Entitled

From Elisa Gabbert's Title TK:

Another quality I dislike in titles: a rhythmic sing-songiness, as in Then We Came to the End. All the Light We Cannot See. I Know This Much Is True. (Wally Lamb used the exact same three-foot iamb pattern twice: The Hour I First Believed.) These titles are suspiciously regular in their meter. I distrust them. As far as meter goes I think spondees make for the best, snappiest titles: White Noise. Jane Eyre. Bleak House.

Gabbert is talking of book titles here and then moves on to titling poems. When I wrote fiction and poetry, I always preferred lifting a line or word or group of words from within the work itself. I wanted the titles to arouse a little curiosity in the potential reader, who might then hear the click of the box when they read those words again in context. I also wanted something that sounded a little elevated without being too pretentious.

Though I adore Chekhov's work, so many of his stories' titles struck me as flat: The Duel, The Student, The Wife. I was perfectly happy for his stories to be written plainly; but I craved more memorable titles. Of which, to be fair, there are many: Ward 6, The Lady with the Dog, The Black Monk. His plays' titles adhere to Gabbert's terse preferences and I think cannot be improved on: Uncle Vanya. Three Sisters. The Cherry Orchard. All you need to know about those plays are in their titles.

My friend, the playwright Karyn Traut (for whom I have worn a bra and a muumuu-type thing onstage, though thankfully not in the same production), shared this tip from a class I took with her many years ago: The title is the poem of the play. I like that idea -- not only a summing-up, more than a declarative description. Connotation, not denotation.

Blogs I Like: Sitcom Geek

As Stephen Fry said once upon a time: when I was young, comedy albums were my rock albums. The first albums I remember buying were remaindered copies of "Another Monty Python Album" and, rather incredibly, Robert Klein's "Mind Over Matter" (I think because the cover just looked so out-there).

Since then, comedy has always flickered in the background. I've been interested in comedy as a performer (when I acted in college and community theatre, it tended to be in comedies), as a consumer (watching classic sitcoms via Netflix is quite relaxing ["Wings" is my current before-bedtime snack], "The Big Bang Theory" reruns are fun to watch while eating supper, and the Flying Karamazov Bros. are funny as hell), and as a writer/critic (what was Bill Hicks up to? what the hell is Dan Harmon doing with those bloody circles?  how does telling three mini-stories in a single Big Bang episode change the viewing experience compared to a 1977 Mary Tyler Moore episode that focused on only one story for 25 minutes?).

As you can tell from that last paragraph, I have a sort of engineering relationship with comedy. I love reading about what makes comedy work. (Disclaimer: I've never written any skits or humor pieces.) If you see me watching a sitcom or standup special, I may nod, smile, occasionally bark out a laugh. Thing is, what I'm mainly doing is studying the structure, trying to guess where the joke is going, and also kind of watching it like I'd listen to an orchestra -- keeping an ear out for the unique sound or the pattern that's holding everything together, while remaining open to be surprised and delighted.

Over the last few years, I've been reading about comedy and comedy writers (And Here's the Kicker is great place to start), listening to comedy writing podcasts, and particularly enjoying James Cary's blog, "Sitcom Geek."

Cary set his sights on being a comedy writer long ago, writing shows for the Fringe festival, radio skit programs, sitcoms for radio and TV, and more. I enjoy his take on the writer's life from the British comedy writer's point of view, which is not all that different from any other writer's point of view: work hard and you may be rewarded but it's more likely you won't be, so keep working, get better, and try again. And his views on what makes a sitcom work or not work, appraising classic shows and modern alike for what they do that's worth noticing.

My favorite kinds of posts are when he praises the work of those he admires: this tribute to Bob Larbey, who co-wrote on our favorite sitcoms, "The Good Life," was tremendous fun to read. (That photo of Larbey makes him look like a mashup of Jay Leno and Marty Feldman.)

