Writing 344: Theme Part 2: Fractals

Let me tell you about fractals.

Fractals are a writer’s best friend, and our first stop on this little ride called theme. A fractal is a rose by many names, and sometimes it may even literally be a rose, but for me, they are the DNA of writing.

Let’s look at a literal fractal for a second, because they are super pretty.

Image result for fractal

Now, the definition of a fractal is (according to Google):

“a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.”

For the less mathematically inclined among us – present company included – that’s pretty dense. So let’s break it down.

Basically, a fractal is anything that resembles itself at all levels, but may not be the same exact shape. So in the above image, all of those pretty drawings are the same, but only statistically.

For the purposes of writing, let’s change “Statistically” to metaphorically, and get this show on the road.

When writing Fractals – especially thematic fractals – you are writing something that appears in the same basic configuration from the tiniest line of dialogue, to the largest set-piece. One of the most famous fractals is Freitag’s Triangle, or your good ol’ horrid buddy: Three Act Structure.

But that’s still a little dry and technical, so let’s use a practical example: The mothahfuckin’ Wire. The Wire is the epitome of fractal narrative, which is why I would argue that it’s the best TV show ever, and plenty of pretentious people agree with me. The streets as portrayed by David Simon, and the Docks and Government and Education and Media is such a powerfully told story because of its use of Fractal narrative.

Less take a look.

The very beginning of the pilot episode could easily be called an overture. But let’s call it a fractal of the series to come. Please watch the whole scene (intro song included) below, before going further. If you’re a wire douche, you can continue.

Now this scene does not look like the rest of the series literally: it features two characters talking at a crime-scene. But it sets up the theme of the entire series metaphorically: the game is rigged, but you gotta play because “it’s america man”.

The Game is the primary motif throughout the series and manifests in different ways. It refers to the drug game, which dominates the locale of west baltimore; but it also refers equally to the police department; the stevedores union; City and State Government; Public School; and, finally, the Baltimore Sun.

In the scene, Royal Irish A-Hole Jimmy McNulty talked to a nameless stranger about “Snot Boogie” a boy nicknamed for his shit-luck one day out in the cold, who gets murdered by someone for doing his usual thing stealing from a craps game.

McNulty tries to piece together what happened, and concludes that “Snot-Boogie” always had the choice to just not rob a craps game. But his companion tells him that that’s irrelevant, because it’s america.

Throughout the scene we’re being given a thematic overview of the series to come: a character will come upon a good – if morally problematic idea – and will decide that the promise of a better life is worth more than the shit they’re in. It’ll go well, and they’ll start to involve more people. But then it will attract the wrong kind of attention. In their attempts to stop the attention from gathering, they doom themselves like tragic characters against the unstoppable grinding machine of institutional bureaucracy, and get crushed to feed it. Destroyed for taking a chance, when they knew they were fucked. Then life continues without anyone taking notice.

Because that is the plot of each season (and, incidentally Freytag’s triangle), the fact that each season is a self-contained story, part of a larger story doesn’t matter: it’s easy to follow. You just have to pay attention.

But that opening scene never tells you that directly. It is the motion of the narrative that lets you in on the secret. It’s practically subliminal. That’s the thing about fractals, when done right: They’re not obvious.

If you watched the Wire without knowing that that you would see the above plot be the A-Plot for every season – and practically every character – you would still be able to follow and enjoy it. Knowing that it operates as a series of shapes that aren’t the same, but similar expanding outward infinitely only enhances the ease with which you can watch it.

And if that weren’t enough, you have the theme song: “Way Down in the Hole” which is about not being tempted by Satan, if you want to be saved. Although Simon is openly against obvious musical cues, this one is ironic in the context of the show: When you follow the devil in The Wire, what you want will often happen, but you’ll be fucked anyway. It is a metaphorical reinforcement of the entire theme of the show.

From the Fractal, you can glean the theme: Fate, Tautology, and Chains. Or even Self-Destruction. The fractal in this case is so large, it can be applied universally, and create a rich tapestry of potential themes.

Now, if you’ve never seen The Wire, the above will make no sense to you. First off, shame on you, go watch The Wire. But you can do the above with just about any show.

So, your homework assignment, before we continue this conversation: Find a TV show, Musical, Movie, Book, or any other piece of narrative art you really love, and tell me what the fractal of that show is. 

To make this easy, phrase your fractal as the sequence of events that occurs at all levels of the story: from scene to the entire damn story. What is the sequence of events that is followed similarly at all levels, but never identically.

Leave a comment on this article, and we’ll continue our discussion of theme, next time.

I can’t wait to hear what you got.

On Anger

I am not an angry person, by nature. I get frustrated, and may let steam off, from time to time, when someone has pushed my buttons, as people do; but on the whole, I do not practice acting in anger.

My position is not popular.

Lately, everyone is angry at something, or someone. That’s OK, sometimes getting Angry is a necessary response to shitty situations. Anger has use; anger is fire. Anger arouses passion. Anger calls to action.

