Archive for the writing Category

Why So Serious, Part 2

Posted in art, soccer, writing with tags , , , , on August 27, 2014 by cueball

It started with Eric Cantona.  Actually, it really started in third grade when I decided to play soccer instead of football like all my cousins.  My contrary nature and need to find my own path rears its beautiful head again.

It was Cantona who really turned me into a soccer fan though.  At the point that he was at his Manchester United height (and depths) I was in college. I had stayed a soccer fan and occasional player throughout and then this, quite honestly, insane soccer angel entered Manchester United’s line-up and my life. 

King Eric was one of the players who embodies the magnetic draw soccer can have.  On one hand he was a mesmerizing and brilliant player.  On the other hand he did this.  The list of red cards, other sundry offenses don’t obscure why we are drawn to him. 

For me, Cantona represents everything I love about soccer and sports in general.  The magnetic unpredictability of the whole enterprise.  It is players like him and currently Mario Ballotelli and Luis Suarez in soccer or a Johnny Manziel in football that draw us to the games.   

As much as the sports moralists like to rail against these players because they are “bad influences” (“Think of the children!”), these players represent the reason we love sports.  They are all unpredictable.  Unfortunately, they are unpredictable both on and off the field.  We don’t know what is going to happen with them.  As much as people search for sure things when they gamble on sports, they gamble because of the rush of not knowing what will happen next and having some kind of wager riding on the outcome. 

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Why do we become obsessed with sports or novels or movies or craft beer or comic books?  What is it that these things provide us?  In my opinion, and in the opinion of Albert Camus (someone infinitely smarter than me) it is because they are created worlds that provide us with unity and coherence. 

These things all have some type of internal logical framework.  They always follow that framework making it easier to comprehend and grasp the workings of what is happening.  This is different than life.  Our everyday world and everyday life is to a great extent full if illogic.  It rarely makes consistent sense and it rarely pays off the way we want it. 

Homebrewing gives you a sense of control.  From the initiation of the idea of the beer you want to brew, to the ingredients you choose, to the actual brewing, to the finished product, you as a brewer control everything in this universe.  It is the same with writing a novel. You create and control the universe from beginning to end.  These things become almost acts of Zen meditation.

In part Zen is the study of the way to give up the illusion of control of those things outside of you. Completing the tasks of art is a way of replicating that.  You control the universe of your tasks even if you cannot control the outcome.  You may have an idea of what beer you are trying to make and if you do everything right you will probably get very close, but then again you may not.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t because the idea is to keep replicating the actions you can control.  That means more times than not you will get the beer you set out to create. 

Creation and creativity is not about creating the thing you want.  It is about the act of creating.  The joy is in (here is that phrase again) the process.  The joy is in doing the thing, because if you do it right, you will get a harmonious outcome even if it isn’t the one you envisioned to begin with. 

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Late Night Musings, Edited For Clarity In The Light Of Day

Posted in life, writing with tags , , , on August 25, 2014 by cueball

This may be the most personal thing I will write for this space (and yet it is still rather obtuse).  I have been thinking about this blog.  I have been thinking about my life and everything else.  Mostly, I’ve been thinking about writing and its role in my life. 

After going a few months without really doing any writing and then coming back to it, I’ve discovered that I am the best version of myself when I write. 

What does that even mean?  The best version of myself.  That is some first world verbalization of a concept that had no meaning until the last 20 years.  For me it means the act of writing stills my mind.  It isn’t something I need to be paid to do.  It is something I need to do to keep me sane and to keep the better angels of my nature front and center.  It allows me to see myself and the world around me clearer. 

It lets me like myself.

The act, this very thing I’m doing right now, forces a discipline on me that compels me to make choices on a daily basis that are good for me.  In doing this thing, I am totally present for at least a couple of hours a day. 

Maybe that is what I mean by the best version of me.  Writing makes me stay present.  If not I have a tendency to lose myself in the past and the future of my imagination. 

Everyone needs that thing that is theirs.  That thing they do that makes the world seem correct, logical, and safe.  That thing that takes them to a place where they feel comfortable.  The place where you do not care what anyone thinks.  It is about you and for you and nothing else.  You don’t do it to make others happy or to make others comfortable.  You do it because it means more to you than anything else and it makes you happy. 

I read a lot of writing advice books and essays.  Sometimes the person writing the piece will say you need to think of your ideal reader or your audience when you are writing.  I agree you need to write in a way that is clear so that you do not confuse your audience.  You should write in a consistent voice that follows the internal logic of the work so that your reader will stay with you.  However, if you are writing for anyone but yourself (once you strip everything away), you will not be happy.  You have to write because you have something to say, something you need to express.  Yes, you want others to like it to read it to tell you it is good, but that comes later.  In the beginning, it is just you and the page.  The first priority is for you to say what you want in the way that you want.