My other favorite posts of his are when he talks about the business of sitcom (the state of the industry, the primacy of hard work and solving problems, incremental improvements, advice to young writers) and the structure of sitcom (characters, plot, theme, research, performance). As someone experienced in the business, he's great at pointing at a comedic success while saying, "Look, did you see how long it took them to devise that concept? How long it took them to write it?" He's also pretty frank about not holding on to sour apples or grapes: if the BBC passed on your script but accepted a script almost exactly like it, it doesn't pay to kick up a fuss. Maybe their script was better, cheaper, hit the accepting editor on a good day -- it doesn't pay to get too up in your head and resentful about this business. Get back to work, figure out your characters' motivations, bring the funny. In other words: Keep writing.

His post "Theoretically Funny" is a great example of the kind of post I just eat up. These aren't templates for writing stories; if anything, they may be more helpful as ways to diagnose why a particular kind of story is going wrong. But they show the bones, the structure, the logistics of a particular kind of storytelling that not only has to make an emotional impact on a viewer, but also deliver a laugh every 20 seconds.

"Merry Christmas from the Kensingtons"

My friend, the novelist Lewis Shiner, has a new Christmas short story up on the Subterranean Press site. It's titled "Merry Christmas from the Kensingtons" and is Lew's own Christmas ghost story -- particularly the ghosts of Christmases past as lived out in a series of annual family photo postcards. [ C ] Joseph Cornell - Penny Arcade (1962)

It's a haunting story, and in reading just the simple descriptions of the family members as they age and grow, I found myself writing each person's lifestory in my head.

Lew said he had bought such a stack of family photo postcards at a flea market and the images, showing each family member growing older and with their personalities inevitably peeking through, year after year, haunted him.

I share his fascination and deep imaginative involvement with found objects. I've always found art installations made from found objects more interesting than other types of sculptures, for example. I also enjoy such items as densely collaged artwork and Cornell boxes; contemplating the original objects and sorting out my reactions to them, and then to their new associations and relationships within the artwork, can keep me staring for hours.

The power of Lew's story -- and of those found images -- shook loose a memory from my own mental lumber room of when I cleaned out the attic of our rental house before moving to our current home.

In a far corner of this huge attic I found posters and birthday cards from the 40th birthday of a previous resident, a woman named Timothy. "Lordy, lordy, Timmer's forty!" was one of my first clues, doncha know.

It was amazing the story I was able to piece together from these remnants -- she worked as a nurse at Duke, was taking a job in Virginia, and there was a touching birthday card from a young woman (I assume young) who had turned down Timmer's profession of love but still wanted to show her affection and respect.

It was surprising and a little sad to find these relics in a far corner of the attic -- they meant enough to her to save them, at one time. But maybe she'd forgotten about them or she had to leave town in a hurry.

I also remembered a box of personal memorabilia I had found years ago in my parents' basement. It contained  letters I'd received from a Doctor Who pen pal named Bobbie, who had placed a pen-pal-personal ad in some DW fanzine or other in the early 1980s. As she wrote me later, she had broken up with someone, was feeling sorry for herself, placed her ad, and then found herself writing to lots of feeling-sorry-for-themselves guys. She and I wrote for several years until she got married and then our correspondence ran its course and dried up.

I met her one time only, at a DW convention in Columbus, OH, where she lived. This  would have been a few years after we'd started writing to each other. It was a little awkward at first -- pen-pal correspondences are not conversations, after all, but exchanged soliloquies.

We eventually were able to spend some time together and chat. I don't remember what we talked about, but I do remember that, at some point later on during that first evening at the convention, that she was in my car and we circled the hotel parking lot just talking, and then she went back into the hotel.

When I found her trove of letters in this box 20-odd years later, I re-read them and decided to send them to her. Not knowing her married name, I found that her mother still lived at the old address. So I mailed her a package with Bobbie's letters and a cover letter telling her how much Bobbie's letters had meant to me at that time. Since I had enjoyed them the first time I'd received them, and enjoyed them again 20 years later, I thought it was only fair to share them back to Bobbie so she could enjoy them too.

It was a weird little project, I guess. But it felt like the right thing to do.