Anger is a contagion, however.

On Facebook – among my few outlets with the outside world – I have seen the active disavowal, and open call for violence against Nazis. That’s OK, Nazism is a movement predicated on hate, submission, and violence, emotional, physical and spiritual. It is the product of insecurity, and fear, and is used as a weapon.

I have seen regular posts about the value of punching Nazis, the value of general violence against Nazis, and a meme from Inglorious Basterds about taking 100 Nazi scalps. That’s OK, you need to defend yourself, and you need to protect yours and your own. I do not believe – despite my general preference for silence – that there is room for compromise any longer. There was, but it would have been unfair to many, and I don’t think patience is possible on either side, any longer.

That’s OK,  patience is a trait that requires practice, but is often assumed to be something innate.

I’d like to tell you a story about a few people, though.

A young filmmaker saw and despised the ravages of war. He was a man who took to the camera like few did at the time. He had taken an interest in the Civil War, and was horrified by the cost of it. He decided to make a great anti-war epic. A polemic that would show the horrors of war.

His name was D.W. Griffith, and his film was the The Birth of a Nation (1915).  Upon its release, and the general calls of his tainted racist soul, he was so horrified, he sought to make amends. The following year, he made Intolerance (1916) a lavish, 4-hour film that was as revolutionary for the art of cinema, as it was for its depiction of hate across time.

He is remembered for the first film.

In 2000, Howard Dean was a front-runner for potential president of the United States. During a rally, in what was reportedly a loud, crowded room, he made a shout. Due to the sound editing, the crowd was dimmed, and his chance went bust quickly, despite the fact that – within context – he had to shout to be heard. He is now a footnote.

In the 1900’s in Russia, the proletariat decided that they had had enough of the wealth and corruption of the upper classes, and fought tooth and nail in the Bolshevik revolution. Their leadesr, Trotsky and Lenin succeeded, and in the process re-invented Russia. Then Stalin followed

Under the communist regime in Russia, film was revolutionized as a way to galvanize the masses in support of the regime. Collectivized Farms – a communist policy designed to spread food – caused mass starvation.

In China with the support of Stalin, Mao Zedong took power. Under his leadership, between 90-110 million people were killed (the real number is unknown) based on the tenets of Communism, and the challenges of keeping the masses in line.

To lighten the mood, for just a moment. Joshua Norton, a failed business man, one day decided that he was the emperor of the United States. Homeless in San Francisco, he acted the part in full regalia, and issued edicts. At first a joke in San Francisco, he became a beloved, powerful figure; and he gained a measure of significant political influence. Everyone who met him believed him a kind, gentle, intelligent soul; and his thoughts proved ahead of their time. At his funeral, he was attended by 30,000 people, the news headlines “La Roi est Mort”.

He had 2 dollars to his name.

My point may seem obscure, with these weird, historically inaccurate portrayals of large scale figures. Why should you care about what these people did, why should you care how many people died under them. Why should you care?

Well, first, you aren’t Mao Zedong, or D.W. Griffith: you’re a scared person, who wants to fight for your life, and your ability to live it. Your anger is an act of defense, and a fight for the future. That’s OK, I love you for your passion, and your conviction. I am not going to stop you either, in your support of violence against Nazis, imagined or real.

I’m going to love indiscriminately, because that is the only true thing to me. Everybody, no matter how seemingly unworthy.

But I write this to make you aware: Anger is contagious: you cannot determine its path. You cannot determine what shape it will take, or how people will choose to act on it. As Father John Misty, you can’t control what people use your fake name for.

So if you choose to be angry publicly, to act in the white hot passion of the moment; when you try to make the world the way you see it for others. When you make sure that your anger is the only valid response, the results will rarely be what you anticipate, and likely to circle around back. Because when a contagion catches – when a fire lights – you cannot stop it from spreading. And, if you care, you may accidentally hurt someone you care about. Someone you love may be directly responsible.

I do not share my feelings on current events because my stance should be self-evident. But, more importantly, I am aware that my actions do not have determined consequences. I am aware that even if my anger is just, it may lead to unjust harm of another. I will not do that, for any reason. I will not harm people, because others tell me it is right. I will not act in harm.

It is my duty and desire to love all things  and so I will, whether you think it’s right or not. I’m not a moral  person – a good person,  but I know who I am. And avowing violence against anyone is one thing I will not do.

I will love, no matter what. I will accept, no matter what; and let come what may.

Because I can’t determine what the sunset will look like tomorrow.

May you be peaceful, may you be healthy, may you be well, may you be loved.

 

 

On Ragnarok

I’ve been thinking about Ragnarok, lately; and no, I don’t mean the one involving Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.

I’m talking about the original battle of Jotuns vs. Aesir vs. Vanir vs. Wolves and dragons free-for-all battle royale showdown, just for you on pay-per-view for the mild price of apocalyptic destruction.