There is a certain amount of selfishness and perhaps self-delusion to be a good writer and to live a good life in general.  Selfish enough to tell people no and to walk your own path without regard to others.  Delusional enough to think that you can do whatever you put your mind to. 

Walking away from the life you have for the life you want is not an easy thing.  It is fraught with minefields from internal and external forces.  When you make the decision you have to be know what you are getting into.   That is one of the things I’ve learned in my life.  In any decision you make, you must know and understand the consequences of your decisions and actions.  If you can accept the good or ill consequences of the decision you make, you have made if not a correct decision at least one you can live with for the rest of your life.  

When Robert Johnson was at the crossroads and he made his deal with the devil, he knew what he was getting into.  I love the idea of the crossroad.  It’s that place where you have a choice.   Neither choice is necessarily wrong, but they both have consequences.  You just have to decide what you can live with, what you can accept. 

Art and Craftsmanship

Posted in writing on August 15, 2014 by cueball

One of the best bits of advice I’ve read about writing is from someone whom I cannot remember and it is, “Get out of the way of the words.”  The other best bit of advice is, “You don’t know what you’re writing about until you’re finished.”  That is from Mark Twain and I think I have the wording correct.  Either way both pieces of advice work hand in hand. 

When I first started to try and become a writer in college I resisted the idea of character and plot development beforehand.  I thought it stifled the creative process and screwed up my flow.  The more I wrote the more I understood why you did all that work.  You are attempting to internalize as much of the background of your characters and setting as possible so that you write almost without thinking.  In other words, to getting your conscious mind out of the way of the words as much as possible. 

For me the goal is to have a character driven plot.  I start with my characters.  This is a general sketch of the type of person each character is.  Sometimes, I don’t even choose sex or race at this point. Second, I need to figure out where my characters start emotionally and where they end emotionally.  Next, I try to fill in just enough of the characters background and history to make all of their decisions and actions logical to the story and their universe.  This is where I solidify sex, race, age, etc.  I’ll figure out their family situation, their job, as much of the general background as I can. 

Next, comes a basic outline of the plot.  The best way to think of it is a chronological listing of the plot points I want to hit leaving space to for the characters to help me find them. Then I work on the setting, again just trying to get a broad enough outline to make the physical movements of the characters logical.  At that point I might create a couple of new characters or change and/or combine the original characters I created for this story. 

Finally, it is time to write.  Hopefully, I’ve laid out just enough detail to let the characters move and grow on their way to their destination.  I want to know just enough to get me from scene to scene.  I think it was Saul Bellow who said writing a novel was like driving at night.  At night you know your destination but you can only see as far as your headlights.  The act of writing fiction for me is in part discovering things about the characters and setting as I go along.  That keeps it fun and interesting.

Twain’s bit about not knowing what you are writing until you are finished fits hand in glove with the getting out of the way of the words and learning about your characters as you write.  If you are discovering different aspects of your characters and setting as you go, you do not know where the journey will really take you until it is over.  That is why editing becomes just as important to the writing as the actual writing.  In fact, it could be stated that editing is the actual writing.  At the very least, that is the true craft of writing.  It is where you see the faint outlines of what you are actually trying to do and you cut and mold it into something worth consumption.  The editing lets you see into your own unconsciousness in away by showing you what you were actually writing about. 

This is the art and the craft of writing.  You start with the imagination to create a whole universe of people, places, and things that did not exist before (well maybe parts of them exist).  Then, you let the craftsmanship mold something coherent out of the raw clay that sprang from your mind. 

Digging A Hole: The Return of 500 Words

Posted in life, writing with tags , on August 5, 2014 by cueball

Dig a hole and fill it up.

I have been thinking about process a lot recently.  (That is the kind of thing you do, when you don’t have the occupational success you expected.  You retrench and start thinking a lot.  This is why you learn more from failure then success.)  Your process has a greater bearing on your “success” then your goals.  Success is an overly abstract concept that differs for each individual so, let’s use outcomes instead.

If you have ever gone on a retreat for an organization or been charged with coming up with a new direction, campaign, or program for an organization or just been involved in any kind of brainstorming session, you have had the talk about goal-setting.  In fund raising/development and grant writing, your days are consumed with it because of the way foundations now award money and collect data. This particular type of goal-setting is broken down like this:  Mission statement, end goals, outputs, and expected outcomes.

The mission statement and goals are expressions of the problem you would like to solve.  The outputs are the things you will do to solve those problems, and the outcomes are the measures of change you expect to come about from your outputs.

