29 August 2009

Storytelling, Updated

This summer, I had another stunning realization. (What this means is, I either heard it before, forgot, and then thought I invented it, or I really did figure it out on my own, hundreds of years after someone else already did). My momentous decision is this: the hero a la Joseph Campbell is dead. Thus began the slow accumulation of thoughts that would someday become a blog post.

It all crashed down last Sunday as Em and I got into a movie: The Chaos Experiment. In and of itself, it was an okay film, sort of a formulaic horror/thriller, the premise being six people are locked in a huge steam room. Like any horror/thriller, the sexy stuff comes early on, but soon shifts into "Oh, shit. Let's forget how aroused we are, because we are all doomed."

The best part of the film is the lead role, played by Val Kilmer. He's the anti-hero, the guy who locked people in a steam room. But he did it for the good of all humankind, you see. He did it to get newspaper headlines so he can warn everyone about the human plunge into global warming, for which 2012 will mark catastrophe.

So it's Val Kilmer I can thank for realizing that the hero isn't dead. Our heroes have just been complicated. Because we construct heroics based on our egos, our growing understanding of each other's egos only complicates matters. It could be that as our society becomes more complex in its operations, our egos have also become more complex to keep up. Regardless the reason, knowing that we're all similar (despite what our egos suggest about each other), the "good vs. evil" motif is no doubt becoming a relic of the past, of a time when light was good and darkness was evil. Therefore, any story clearly portraying "good vs. evil" is an exaggeration of the human condition. Either this is done for the sake of art, or the storyteller is trying to serve his own ego up as the truth.

25 August 2009

da zimdog reads a book!

Just finished watching The Wrestler. What a great fucking movie. But that's irrelevant.

Or is it? I've always liked (and been much better at) watching movies over reading books. So why did I enter a writing program? I'm not sure. Getting my MFA is just one more thing I did because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. And I am glad I did it. My only regret is not being able to predict what it would do to my desire for reading. After being told what to read, and having it suggested (unofficially of course) HOW to read, I'm just a little tired of books.

Luckily this feeling is wearing off (albeit slowly). Yes folks, I read a book, a thin one... and it only took me two weeks! The difference this time is, I read a book I actually wanted to read. About a month ago, I drafted the first few pages of what will be my second novel. It will have just a touch of wolf theme to it, so I knew Never Cry Wolf would be one of the books I should read before getting any deeper into the new project. I'd been thinking about it in recent months, so what do you think I happened upon a few weeks ago among the remainders of an estate giveaway? Never Cry Wolf by Farlet Mowat. (I read a much older copy with a different cover, but I couldn't find an image of it online. Anyway, this newer one's got a stunning picture of wolves on it, so enjoy....)

My first surprise was that it's a work of nonfiction. I always thought it was fiction. (Hey, I was like six or something when I saw the movie.) Not that that matters. But because I have an MFA now, I can't just read a book without critiquing it, which is how I noticed Mowat's packed writing style. Mostly, I noticed because I've had constipated sentences on the brain lately from reading the words in my own thesis. Mowat's writing and my own seem evidence of what happens when the science-minded turn to creative writing. Each sentence is a crowd of words and ideas, making paragraph progress like a bushwhack through the briars.

Of course, as one who enjoys advancing through wild, tangled brush, Mowat's prose didn't really bother me. I don't need a clearly worn path, in woods or ideas. Advancing through the thorny patches is just more fun for me. Maybe it hurts a little, and the going is slow, but that is the satisfaction that comes from the kind of genuine problem solving that scientists seem to enjoy most. What's more, I have plain respect for the time Mowat probably spent crafting each sentence, even if the eventual combination produced an overworked whole.

But why am I even going into all this? Only within the confines of the academy does the Department of Arts and Letters get the final say on matters of creative writing. In the real world, science matters too. Yet the institution must have attached itself somewhere inside me, because here I type, supposedly a free man, and all I can do is try to rationalize what needs no reason. The arrangement of the words hardly matters when the emotion's there. That's what writing is mostly about, isn't it? Bringing your own emotions, and hoping the readers bring theirs?