It starts with the trickster Loki (who is kind of a dick) letting Holly, a sweet new object in the world that she should touch the best of dudes Baldr. Then Holly’s all like yo, I should totally do that. And Then this leaf touches Baldr, who is otherwise invincible, then he gets cartoon x’s in his eyes, plops dead, and shit sucks for everybody because Loki was sufficiently dickish enough to start the literal apocalypse for the lulz.

God I wish that really wasn’t the reason. It feels too close to home.

But anyway, because Loki is a fucking shit-whistle, the Jotun (frost giants…”yo-ton”) throw down with the gods (Aesir and Vanir) and basically *spoiler alert* everyone dies.

Really, that’s what happens. read about it here. Thor gets his ass wasted by Fafnir, Odin gets fucked with some spears. The Dwarves fight dragons and shit is more or less every power-metal album since the late 80’s

See?

And when I first learned about this, I got fucking obsessed. To the point in my life where this mattered, I had never heard of god’s dying. I had never exposed myself to cultures that didn’t have a non-dualistic view of reality.

And then I read this frankly terrifying version of the apocalypse. Everyone battles everyone, basically for no reason, because they hate each other; and then everyone dies.

And that shit man, well, that’s scary.

I’ve lived with that terror for a long time too. It’s not like one day I was suddenly aware of the apocalypse. It was a slow creeping thing, that crawled up my spine and into my throat. One day I realized that things end. The world ends. And endings are fucking scary.

They make your throat seize up. They make you deny shit that’s right in front of you. They make things hard.

Especially when, at first glance, Ragnarok is more or less like every other destruction of the Universe myth out there.

It’s actually kind of funny, how people throw such bitch-fits these days about a lack of original materials in the world. Has there ever been an original fucking idea?

The concept of an apocalyptic event where the gods duke it out, or the universe is otherwise destroyed by the gods in some massive earth shattering force of destructive-y destructive-ness is hardly unique to Norse Mythology: in the Hindu Pantheon, one of Shiva’s most important functions is to end the universe at the end of the Kali (cough *iron* cough) yuga, and then, once destroyed, re-birth it.

It all ties back to the Phoenix: a creature defined by its horrible death by fire, and then subsequent rebirth.

And that’s a super important point: the apocalypse is never the end in these stories. The death has a purposeful function: to be reborn and to grow.

In fact, despite the generally krieg nature of ragnarok, it ends on a positive note: not all the gods died, like, two are still alive, and the world is reborn after being literally burned to cinder.

…yay.

But no, that’s really valuable to me. To understand that earth shattering events serve a larger-scale purpose. That apocalypses don’t really hate you, it really is nothing personal from god’s perspective in these matters. it’s just…you know, shit’s gotta change, and no one’s trying to change it. that’s the essence of decay, which is what leads the apocalypse, which is what leads to rebirth.

That’s still hella scary. And no matter how many epic poems I find that cause almost genocidal levels of murderous mayhem, that end up being a form of divine population control, it’s still shitty and hard to deal with.

And, for the record, the Iliad and the Mahabharata’s motivations for the Trojan War and the Battle of Kurukshetra are, from a divine standpoint, purely utilitarian and easy ways to kill a bunch of people, so that the earth doesn’t get overburdened with too many humans. The large scale death is part of the point. You have to kill billions of people in order for the earthly organism to survive.

I feel gross.

But I have come to appreciate balance, in all things, and I’ve come to realize that all the apocallipses that humanity is put through – whether mythological, or, unfortunately real – do serve a purpose. It isn’t human, and that’s scary as fuck. In fact, if it were possible, I would prefer not having to wipe out large swathes of humanity to keep the world in check. I’d prefer like…colonization, or something.

But just as these myths are metaphorical by and large, I take them to heart, no matter how anti-human their message tends to be. When I head into a valley, I remember that destruction, chaos and pain are means for rebirth, order and growth to re-emerge, and change. Evolution thrives on disorder and chaos. The natural world abides by it.

And when I look at my life through that lens, it becomes much easier to bear. It becomes a matter of a storm passing, to make me grow, to make me improve, and to be the best version of myself I can be. If I’m suffering, I generally assume that there’s something I need to work on; it’s not the universes fault that it keeps moving at its own pace. Why should I make the assumption that it needs to bend over backwards for me. I like improving myself.

So when I feel Ragnarok, the approaching battle of gods and their subsequent twilight, I’m terrified, but I’m not defeated. I can look death in the eye, despite my desire for humanity, and see the tail of fire red on the other side. I can see the green spring forth from the blighted decay of life.

And that really isn’t so bad, all things considered.

Writing 344: Theme Part 1: Overview

A Note: Theme is a huge topic, and it’s also fractal (we’ll get to that). Because it’s so fucking enormous, I’m breaking up my discussions of it into multiple parts. Without further ado:

Let me tell you a story that you’ve probably heard.

