Sunday, May 15, 2011

People are Reading This

I'm kind of surprised to see people are still reading this blog, since I don't update it anymore. I write now on this blog instead: http://adambreckenridge.blogspot.com/ This one I actually update, so if you've found what you read here interesting, this one should also be interesting.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Throwing in the Towel

The particular motif of this blog has not been working out for me, so I'm throwing in the towel on it. I'm not giving up on blogging though, so if you've come here looking for a blog to read I suggest you take a look at my other blog, An Excess of Ambition, which I intend to be much more diligent about updating: http://anexcessofambition.blogspot.com/

Good night and good luck folks.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Where am I from?

As I write this, I am, technically, homeless. I’m going in between leases at the moment after I realized I could save myself a fair bit of money by starting the lease on my new apartment two and a half weeks after my last lease expired. For the time in between, I’ve been traveling, visiting friends and family for Christmas and crashing on couches. It’s the most transient I’ve ever been, and I’m rather enjoying it.

I’ve never had a stable lifestyle, but this has taken it to a new level, a period in which I have no choice but to travel and move around because I have, at the moment, no place to call my own. My travels have taken me to and through places I’ve lived in the past. It is, in fact, not all that unusual for any of my road trips, wherever I go, to take me past some old stomping ground, childhood memories littered across the highway, but though all of them are familiar, none of them ever feel like home.

I hate it when people ask me where I was born, because I can never give them an easy answer. This is not a question we ask because we’re curious about geography. We’re looking for labels and identities, an easy key to understanding someone we’ve just met. Being from Provo and being from Brooklyn mean completely different things regardless of how those places may have shaped you. It is meaningless though, to say I’m from Grove City, Ohio, a place about which I know next to nothing and have only visited twice since my family left shortly after my birth. The time I’ve spent in Vermont (I don’t even know where in the state), Millersburg, Ohio (a city I had to find on a map to even know where it is), Edwardsville Illinois, Flower Mound Texas, Colorado Springs, Honolulu, Oklahoma City, Austin Texas or Tampa Florida are equally meaningless. Even the fact that I have lived in all of these places is misleading, since the first assumption, “Is your family in the military?” is wrong. The routine for the “Where are you from?” line of questioning is so predictable I can answer the questions before they are asked.

I’ve grown weary of trying to explain it to people. Even the stock answers, “I’m from everywhere” or “I’m a citizen of the world” feel like cheesy cop-outs to me. I don’t like them because I don’t believe in them, they’re a means of lying my way out of the question. It’s been suggested to me many times to just pick one of the places I’ve lived to claim as my own, usually, they suggest, the most interesting, which for most people is Hawaii. Anyone who has lived in Hawaii though knows that I can no more claim to be from Hawaii than I could claim to be from Sicily or Ireland—it’s a culture you have no right to call your own unless you’ve grown up with it, lived and breathed it from birth. It’s another lie. What do I claim then? Texas? Too misleading. Calling yourself a Texan is a political statement, one I do not adhere to. Colorado? Never particularly cared for the place. Beautiful scenery but far too cold for my taste. Illinois? Vermont? Ohio? All lands of my early childhood, defined more by the fantasies I projected upon them than by my experiences in them. Oklahoma? I would claim any of the above before I would claim to be an Okie. Florida? The verdict is out, I’ve not had enough time to understand what Florida really means to me, but my instinct is that it will ultimately be another bust. Besides, I am quite certain that Florida is just another stop on the road. When I graduate I will have to move somewhere else, find a job in the I-don’t-know-where.

I think there are some people who spend their lives looking for the place they were born. Like love, they seek the place they were meant to be, the soil their roots should be growing in. I suspect that, like lost lovers, there are many of us wandering the earth seeking our birthplace. Each place I have lived has been a love affair, some heartbreaking, some beautiful but never meant to be, some have made me a better person, some have made me worse, but in the end I’ve had to break up with all of them and move on to the next city. I worry sometimes that my entire life will be an endless nomadic search, but always I’m confident that my birthplace is out there, waiting for me to discover it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Authors and Filmmakers