Well, Mowat does this for sure. His work illuminates the very honest lives of wolves for those willing to change their minds about the well-rumored darkness of a species. The result was my eventual last step at the end of a one-paragraph epilogue that's nothing but a flat-out downer. For 175 pages, I discovered a beautiful family of wolves through Mowat's human eyes. Then on page 176, he hits me right in the eyes with two separate, but equally startling beams of harsh light: uncertainty and senselessness. Not even he knows what ever happened to the wolf family he (and I) came to love, but he does make one thing very clear in that epilogue. Humans are quite capable of letting their fears consume them, so much so that groundless human fears alone have the power to destroy all those things more innocent than humans themselves.

If you haven't read it before, you will most definitely find surprises in this book. Highly recommended.

11 August 2009

Make way for the zimdog

One day during our time in Indiana, Emily was going out shopping with her mom and I was heading out to do my own thing. It was suggested as possible that I could, if I wanted, make a stop at Target for baby food. At the time, I was shaved near bald, and my transition lenses were dark from just coming in out of the summer sunshine. I must've looked like the founder of a local Hunter S. Thompson fan club. I was also clearly one of the few men in Target on a weekday afternoon.

I thought, don't let them know you're an outsider. For fuck's sake, man. Pull it together. Learn to function around others. Yes, that's it. Calmly sidestep the estrogen-fueled bumper cars and make for the baby food section. But where is it? Goddamn, they knew you were coming. They hid the baby food. Oh, no. There it is. Mmmm. Yes. Study the flavors. Consider their potency and quantity. You're a man on a mission.

Alright, so I can exaggerate with the best of them. I'm not actually uncomfortable around women, nor did I think like Hunter S. Thompson while I was there, but I do admit I was uncomfortable. And not just in Target. Maybe you, my humble reader, too can attest to the reason. Everyone seems to be playing a game called "Let's all pretend no one else exists." This has been going on for some time now. I thought all these people were bred in Florida because that's where I caught wind of this trend. but I've since encountered them as the majority everywhere I've been lately (and that's a lot of places). Now I just expect this tension whenever I leave home.

I expect it because I know there are other human specimens living and moving beyond the boundaries of my home. As I proceed on foot from my personal form of motorized transport, I notice these human specimens all around me, driving their own personal forms of motorized transport or proceeding on their own feet. I study the demeanor of each one, only to find each one is a lot like me in many ways. Thus, I wonder if, like me, they are longing for specimen interaction. I wonder if this one or that one will reciprocate a greeting. Every once in a while, there's a return of smile, and more often than not the non-committal head nod to acknowledge that eye contact has been made.

But mostly it's: customers busying themselves with looking where to swipe their card so they don't have to make eye contact with their customer service representative; shoppers watching the movement of each others' carts for cues on how to plan their next move; people standing silently in wait for others to divine the feeling of being in someone else's way. All the while, I'm watching, thinking, Just say excuse me, for fuck's sake! How is someone supposed to know someone else is behind them without the communication of this information?

The main reason I'm all whiny and complainy on this subject is that I'm very much an outgoing person with strangers. I suspect I'm much more annoying to those people who have known me for some time. I'm an honest a sort of fellow, meaning I tend to say what I'm thinking (something I chalk up to using the potential of the intuitive brain). But in time, I expect that my honest words accumulate in the intuitive brains of others, making them grow tired of me.

This suspicion, however, is not enough to make me give up my honesty because I know that communication is what has gotten humans this far. If we stop telling each other the truths we see, then we are effectively done evolving. So why not just tell each other the truth all the time? Oh yeah. Shedding the animal past means we're supposed to be considerate of others. In public, I'm supposed to be polite by considering the needs of other people, so if other human beings don't want to be acknowledged, then I should just leave them alone. Right?

Then why do recluses willingly expose themselves to public spaces? Moreover, how are there so goddamn many of these people? Oh yeah. There are so many of these people wanting to be left alone in public spaces because that's how they were trained to act in public. Think about how often you see children being honest creatures in public to the chagrin of their parents who then begin training that openness away. No, no, little Sally. We don't stare at others, or Billy, stop speaking to that poor person. He doesn't want you bothering him, (as if it's somehow a bother being noticed). I've observed dog owners doing this too. When I'm out walking Murphy and some other dog on a leash gets all loud about us, the dog-walkers don't acknowledge me or Murphy. They speak solely to the dogs, scolding them for acknowledging others (which, it seems to me, only reinforces a dog's need to bark at that thing over there that its walker obviously doesn't notice).