While I went to Emerson College, I had applied, and successfully placed into Advanced Screenwriting: a screenwriting class led by the “Semel Chair” who is generally an established screenwriter who can help to maintain themes. Considering my readership, it will remain one of Emerson’s best kept secrets.

The professor was the spectacular David Magee, writer of the screenplay Life of Pi, and, generally, an awesome guy. He’s a writer who knows exactly what he’s about; you can tell because he has that Schrodinger’s casual: where it’s clear that so much effort went into learning about how to write, that it all just sorta comes as natural.

So it’s our second day of class, and all twelve of us are sitting on this cafeteria like chairs in a tiny ass classroom facing a brick wall. There’s a white board taking most of the wall, and everything is blasted in white light. Today, we’re pitching our stories.

Mine is a biopic on the Tragic, Beautiful, and weirdly Timeless story of Nick Drake (to date, in progress). I get up there, ready to knock his socks off with my awesome idea for a biopic – parallel structures, music, scruffy looking depressed dudes, an encounter with the rolling stones – and, because I’m first, I’m given a simple question: “What is your Theme?”

DUN DUN DUN.

If you have ever taken a writing course by anyone who knows how to actually write, then you have faced, and maybe railed against that question: I don’t need a theme, man, I’m talking about life; the universe; everything, my story is going to be great without theme.

Eh, yeah, no, you’re wrong, chill.

If you want to write, you need to know theme, and thematics. You don’t have to know fancy ten-clause sentences; you don’t have to know 3-act structure (oh, no, wait); you don’t have to be able to write epic set-pieces that move the heart and the mind; if you know how to write theme, you will never write a truly awful piece of writing.

With that said, you need to get to know theme. You need to check out theme from across the Starbucks where you and your laptop are straight chillin’. You have to play the eye game with theme, play coy, then get the nerve to walk up to theme, and ask it out. Then you have to take theme on a really awkward first date, and ask it about like…it’s life, or something. I don’t know, I’m shit at dates. Then you have to really get to know theme.

Then, you have to take it on a few more dates…three or more, and get so intimate with theme that it puts out, and you get bizzay. Heyyyy.

Ok, yeah, I agree, that was weird.

But the point stands: know theme. Write good. Not write well: write GOOD.

Because all writing is thematic, even when people make pains to point out that they didn’t choose a theme, or that their work doesn’t have a theme. Coming from a background of creative writing, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the sound of people’s eyes rolling when asked this question.

But you, you’re cool. Right?

Now that I’ve introduced, and creeped you out about it. Let’s actually get to brass tacks (not tax) here: what is theme, and why does it matter?

What Theme is, and Why it matters

Theme, is literally whatever your story is about conceptually; it’s also known as your Controlling Idea. It’s the intangible concept you decide to focus on directly, and center your writing around.

Every story has a theme, no matter what genre, execution, or medium. And, while it may not be as sexy as Character Arcs, or Action Set-Pieces, it is by far the most important thing you have to learn, if you want to write well, and you want to write consistently. I rank it even above sentences, and here’s why.

Let’s say you want to tell a story about… I don’t know, you’re great-grandmother Bertha. She led a fucking balls-out crazy life, and you want that shit on paper, because her story is so ridiculously cool that people will actually give you money to read it. Just, off. the. walls.

So you get all her anecdotes, you get a fancy type-writer, or a snazzy new laptop; you go to starbucks, all ready to be a writer, you sit down, you open word, and then…nothing. You stare at the Cursor and get bored, and then decide fuck it, maybe Bertha’s crazy nights trolling for strange in Tijuana in WWI weren’t actually that amazing after all. Maybe her being a pilot and going on crazy adventures with a half-insane orangutan, and having mad fun…well, it’s just not worth talking about.

Because here’s the thing. Any story sounds great in your head. You see all this cool and crazy shit happening. But, until you put your conceptual theme in there, it’s just going to be a bunch of scenes strung together.

So let’s go back to Bertha. Instead of saying “I’ll just write it out, and see what happens”, you say “Bertha did all these crazy things, but she really liked helping people; and, barring some questionable exploits with some hunky Tijuanan men…in world war I (dafuq), she was all about fighting the good fight, and doing insane things because she knew deep down, they were right”, my theme is “Selflessness”.

Selflessness is a great theme: it’s one word (muy importante), it’s not moral (important x10) and it’s widely applicable to the story at hand. It’s also binary, and fractal.

So you sit down, thinking about examples of things Berta did that were selfless, and things that she did, that were not selfless. An idea. You start with her crazier exploits where she only helped herself, and the first time she did something selfless, and how it changed her life.

And from there, you start writing, and you know which scenes to write about. You pick and choose all the scenes that illustrate what selflessness is – your antagonists are selfish, your Bertha becomes more selfless – and you create an arc, where before, there were just a bunch of stories. You craft scenes that give a sense of focus to Berta’s life. And her story is no longer just insane, it’s meaningful. Because theme, it’s a focus-ring baby.

