as individual works.  Even in the shows that were/are serialized on networks the serialization is mostly a larger arc that is serviced by the characters solving an individual problem over the course of each episode.  That allows you to enjoy episodes with a beginning, middle, and end and still service the larger arc.

Shows on pay channels and streaming services have started to eschew that all together.  Shows like House of Cards or The Wire or Game of Thrones are meant to be watched in a binge.  Each episode is there to serve a larger work of art and very often work badly as stand-alone episodes.  This has made reviewing each episode as an individual episode harder, and sometimes when reading a review you get the feeling that the reviewer is having trouble with this new idea of television.

One writer, who I love to read is Andy Greenwald and he has had issues with Game of Thrones in particular because often individual episodes of GoT are not successful as individual pieces since it is a show that is trying to service many different story threads at once.  That makes some parts seem to have no meaning whatsoever to anything that is happening in that particular episode or this particular season.  Often, these threads have nothing to do with each particular episode or season because it is servicing the totality of the show (and the books) not just this episode or season.

This is an example of allowing expectations to color our enjoyment of a piece of art.  I think Ebert was saying we should be open to the idea that the art you wanted or expected isn’t always the art you are going to get and you should not let that color the quality of the art.  If you go into a work expecting one thing and getting another that can have a negative effect on your enjoyment or it can have a liberating effect upon your artistic/intellectual life.

That is what art should do.  It should challenge your perceptions, past experiences, and expectations.  Art should not always be there to comfort you.  It should also be there to confront you.  To make you see things differently.  To make you think about your life and world differently.