This is my guess. Our solitude in public is the evil twin of politeness. When you think so much about what other people want or need and how you should act for the sake of others, it becomes much easier to get fed up with all the shit you're doing for other people. Your ego demands, what about me? This is politeness gone awry. This is how the majority of human specimens has come to walk around in as many private little worlds. Every encounter with another person strains your own abilities to be you, so when we set out each morning with the mindset that we are to have absolutely no effect on anyone else during the day, we are expecting ourselves to go out into the world where we will not slow anyone down, nor get in anyone's way, nor take the last item that anyone else might've wanted. To be quite honest, I can't remember the last time I lived a perfect day in this manner. There are just too many people to please.

Obviously it's much more complicated an issue than this, but I feel I've uncovered one of the many reasons we can be so damn prickly to each others' presences. For instance, another reason could be that we just don't want to (or don't have the time to) get to know one more person. We can be selfish like that, I suppose.

Or maybe it's because our brains still operate with a heavy share of intuitive thinking. For example, when I look at someone's face, waiting to see if they'll acknowledge me, sometimes their eyes meet mine. Even if their gaze is averted very quickly, I already know what I've seen. There's something spectacular about vision this way, how we're able to differentiate even the slightest difference in the direction of someone else's gaze--especially when what they're looking at is our own eyes. This enhanced definition was probably given to us by Nature for survival, and also for recognizing the threatening or challenging gaze of another. When people acknowledge me and look away, maybe they're intimidated by me. I am a rather tall specimen, and I do have the unfortunate look of a troll or something. If this is the case, then the tendency for people to ignore me in public is just a thread of evolutionary ability that hasn't been bred out of them, so I shouldn't get upset with them.

But this doesn't mean I feel like a troll. Maybe others should recognize that there might be more to me than some eager troll taking an interest in the life of another, waiting for the opportunity to thieve a piece of it. By the flip side of the same coin, maybe they should recognize that I'm just another person like them, looking around at others to see who's gonna be friendly. In this case, I'm being too kind by defending a majority of people who are well aware of the dishonesty they're perpetuating by ignore others. Instead, I'll take comfort in knowing that some people simply do not evolve as fast as others, and that I am one of the fortunate front-runners of the species. Personally, I like this option better, because right now I'm typing this from the safety of home, where my ego can still make whatever choices it damn well pleases.

10 August 2009

On and on on the matter of author intent

At one point during my thesis defense, one of the committee members asked if the intent I explained for the story being discussed should perhaps be made more apparent for the reader. My answer was, "I'm not sure that's up to me," to which my chair replied, "I'm pretty sure it is." All was said in good-hearted tone, and I wasn't bothered by his suggestion, but just today I returned to that moment, realizing I underrepresented myself (something I have made a habit of doing in life). I just don't think authors should have to beat their readers over the head with hidden meanings and suggestive imagery. If readers get it, they get it. If they don't, there are still the more literal elements for them to consider.

One thing that bothered me severely about my creative writing program (and, I'm guessing, creative writing programs in general) is the unfortunate lack of in-depth meditation on writing. In workshop for a week, you're reading and commenting on three writers' submissions, or reading and discussing an entire book, not to mention the work you have for two other classes, and the life you're living off campus. Personally, I can read and absorb maybe one book in a week, and then I might need a week off before the next one.

One day this summer, I was bullshitting with an old college friend who's been a computer programmer since he graduated in 2002. In discussing syntax, something common to our respective trades, we found ourselves in agreement about something not commonly respected when it comes to language. Like him, I enjoy reading prose so dense that I frequently stop to re-read and re-read portions... not because it's poorly worded prose, but because the ideas therein are complicated enough to be worth reconsidering. This is when the act of reading becomes the process of understanding. Understanding does not often come at breakneck pace.