Wait, what?

In the interest of your precious time, I’m not going to go into greater detail about theme quite yet. This is just a teaser, really (sorry love). But before I peace out, I want to provide a little more clarity on what I mean, so we’re on the same page about theme, moving forward.

Think of the Focus-Ring on a manual camera…or that little circular thing on your Android or iPhone when you want to take a super crisp selfie: this little thing at the end of the lens on your camera determines what objects will be sharp and detailed, and which will be blurry and fuzzy.

A good photographer can use Deep-Focus, and focus on everything, and may have to, if absolutely necessary. But often, great photographers blend fuzziness around the edges of what they want you to actually look at, and think about. If you’re taking a picture of a Carnation in a field of Dandelions, setting your Focus-Ring on the Carnation, getting it just right, will make certain that people know that that’s what you want them to focus on. Everything else is visible, but the subject that you’re focusing on is the one they’re looking at.

That is what Theme really does. It’s a focus-ring on your camera, that gives the piece of art you making meaning.

In the next few lessons, we will go into significantly more detail about what that means; but for now, I’d like you to look at some books, or movies that you really like and ask yourself: What is the theme of this?

Dun Dun DUN

I’m glad to have shared this story, and I hope I helped yours. Until next time.

 

 

 

 

The Stream: Knackered

The word knackered is a word I love that I don’t use nearly enough because A.) I’m not british, and B.) I don’t like telling people when I’m a fucking mess.

But I love the word knackered. Whenever I get super-duper tired, eyes straining to look at whatever thing it is; my body droops like a wilted flower, and my limbs get all drunk on their own sense of rebellion.

The word just pops in there, and it makes the invisible part of me start giggling, and then sighing and holding a glass of bourbon in solemn agreement.

Knackered knackered knackered knackered.

It just kinda rolls off the tongue, but in a silly meet-cute way. It feels like castinets and a stifled yawn, on the tip of a cigarette butt. I don’t know what that means, but I like the image for damn sure.

And it feels so right. It feels like the kind of word that comes with a friend on a beat-up couch in a middling living room; it feels like the yellow tempur-pedic mattress cover that hides underneath the flowers on your couch that are sticking out because the thing is so damn ancient, upholstery is kind of a joke.

It sounds like the smell of smoke drifting in the night-air at a bar where the primary source of light is rayon, in various colors; arrayed to look like naked ladies. It sounds like the feeling of a woman’s breath on your ear in the dark, as you try to get some sleep in the middle of the night. It sounds like teeth that haven’t been brushed in a while, but wouldn’t hurt to do so.

It sounds like exhaustion.

I am knackered right now. This isn’t because I did any strenuous work, but because I got very sick today. I was in summer cold mode, and the soreness of my tendons felt like the wrong kind of massage. I only just remembered that I know that term, because it’s such an oddball term of non-meaning.

It’s not even a word destined for immortality. Hell, it’s not even an american english word. It’s just a word that I heard on some british tv show that sounds like the American Mispronunciation of Aunt; that sounds like it can only be said in exasperated tones.

And sometimes, you just can’t help but to be knackered. Life can be a treadmill continuing on and on and on. And you go, because you have to, but you also take it slow, because you don’t want to get crushed.

It sounds like some irish twaht complainin’ about his life and his need for a drink…I’m an asshole.

Knackered sounds like a lot of things. And I enjoy it for that reason. Because it has a perverse sense of logic. It’s almost onomatopoeia…fuck that’s a hard word to spell.

It’s not like some slang, that just makes no sense. It’s not like…oh, I don’t know…lit? I mean, yo, I get it, “it’s on fiyah”, but it doesn’t have that same visceral quality.

But, then again, Knackered is kinda ugly too.

It clicks and rhotics and does what it shouldn’t, for no good reason. It’s a symptom of things that suck, and it reflects them. It gets repetitive running the marathon in my mind that’s already been quelled in the quiet of a long day.

And it can be annoying too. Maybe I want to hear a prettier word, a word that suggests something beautiful. A word that looks like kind of spherical, or has a helical quality to it. Maybe some days I just want to kinda…you know, be pretty. My hair not get covered in exhaustion that makes it refract light in those ugly ways. Makes it look beautiful. Adds the right kind of luster.

Sometimes, exhausted feels more just, more dignified. To be exhausted is something stately. A hard day of decision making done, and quiet. To be lugubrious isn’t quite exhausted, but more elaborately funny.

But back to exhausted. Exhausted is a man who prematurely gray’s, knowing about what Ayn Rand only ever dreamed could shrug. Exhausted is the silent walk with rigid shoulders, and stern determination. it’s the lines that have carved themselves out of the years, the weathered spots in the skin that you make an effort to forget, because you have shit to do. Exhausted is the responsible knackered.