Here is the thing about outcomes: In large bureaucracies, as many foundations and nonprofits have become, the pressure to hit your outcomes and benchmarks becomes so great that people start “juking the stats.”

If you watched The Wire you have heard the term before.  It comes from the way many officers in the fictional version of the Baltimore Police treated their crime statistics.  In order to make it look like they were making progress commanders would change rapes to breaking and entering and murders to aggravated assaults.  Because of funding and individual ambitions they had become slaves to the outcomes.

An individual cannot juke the stats to his life.  (A large organization can’t really do it for too very long. Eventually, it catches up even with the largest and most important agencies.) An individual cannot look at their bank account, see a balance of $100, and pretend they are rich no matter how you try to move things around.  (If your outcome is based on money.)

So, it comes back to your process or your outputs.  How do you live your life?  What do you do every day?

A digression.  Every sports coach worth a damn knows that the score and the final outcome of any individual game is out of their control and their team’s control.  They understand that the only thing they can control is their execution.  Doing the right thing the right way every time.  These are their outputs.  The process.

500 words.  That does not seem to be a lot of writing.  It actually isn’t on any individual day.  The words come easy, but the ideas are hard.  It is in that struggle and difficulty of coming up with one idea a day and hammering at it for 500 words that makes it fun and worthwhile. It is digging a hole and filling it up.  Then digging a hole and filling it up.  Then digging a hole and filling it up.  This is one of my outputs, part of my process.  The idea is to remember to keep writing every day.  That is the output that points towards the life I would like. The outcome is to get to do the work you want to do every day.

I’ll be back tomorrow.

What I’m Doing

Posted in beer, blogging, life, writing with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2014 by cueball

If you have followed this blog for the last 12-18 months, you will have seen the subject matter shift from bitching about the NCAA, to fiction, to posts about whatever happened to be in my mind at that moment, to increasingly about beer.  It would seem that I’m flitting about from idea to idea and obsession to obsession with no real objective.  That is partially true, but not totally.

It has been a search for what I am good at.  Up until this point the happiest I have been with the blog was when writing fiction.  I like writing fiction.  The thing I like most about it is the creation of the characters, then learning more about them as I put them through the plot.  However, I have always preferred writing nonfiction rather than fiction.  I have always had lots of ideas and beliefs I have wanted to express in my writing.  

Many authors have many ideas and beliefs they want to express through their fiction.  Unfortunately, they sometimes forgetting that they are trying to tell a story and not write a polemic.  I’ve struggled with this too.  I do not want to write stories that forget to tell the stories and forget to be truthful art because it is too busy trying to make a point about racism, poverty, or whatever.  So, I continue to go back to non-fiction.

So, how why has beer become my chosen subject as opposed to sports?  I like beer.  It starts there.  I also like sports, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with the mess that the NCAA and the NFL/NBA have made of college sports.

Let me be more specific about beer, I love craft beer.  The idea that beer all comes from the same basic recipe and with just a slight change to one of the four ingredients and you create a wholly different beer. 

The other thing I love about beer is how it works with food.  The properties of beer make it a wonderful companion to almost any meal and if you find the exact right beer for what you are eating it makes any meal a special event.  This has led to chefs and breweries working together to create beer and food pairings dinners.  However, as much as I would love to go to one of the dinners chefs like Sean Paxton and Schuyler Schultz put on, I like most people will not get many if any chances to taste a pairing of Bear Republic Big Bear Stout with a House-Smoked Niman Ranch Pork Leg with Grilled Peaches served with a Peach Chutney and Grilled Scallions (pairing and recipe from Schultz’s great book Beer, Food, and Flavor). 

What I don’t want to see happen with craft beer is the thing that happened with wine in this country.  Wine has become the province of the rich, the aesthetes, and hipsters.  Let’s not get it twisted, I want beers that are special and that are more expensive than other beers because they are rare and truly interesting and not because their availability has been artificially suppressed.  I also want good beer to be available to as many people as possible.  Again, I don’t want good beer to become the province solely of the rich or just another affectation of hipsters (For more go here). 

So, what I want to do is show how good beer can enhance everyday meals.  As much as chefs who respect beer like Paxton and Schultz have the skills and time to make the meals they make to match specifically to each beer they serve most people are just trying to figure out a beer that will make the baked chicken and au gratin potatoes taste a little bit better. 

The meals I am going to try and match will be the same meals everyone can and does make every day.  Now, I am a vegetarian and I am a Southerner.  So, all my meals will be vegetables and most will have a Southern bent as far as ingredients and taste. 

That’s what I’m doing now and I think it is a big enough field to play in for years.   Its beer and its food meaning there is a lot of stuff to explore.  