In my very humble opinion, writing is far too often overworked until tender. And for what purpose? Frankly, I think it's to cater to readers who aren't willing to do any work on their own. Attempts to know one's audience sometimes lead to writing for readers who want their ideas as pre-processed and neatly packaged as everything else in a life of convenience. More and more, writing seems geared toward readers who want to speed-read a dozen books in the time it takes me to understand one. I just don't understand the big damn hurry. It's not like any one of us can read everything ever written. Then why not take our time with the books we've got?

I'm not saying I'm the best damn writer or anything. In fact, I'd confess I think I'm no better than average. And part of the reason is that I'm not so much a writer as I am an idea man, but I don't see a problem with this.Who knows? Maybe I just sat in too many discouraging workshops where decent ideas were passed over or misunderstood by readers too hurried to drop in and make an attempt at understanding. (And to those whose ideas I passed over for lack of time, I do apologize. It's not exactly a writer's world out there.) I'm not saying I want to sacrifice the feel of the story by only writing fictional worlds in which the characters flap about as hollow ideas in a concept. I do know, however, that my stories come from ideas (something often discouraged in workshops). I do this because I want my stories to have a weighty epicenter, and if the story can still ring true as a believable world for those readers not interested in ideas, fine. Anyway, conjuring believable worlds is probably the hardest aspect of writing, and the one coming the slowest to me.

Still I feel like I encountered little or no attention to ideas in fiction writing workshops. Instead, I saw hints that America needs more copies of John Irving and Alice Munro. These prose-heavy styles of writing are fine, and I do enjoy reading them from time to time, but what about the rest of the genre? What about all those classic idea writers like Nietzsche, and Kafka, and Camus, and Orwell? And Hesse, and so on and so on and so on? I remember reading books by them and learning something about existence. The Great Gatsby is an awesome book and all, but it's mostly about rich people living in New York. Does the Universe revolve around money and Americans? Well, let me rephrase. Should it?

All I'm trying my darndest to say is, I feel like an odd ball reassuring myself that somehow my writing does matter when around me I see an America and its fiction that both seem interested in how something is worded rather than what its words contribute to understanding. I don't know. Maybe you should just call me crazy or lazy.

08 August 2009

Oh yeah. One more thing that happened this summer...

It's not a dream come true or anything, but guess whose master's thesis is published and way, way overpriced online? Just go to whatever site you normally visit for books online (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) and do a search for Mother's Forgotten Garden: A Cosmic Remembrance. Your search just might produce a work by c.d.zim (with an apple on the cover). Ehh, it's a first step anyway. Mostly I went through it to get a sense for the publishing process. I guess I could've gone through some place like Lulu.com, but I didn't want to pay any publishing costs.

Out of the blue one day, I got an e-mail from some acquisitions editor with a publishing company called VDM Verlag that mostly publishes scientific theses and dissertations. She said she came across a reference to my thesis in the FAU library database, and she thought it might be suitable for publication through VDM. I though, What the heck. My thesis would most likely just sit in the FAU library anyway. This way, VDM pays the publishing costs, my thesis gets published in paperback form, and I still retain the rights to my work. If I want to take the overall work or any part of it to another publisher, all I have to do is alter 20% of the word count (which I would want to do anyway, because I have since re-read some of it and wondered what I was thinking).

Anyway, like I said, it's a first step. It's definitely no superstar publishing deal, but at least I got to see my book listed online... for a list price of ten times what it's worth. Yeah, real encouraging for a budding writer.

Oh, and if you're actually interested in reading my thesis, but you don't have $96 to spare, just ask me and I'll e-mail you the pdf.

it's been a zimdoggian summer

(In my best Ali G,) Whuz-bin-gwan! Aight, check it. I iz eah in Tacoma, Washin'ton wiff mah main man, G-Riff, and as always, me Em'ly who jus' luvs bonin'.

Ehh. Impressions always work better in person. I've just had Ali G on the brain since seeing Bruno in Indiana. That was uncomfortable. At many times, I was the only one to be heard laughing in the theater. Others may have been, but homosexuality isn't really one of those things the average person in the Heartland feels like discussing or recognizing. My only hope was that I didn't get any sodas dumped on me. Oh, and my favorite part was the elderly couple sitting a few rows behind. As soon as the full-screen penis shot came up, I heard him say, "That's interesting," and then he and his wife didn't stick around for the rest. Quite honestly, I'm surprised they made it through the hyper-exaggerated parody of gay sex in the beginning.