I feel like Exhausted walks in with a business suit, and looks at Knackered sprawled out on the couch with a join hanging from it’s grim caked fingers. Belly prominent and poking out slightly, as it snores to some forgotten 80’s glam rock gig.

–Wake up, it says

The room is dingy, but Exhausted doesn’t mind too much. It just needs a place to sit and think. Knackered..snoring…obviously…gets up, blinks, rubs its long greasy hair, fingers picking weirdly. It rubs its face downwards with the long hard sorrow of another day gone. Exhausted is too formal to ask to sit. But knackered looks at him.

Exhausted sits in an easy chair, looking at the sad orange light from a lamp, watching the day end.

–Does it ever get any easier, Exhausted asks

–Not if we’re here.

–How do you get off being so casual?

–It’s not like I had a choice, where I was born

–Just because you were born one way, doesn’t mean you’ll stay there

–Undo that tie, you look exhausted.

–And you look Knackered, my friend.

And then Exhausted breaks open a cool beer, before laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all.

Writing 344: Introduction

I’m going to tell you a story you’ve heard before.

Three years ago, I was broke as hell. I had struck out on my own – with my parent’s tenuous support – and had quit my job at Panera Bread because the difference in pay was, to my horror, not especially dramatic.

My parents had agreed to bankroll this little venture; but middle class is middle class, and the strain was evident in the dwindling amounts they could provide. I couldn’t pay my bills for electricity, or credit card debt; and, to top it all off, my tiny single apartment with an alcove retained heat, all year round. Unable to afford air conditioning, new clothes, bedding, or groceries, I would wake up daily sheathed in sweat, put on my worn down clothes, and walk down to my mecca: Coolidge Corner.

I had set up rituals for myself, to keep whatever remained of my sanity intact. I was down to three essentials: two fast-food meals a day, and books.

In Coolidge Corner, with whatever album I was listening to that day, I would eat a breakfast sandwich, admire the fact that poverty was doing wonders for my figure, and figure out what the hell I was going to do, because I had no money, and interviews were fruitless. Then I would go to the bookstore: Brookline Booksmith.

Brookline Booksmith is one of those beauts of Eastern Mass bookstores: deceptively arranged like H.P. Lovecraft’s Non-Euclidian Temples to Cthulu, minus all the terrifying elder gods.

You walk in and you see it go all the way back. It’s deep. It’s almost martial in its formation of books, arrayed like Book-Nerd feng-shui that draws the eyes down the length of its horizon line. In the front were baubles that bookstores like to sell for people who don’t like to read: colorful plates, pencils, miniatures. The air wasn’t quite musty, but it was a dream.

I still feel the sensation of the brown hardwood floor that held me steady as I would walk in with a dancer’s grace to avoid hitting the platforms; and then I would feast under the bright light whites.

I would dance, and massage the textures of the books. I would hold them, admire them; I would find a particularly great passage and laugh my balls off to the ambivalent looks of other patrons.

It was a second home for me, and I bought books.

Now, before you think my despair of poverty ended with Freelance Writing: it didn’t. During this time, I had been freelancing, and had learned how much of a horror-show it can be, if you don’t have any fucking idea what you’re doing.

But I wanted to write. I had drafts: screenplays, books, short stories, poetry. A pile of unreadable garbage. I had purchased an Alpha Smart to write more, and had succeeded. It held a privileged space, next to the stack of books for which I had no shelf. I’d had the gift of gab, but no confidence, and no knowledge. I would admire these book store offerings, but I always felt the distance.

Then, one day, during my morning ritual, I found Stanley Fish’s book: How to Write a Sentence, and how to read one. Even though I had about 30 dollars in my bank account, I decided to purchase it. Then something clicked, and I realized how amazing a sentence can be.

I started searching for good sentences. I burned through the book, I got a job which taught me a lot of things; I got some money; I got a writing gig; and since, I’ve focused my obsession for narrative craft into something spectacularly intricate.

There is no end to this story, sorry. But there is a point: for the last three years, I have consumed and made an active effort at writing sentences so that they land. I have written 4+ manuscripts (still need editing) and I have listened, watched, and obsessed over Narrative Pedagogy, as well as just learned so much by observation.

So this series is my attempt to give something back. Writing 344 is my attempt to Fish it up, and teach you how to write, if not well, then better. I love good writing. I love aspiring writers. But more than that, I love good craft.

And writing is that, by a pretty wide margin. In my bracket (unpublished, but obsessive), I note a lot of very common areas that can be improved, and a lot of things you may not have picked up on. I hope to share these observations, and provide you with a guide-boat to writing.

My story is far from finished, but I hope you will take it with me. We’re going to go over as much as I can humanly remember, and then some. Each course will be conversational, and will focus on one thing at a time. If you like what I have to say, please drop a line, and I will be happy to hear you out, and help you become your best writer.