When I was getting ready to start in on my PhD studies, there were three things above all that I feared: that I wouldn’t have time to write, watch movies or read for pleasure. Nearly done with my first semester, I’ve found two of my three fears were unfounded. I’ve been able to maintain a pretty steady quota of adding a page a day to my novel (and have even found time here and there to write and revise the occasional short story) and am well on my way to getting a first draft finished within the next year. I’ve also been able to maintain a pretty impressive roster of films, usually managing to find time even in the busiest of weeks to squeeze in three or four movies. Pleasure reading, on the other hand, has been all but lost to me. How bad is the situation? In early August I made the foolish decision to start Denis Johnson’s seven-hundred page opus Tree of Smoke. At the start of the semester I was about two hundred pages in. Now it’s late November and I still have about a hundred and fifty pages to go. I have, in those months, stopped and made time for a couple of short novels that I’d been itching to get into, such as Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story which, even at a slim 112 pages, still took me a week and a half to get through, or James’ Daisy Miller which, due to an act of Herculean dedication on my part, I was able to tear through in a brisk five days. I even managed to squeeze in all one hundred odd pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Day the Leader was Killed. And that’s it folks, three and a half novels in the last three months, three of which barely even qualify as novels. There was a time (once upon a time) when I could reasonably expect to get through a thousand page novel in a couple of weeks and still have a social life, but the hundreds of pages of academic reading and hours of grading I have to put myself through every week just saps most of the drive to read anything else right out of me (except for cracked.com: damnations have I wasted some hours on that site).

I have good reason to be alarmed, since, as any writer can tell you, reading is the lifeblood of writing, and D.C. Greetham’s Textual Scholarship just doesn’t inspire my creativity the same way the latest effort from Cormac McCarthy does. Stephen King’s On Writing, though a grossly overrated load of claptrap (that completely ignores the kind of lives most writers have to live, a reality King is far too distanced from to be of any use to the majority of us), contains one nugget of wisdom that he absolutely knocks out of the ballpark. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only is it from the writing of others that we learn the process ourselves (I remember one of my workshop profs telling us that writing is the world’s biggest open secret), but it’s also the fount of our inspiration. Great writers inspire us to want to match their ability, bad writers make us want to prove that we’re better, mediocre writers no doubt have their value, but if it’s not drawn from that well of artistic inspiration, it is impossible for us to thrive on it. Academic writing, even at its most experimental, is too restrained by rigid conventions to be of any inspirational value. It doesn’t even compel me to want to pursue my own academic inquiries (I’m mostly self-motivated there). It would be grand if I could find some means to incorporate what I learn from my academic reading into my creative work (The Ramus Dimension: A Science Fiction Allegory on the Pervasiveness of Ramist Philosophy), but whatever the key to that is, I haven’t found it yet.

Yet, as I’ve said, I’ve maintained a steady output on my fiction. I’ve been productive, I’ve been inspired, and in the novel I’m currently working on, I’ve been doing things with dialogue that I didn’t think I had in me. This is significant for me because in the past I’ve been a writer who is attracted to silence. It’s not unusual for me to write a story of fifteen or twenty pages that doesn’t contain a single spoken word, and even when one of my characters does speak, their words tend to be simple and utilitarian. Now my characters can’t seem to shut up Hell, sometimes they go on for five or six pages straight in complicated exchanges of snappy, witty dialogue. I’ve never written anything like it before. Think it could have anything to do with all those films I’ve been watching?

Yes, with pleasure reading sapped from my life film has become practically my only source of creative input. Oh, I’ve relied on film in the past, sure. I usually name directors like Godard and Fellini among my primal literary inspirations, and one of my more recent stories was directly inspired by my discovery of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s lost masterpiece El Topo, but for as long as I’ve been writing film has been a distant second to literature for artistic inspiration—until the last three months. Now film is practically all I have the time and energy for and it has somewhat substantially altered the direction of my work. The connection may be obvious, film relies heavily on dialogue and this necessity has found its way into my work, but what’s not obvious is looking at it the other way—why did literature drive me towards silence? It may be that some of my favorite writers, Calvino, Borges, Barthelme, Beckett and other great experimentalists, aren’t particularly known for their dialogue (with the obvious exception of Beckett’s plays), but I read so widely (look again at my reading list for the past few months) that it seems unlikely to me. At this point, I’m not sure I have the answer, it only dawned on me when I decided to write this posting a couple of days ago that my writing had undergone such an evolution. I’m still trying to understand the full impact my change in creative input has had on my work.

What’s more important (and more exciting) to me at the moment is how our very source of input drives what we create. I’m compelled now to try spending some months listening only to music or only studying painting to see what these inputs do to drive my creative work. We are so hung up on the idea that writers must take inspiration from other writers (and, equivocally, that painters must take inspiration from other painters, sculptors from other sculptors, etc.) that we’ve perhaps been crippling ourselves by ignoring the insights other mediums can give us. Perhaps we should say that if you don’t have time to read you should find some other tools that will help you write, which means that King got that bit wrong too, though in all fairness it may be that all of us have.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cyber-Darwinism

You've perhaps heard this statistic before, that there is a new blog created every two seconds. This is what has kept me from the blogosphere for some time now. What's the point of adding my voice to the mix? However, as we progress into an increasingly technologically advanced society one might as well ask this question in the same sense as one would ask what is the point of having children, when there are so many being born every second? At least an overabundance of blogs won't lead to any kind of Soylent Green dystopia.