So, no blog posts in a good while. It just hasn't been that sort of summer. In some way though, I think it has been advantageous for me and Emily to learn the parenting life while on the road for three months straight. And l'il G-Riff's got a story to tell people when he gets older. In the first seven months of his life, he has been in six time zones and 21 states.

Let's see. What else happened this summer? In bulleted form:

- I realized Frank Zappa is the weirdest person to have ever lived. It doesn't matter how many times I listen to his music. I still marvel at the amount of raw creativity that moved through the man in his life. I also admire his ability to not give a fuck about all the unimportant crap that forms the epicenter of man-made existence.

- In one of those rare and exciting lucky moments, I tuned in for the last five minutes (hockey minutes) of the Stanley Cup's Game 7. As the TV picture warmed up, it looked like the Penguins had the season all sealed up. But just as I started scheming insults for B. Doozan (a planetarium colleague and fan of all-teams-Detroit), a Red Wings' defensiveman killed a one-timer to bring Detroit within one goal of tying it up. From there on out, Detroit applied massive pressure, blasting shots on net, with a few near goals, and just generally controlling the puck for those final minutes. The tense ending went right down to the last fraction of a second when Pittsburgh's goalie literally threw his chest in front of a flying puck that would've send Game 7 to overtime. I don't care who your hockey team is, or if you even like hockey. The Penguins earned the right to hold the Cup this year. It was pretty much the best Stanley Cup Game 7 ever.

- To make the long trek west with Griffin, Murphy, and our stuff, Em and I decided to sell the Corolla so we could start payments on a more family-sized roller. Once upon a time, I wondered about SUV drivers. Now I am one. Oh, the things parents do for their children. But don't think us too noble. It's a 2006 Honda Pilot EX-L, which I'm pretty sure stands for EXtra-Luxury. It's got heated leather seats et plurissimae amenitae. Mostly, I'm digging the moon roof and 6-disc changer.

- Life as a parent has made me much more protective. I used to consider myself a pacifist. Now I am coming to consider myself prepared. I now think about what I really need to keep Griffin safe at all times. Thus my collection of tools and weapons has begun. I found the Gerber Gator Axe and Knife combo. The knife slides up into the handle of the hatchet, where it is held in place by a magnet. It's a great camping/survival tool, but mostly I bought it for the size and style of the knife, for which I have yet to rig up a homemade sheath so I can carry it for protection. I am also considering getting a concealed weapons permit and a small revolver. I know the chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are slim, but I simply refuse to die (or let Griffin die) a senseless death because some pathetic psycho decides to shoot up a building full of strangers. It seems a strange paradox, especially given the trite anti-gun propaganda that spotlights guns instead of irresponsible gun owners, but I've never felt more responsible and more capable of owning a gun than now that I'm a parent. Griffin's safety is my number one priority, and there's nothing in the world that can make me act so stupid as to treat a gun with anything but respect. That's the reason I want to carry one... because there are too many irresponsible people who already do. And after living in Florida (where five years of bad luck rained down on me like shit from the sky), I now wonder if maybe I'm just destined to be in the wrong places at the wrong times, encountering the wrong people. One can hope to control one's destiny, but to be certain of destiny is to be a cocksure fool. I'm choosing instead to be prepared.

- And probably the most amazing thing to happen all summer is getting to Tacoma. We're in one place... for at least a year! We're not unpacked yet, but we're in an apartment and all our stuff is out of the storage unit. I'll say more once it's all fixed up like it's going to be for everyday life, but we were lucky to have found this place. It's simple and comfortable, with everything we need nearby. Topping the list of awesome finds is a grocery store called Trader Joe's. They have delicious foods at affordable prices (like Whole Foods), and there's one right around the frickin' corner. I think we'll be satisfied here, Murphy included. There are plenty of cats and other animals out back for him to chase and bark at, etc.