If you don’t like it, well, cool, you do you. But I hope you do enjoy it, and learn to appreciate the fine thing a good sentence can be, when it’s done write. I hope you come to appreciate a shapely theme; balanced exposition; the right kind of conflict; character development; scale; weight; all the way down to my favorite of punctuation marks: the Semi-Colon.

And, most importantly, I hope you improve your writing. The only thing holding you back from going forward, is you. Just write, and the rest should come. But you can always use a little help.

And that’s what I’ll do.

Now that I’ve told you a story, let’s start with yours.

Bullshit & A Bag of Dicks

Ain’t that a bag of dicks?

I mean, nothing in particular, but it seems things have taken a general turn for the shit-show, lately. Y’know? One of those series of moments, going in slow motion – punctuated by hopeful moments – down into a sinal valley, where the darkness lives.

Nothing officially wrong with darkness, other than the fear of it. But, I mean, it’s been one of those weeks.

One of those periods of time where you make every wrong left-turn. Where the positive feedback loop of thinking seems to build; everyone’s angry, or stressed, or sick, or on vacation. And miraculously, everything seems to be synchronous for some monumental bullshit.

Honestly, I’m more or less ok with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: shit sucks, right now. But if Musical Theater has taught me anything – other than that, for a white guy, I don’t suck at rapping (thanks hammy) – it’s that everything in life is temporary, and only For Now.

For your listening pleasure.

This song, for whatever reason, is obnoxiously important to me.  It isn’t for whatever reason, but bear with me for a second.

This song comes at the end…uh spoilers…and the main character – Princeton – has come to yet another dead-end in his quest for purpose (meta, weee). He again looks out of the Proscenium with a sense of having failed at life, because, again, he couldn’t find the one damn thing he had energy to find.

In the musical, his life also tends to be kind of a miserable downward spiral after leaving college to make a difference in the world. He finds out that people are largely indifferent to him, that jobs are hard to secure, and girls are hard to deal with. Just as he finally accomplishes something that he hopes will give his life some meaning…zilch.

So his friends, and fellow tenants let him know: it’s all a moment in time, and it will pass. So will the good times. So will the bad times.

I love this song because a.) it’s catchy as all hell (bum di-dum ta-da, bum di-dum ta-da, da-di da-di) b.) it’s sweet, and it’s honest: life sucks on a regular basis.

But for every moment where you find an unexpected bill, your cat goes splat, you get caught in gale force hurricane storms daily, even when it’s sunny right before you go walking outside, a car washes you in water, but you’re too wet to notice, you get home, trip, and wreck your shit, and then you end up too lonely to get out bed the next morning.

Phew, scuse me, just got a bit too heavy.

But for every shitty moment like that, there are those absurd peaks: everything goes right, Murphy is in the bathroom taking a shit, and his law means about as much. Then you smile, and life is OK.

And then it happens again, and every gradation.

That can be difficult. the U.S. in particular is such a culture of consequence: we’re building to some great glorious purpose. We’re building up and up and up and up; but up ceases to matter, at a certain point, and so many people do not care already.

So then you come down, and you realize that all you worked for starts corroding, and you go down again. And then the wrong turns sneak their way back, and the frustration mounts again, things get worse, and worse, and worse. And suddenly your back on the shitty prime day.

Then it passes again.

When you stop seeing the world as consequential – or necessarily purposeful – first, it blows a bag of dicks. That’s just a really fun curse, I love it. Dicks dicks dicks dicks bag of dicks.

Sorry.

But when you stop giving a sense of purpose, consequence, finality. When the end of the world stops arriving at your doorstep, even if it is literally right there. When you look at the smiles you have, and see them as a fleeting moment that will vanish; and so will the sore throats, and struggles and shitty days. The days where people bother you.

When you see it as a circle, instead of a line. A sine-wave instead of a mountain. Well, first you get kinda detached, and a little bit sad.

Then, you live it.

The great thing about purposelessness (Sorry Princeton, buddy), is that it doesn’t mean you have no purpose, it just means your purpose is without end. It stops being about the book you have to finish writing. It stops being about that one life-defining equation.

Because, guess what: if you ever accomplish an insane goal, and you don’t immediately die afterwards, something awful happens.

The next moment.

Building your life around a purpose is great. But purpose has an expiration date, if its a worthy one. And if it’s  not worthy, but it has no expiration, then it just perpetuates shitty awfulness, and that’s precisely bueno for fucking nobody. So fuck that shizzle.

I am not snoop dogg, apologies for that one.

I have a history of losing people who I care about…either through my own mystical levels of stupidity, or, more prosaic reasons. Each time it cuts deep, and leaves me raw.

It’s awful to feel so miserable…especially when the person feels vital. But the worst part is the part no one mentions: the day after, where you find out that that person leaving didn’t end the world. The part where no one cares, and you can get up and live, or sit and be miserable. It hurts ten times more because it shows you that you were wrong about how much they actually meant.

The world doesn’t give a shit that your life is a big bag of floppy penis. It doesn’t care about the glaciers, or animals, it doesn’t care about continental drift, or weather.