Ideas On How To Review Stuff

Posted in beer, writing with tags , , on December 22, 2013 by cueball

One of the things I want to do on this blog is post beer reviews.  As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to review beer and make it interesting to the reader and to me the writer.  I began to think, “What is the point of a review?”  Basically, it is whether or not to recommend something to another person.  This goes for any discipline:  television, movies, books, music, theatre, visual arts, food, beer.

There are three things a review must do:  1)What is the thing being reviewed trying to be; 2)Is the thing being reviewed successful at what it is trying to be; 3)Do you as a reviewer like it, why or why not and do you recommend it.

What is the thing being reviewed trying to be?

What genre or style is this work trying to be?  Is it trying to adhere to only one genre or style or trying to be a hybrid?  Genres and styles the reviewer to orient his/herself.  It makes it easier to discern what parameters the person who created this object is obeying or trying to cross.  Is it an India Pale Ale or is it a Belgian-style Golden Ale or is it trying to be some combination?

Is the thing being reviewed successful at what it is trying to be?

One of Roger Ebert’s rules of reviewing was, only review the movie you were seeing.  Don’t allow your preconceived notions to affect the movie you are actually seeing.  If the movie is only trying to be a big silly comedy, review its success at being a big silly comedy not as an existential family drama.  The great thing about beer is that the brewers will usually tell you what they are trying to do either on the bottle or on their website.  If a West Coast brewer is trying to make a malt forward English-style pale ale with West Coast hops, he will let you know.  Then the reviewer must decide was a he successful at creating a English pale ale or in blending two styles, not whether this is as good as his last hop forward West Coast pale ale.

Do you like it, why or why not?  Would you recommend it?

This is the core of what the reviewer is trying to do, explain whether this was a waste of his/her time and should you try it.  This is where beer and art objects are a little different.  If a movie tries to be a big silly comedy and is successful at it, it is usually worth watching.  If a beer tries to be a big barley wine and is successful at being a big barley wine, the reviewer could still not like it but still recommend it.  There are many beers I’ve had that I think were successful at what they are trying to be that didn’t fit my pallet, but I would still recommend it because they might fit someone else’s pallet.  In this part of the review the reviewer is also trying to capture whatever feeling experienced in the first moments with the object being reviewed.  It is the attempt to make the reader feel and understand the joy, disappointment, or outrage of the first blush.

The first reviews should go up over the next two days.

Tribes

Posted in writing with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2013 by cueball

We all belong to a tribe or actually more than one.  We are all born into a family.  Then as we grow, we develop interests outside the scope of the family.  We fall in love with sports either playing or watching; we develop a love for music; we become enraptured by some characters in some book; etc.  Personally, here are the tribes I can name off the top of my head that I belong to in no particular order:  family, soccer fan (of the American variety), reader, writer, music lover, UNC Chapel Hill graduate, Tar Heel sports fan, sports analytics nerd, science fiction geek, beer geek, and television lover.  That’s just today.

These tribes represent one two headed thing for us.  We use these tribes to define who we are to ourselves and as signifiers to others in order to organize our immediate world.

In our modern world the great philosophical problem is probably that of our atomization and the if not the dissolution of the old organizing principals (family, church, nationality, and to an extent race), we search for ways to define ourselves so that we know who we are and others can easily learn who we are.  We began living in nomadic tribes, moved to city-states, then to nation states, and now we live in a global world.

First, as travel became easier and now as communication is has been simplified we live in an increasingly global world with tenuous boundaries.  It is easy to define yourself and standout when the only people you see on a daily/weekly basis are the ones you see when you go to work, church, or the grocery store.  How does one define himself in a global sea?

Once you have defined yourself and joined your tribes you can now organize your life around those tribes.  Who do you follow on Twitter?  What favorites do you have saved in your web browser?  They probably follow along with your self-defined tribes.  With so much to choose from and so much information available, it is almost a necessity to figure out the things that matter the most to you and construct your social life around them.  We would drown in a sea of information.

A great deal of human history has been wrapped up in people trying to define themselves and make sense of the world around them.  Twitter allows you follow only those you want to.  There is a reason you can create lists in most Twitter apps.  You can look up anything you want on the internet, but your web browser lets you create favorites lists with folders to separate all of your links.  DirecTV lets you create channel lists so you only see the channels you want to at any given time.  Those things create ease of use, but they also help us define ourselves by our choices.

I guess as a writer, I’m thinking how much does a character choose his path and affect the narrative and how much do I push him into that path with my narrative choices.  How much control of the story does a writer cede to his characters?  In giving them too much leeway do you risk making your work as messy as real life?  Is that a desirable outcome?