I'm not sure there's any point in trying to justify yet another blog in the world. I'm just here to see what happens. I've been trying a lot of these kinds of experiments lately, tooling around with the superabundance of apps and options the internet has thrust upon us to see what value I can find in them. What I've been learning from the experience is how Darwinian the internet is. I read a quote from that great Ivory Tower windbag Harold Bloom some time back in which he pondered how anyone is expected to be able to find anything meaningful in the massive sea of information that is the internet. The answer, I've found, is very simple: Survival of the Fittest. Anyone who is reading this is no doubt aware of the extent to which the internet has become a massive show-and-tell for the world, and if the old adage that 90% of everything is crap is true, then more than a fair share of the world's 90% has found its way to the internet in the form of inane blogs, inept art galleries and bad artists/musicians/filmmakers posting their work to youtube (and elsewhere) hoping to be discovered. But again, as all of us know from those links that friends send to us, from those stories we come across on news sites and even, occasionally, just by stumbling across it on our own, that there are things floating out here in cyberspace that are magnificent, beautiful, brilliant, and, more pertinent to my discussion, incredibly useful and practical.

That last bit is what I've been toying around with lately. For a long time I was resistant to all these new cyber-trends, but then a friend badgered me into joining Facebook. I had scoffed social networking for a long time, then suddenly found myself in a place where I could find all the friends I have scattered all over the world in a single location, reconnect with old friends I hadn't spoken to in years, and get to know people in places my future was taking me, as was the case when I got to know several members of the incoming class in the English Grad Program at the University of South Florida through Facebook months before I got to meet them in person. I discovered an extremely valuable tool in Facebook that inspired me to try the same thing with Myspace. All I got on Myspace were dozens of fake friend invites trying to sell me phone services, porn subscriptions and albums for indie bands. People wonder why Myspace has been failing in the wake of Facebook. They think it's because Facebook is the latest trend and that it will eventually be eclipsed by whatever comes next (Twitter?). I think Myspace is failing because of Darwinism. Facebook is a superior site, and no, I don't think it's a question of opinion. It's easier to use, less prone to SPAM, and because of those advantages and others, it has also gained superior numbers, which are crucial to the survival of a social networking site. Facebook will remain dominant not until a new fad comes along, but until a superior social networking site comes along.

Now I'm going to put this into practice. As a fiction writer, I've also been experimenting with some of the myriad resources available online for aspiring writers. There are two sites in particular that I have experimented with lately, Duotrope.com and Authonomy.com, two other examples of Darwinism. Duotrope is a database for literary magazines that lets you register an account for free, then use the site to search out lit mags on a number of criteria such as genre, payscale and whether or not they allow simultaneous submissions. You can then use the site to keep track of your submissions, when you sent it, when it got rejected (or accepted), what kind of rejection it was, and so on. I don't know how I ever lived without it. It is an absolutely priceless resource for writers trying to get their work published (and infinitely superior to The Writer's Market, which is to duotrope what river rocks and a scrub brush are to a washer and dryer) that I highly recommend to all writers. In fact, the very first submission I did through Duotrope wound up being the first story I ever got published. Probably a coincidence, but it's hard to argue with results.

Authonomy.com is a literary social networking site, started by HarperCollins, where you can upload and share a book you're working on (there's no genre restrictions, but the site mostly contains novels) for a mass workshop where anyone can comment and people, if they like your book, can add it to their favorites. As people back your work it climbs in the rankings, and the top five books every month land on the editor's desk at HarperCollins. Sounds like a great idea right? I wish I could say it was. But the law of diminishing returns means that to get anything out of the site you have to dedicate hours of effort into reading and commenting on people's work, people who are highly unlikely to return the favor (or, as I learned the hard way, lambast you for offering constructive criticism rather than blowing sunshine up their ass, which is what most people on the site are looking for). The result is that those who make it to the top are not the ones who have written the best book but the ones who are the most weasel-like in their methods, promising to back your book in return for backing theirs, then dropping their backing an hour later (thus dropping you in the rankings) while you've helped propel them to the top. Pretty much every single book that makes it to the editor's desk gets rejected. The site itself is rather Darwinian, yes, but I don't think it's a very good model of Darwinism or a very good website (though the date stamp from your upload is a superb alternative to poor man's copyright) and one that I think will ultimately fail in the fight to survive on the internet.

What I am doing here is how the internet works. I'm helping a valuable website (www.duotrope.com) survive by encouraging others to go there and (hopefully) helping to bring down another that is of almost no value at all (authonomy.com). Now I have started a blog. It is one of tens of millions on the internet right now. Whether or not it survives depends on whether or not I find it valuable and whether or not others find it valuable as well. We'll just have to see what happens.