All the world gives about, is turning in one big-ass circle, on a slightly janky-tilt of about 23 degrees. That, and nothing more.

There’s wisdom in that, to me.

The Stream: 8.7.17

It’s very easy to be de-moralized, at times.

I joke regularly about my lack of readership. Partially because defending myself is harder than sheathing that metaphorical sword; but also because it’s true, and, above all things, I prefer honesty.

Image result for saraswati

Aum Vaak-dhevyai Cha Vidmahe
Virinchi Pathniyai Cha Dhimahee
Thanno Vaanee Prachodayath
That’s Saraswati, I like her image, and the Gayatri too, so here you go.
But, back to the point I wasn’t trying to make: sometimes, it’d be nice to be read. Perhaps that’s a bit prosaic of me, sitting here, reclined in my chair, head at a 90 degree angle by virtue of my back being just the incorrect enough posture to make it so. Hair too long, from the lack of time necessary to  get it cut. Feeling weirdly attractive, and only feeling weird about it because I’m not used to it.
I only recently visited the idea of self-love recently. It’s one of those foreign countries and languages of which I have become inordinately fond. One of those new vistas for my internal michelangelo…marco polo? Christopher Columbus? (ew no) to explore and cartographize, or something.
It’s part and parcel of leading a healthy lifestyle, and doing healthy things, for healthy reasons.
It’s why, instead of getting angry at myself for sharing the fact that I’m vulnerable, and tired, and a little lonely, there’s a me in my head who’s just giving me a hug and is petting my hair and going “It’s ok, man, you’re just you, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that”.
People have a need to have it together, and I do too. Few things these days frustrate me as much as not-having-it-togetherness…or y’know, something to that effect. Maybe I should rephrase.
Lately I’ve become real concerned about the nature of victimhood. Or, maybe not even that, the ability to be accountable? I don’t know, my mind feels loose, like a wrung out towel, so it’s all comin’ pretty slow to me right now.
But I’ve noted, as have literally countless self-help humans, that there is something to the power of believing. It’s not the same as moral certainty. Not that at all; if anything the morally certain make for easy victims.
Again I come to faith, eesh.
But victimhood is more of a choice than most people want it to be. And if more than 2 people ever read this, let me be clear: I’m not saying you haven’t struggled, or been the victim of some horrific shit. Statistically speaking, the odds are generally in your favor on that front.
What I am saying is that Victimhood can be passive, or it can be active. We all know the active type. The kind who make every excuse not to change their behavior. And that’s fine, by the way. Judgment doesn’t come easy to me.

But there is a person out there who has been wronged…pretty fucking brutally, for no reason at all. It’s led to this idea that they are unworthy, or unloveable. It has twisted their sense of trust, and given them the false belief that their life is less valuable, or less important. They’ve internalized darkness to justify it. That used to be me.

The terrifying truth about victimhood and self-loathing is that they are intertwined tightly. If the world is not a random, chaotic place, with no  inherent sense of any kind of real meaning, then that means there is such a thing as “Right”, and “Wrong”. Further, Morality for most people is pretty straightforward. Good guys, bad guys. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and you’re the other ugly fuck.
We also assume that Karma is a straight line, and we also believe in Karma, even if that’s not what we call it. For the self-loathing crowd, the belief in being a bad person is rooted deeply through consistent exposure. You are made to believe you are terrible, and eventually it sticks. All your behavior, desires, and actions are motivated by this little demon that makes you a wrong entity.
And you believe it. If you were a good person, wouldn’t good things happen to you? Wouldn’t you be just? Wouldn’t life treat you, I don’t know…decently?
Well, maybe it is.
I don’t know about you, my experiences are quite a bit different than yours, I imagine, but the things in my life that were valuable, which increased my sense of compassion, and love, were those moments where I suffered most abjectly. Those moments where my head had to rest in my hands, because the weight of its sorrow could not be borne by gravity alone were the moments that were most enlightening.
But they only became that way once I stopped being an active victim. When I accepted the world doesn’t owe me stuff, just cause I exist. Instead of being punishment for being a monster, unworthy of love; an evil bastard with no sense of morality, and no sense of kindness; undeserving of even basic human attention. Doomed to languish in free-hand obscurity. And, rather, became lessons, stories with which to build truths. A true bottom-up approach.
When I stopped taking shit personally. When I stopped thinking that the world was designed to fuck me over. Well, then I started to live right. I started to love more. When I came to Hinduism, 7 years ago, I came to an understanding of peace and acceptance.
I came to understand that irrelevance isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a lesson.
I haven’t figured out what the lesson is supposed to be. But I have time and patience to make an effort.
Until then, I’ll just pretend that my existence is meaningful, make myself a king in my own eyes, and rule the domain of my heart justly. I will let love sit in there, and everything else, and watch the tide pull out to my own truth.

It’ll be pretty great.