I wound up getting an email from Bobbie! She was kind of flabbergasted that I'd saved the letters -- OK, no argument there. But I was the kind of person who liked Doctor Who, had pen pals, and saved paper ephemera, so I already dwelled beyond the boundaries of "normal" society.

In her email, she said she found that re-reading her old letters reminded her of events and feelings she'd forgotten, so she was grateful to have them.

She also tantalized me by saying that there was something I didn't know about that night in Columbus, something she was a little embarrassed about sharing but that she'd tell me in her next email. I wrote her back with my thanks and said I'd love to hear whatever she wanted to tell me, if she was comfortable doing so.

Alas, she never wrote me back and never replied to any of my subsequent emails. So I'll never know what happened or didn't happen or might have happened that night in Columbus.

And therein, I suppose, lies the power for me of found objects (which I just now mistyped as "fond objects") and untold stories -- they tantalize by showing just enough clues to suggest a story but never enough to solve their mystery. And it's the mystery, for me, that endures.

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On hitting 50 (blog posts, that is)

Inspired by Shannon's example, I decided to forge ahead and write M-F blog posts for 10 weeks. And rather remarkably, to me, I hit that goal without missing a day or calling for a do-over. Last Friday I posted my 50th entry. What surprised me about the experience:

  • I thought I would exhaust my list of 20 or so ideas. I now have about twice that many on my list, plus about 15 draft posts in various stages of completion. Which proves what I said in my first post: the more I write, the more I can write.
  • The time between me getting an idea and then creating a decently readable post shrank. I experimented with ways to plan out long posts so they weren't so exhausting to write, though with mixed success.
  • I can pretty much tell within about 20 minutes of writing whether I can finish a post in a sitting or whether it needs more time.
  • I thought I would need fancy software but the WordPress setup has served me quite well and it gets better all the time. I still like starting some drafts in nvAlt, but I tend now to keep my drafts in the WP Dashboard.
  • I tend to prefer the longform essays.
  • Continuing to discover little idiosyncrasies in my style (such as my love of parenthetical asides or constantly adding "and" clauses to sentences) and occasionally surprising myself with a felicitously turned phrase or metaphor.

What pleased me:

  • I restarted the blog in response to creative constipation; I had stuff backed up I wanted to write about but didn't know how. The regular writing unblocked whatever was jammed and the words and ideas simply gushed out for the last two months. (Here endeth the metaphor unsavourie.)
  • Whenever I've felt blue, it's usually because I've not been exercising my creativity muscles. Shortly after restarting the blog, the dark cloud lifted and I began enjoying the process of planning, experimenting, and publishing. Writing is mood-altering!
  • I like going back and reviewing the stuff I've written. I often forget what I've written about, and it's like finding lost treasure.
  • I suppose because it was the last week of mandatory posting, I pushed out several posts that I had started in Spring 2011 but had never had enough reason to actually finish. The Davies and prospective memory posts had waited a long time to be given their due and each flew near the 2000-word mark. The satisfaction I felt in finally publishing those ideas and opinions -- really committing to them and then marking them as done -- felt so good.
  • I really like being able to go back and fix a typo or rephrase some clumsy sentence. A blog post is never finished, only abandoned.
  • Instead of my evenings being spent watching cat videos on YouTube or moving all the icons on my desktop 2cm to the left, I've spent them creating and producing things. What I always thought of as my distractible nature never bothered me while I wrote. And I felt much better about how I spent my time.

What I wish I could have done:

  • I would have liked establishing a routine for writing every day at the same time. But since I typically wrote in the evenings, then perhaps that was my routine time.
  • I wish I could have written shorter posts. The longer posts took a lot out of me and I sometimes felt kind of stunned the next day. I just like to blather on. I guess.
  • I wish I could have found better graphics and maybe more multimedia. I like illustrations or pictures with blog posts and while Zemanta can find some interesting stuff, I sometimes just settled for what I could find in a hurry.

What I won't miss:

  • Spending almost every Monday through Friday evening staring at a computer screen! There was one period where I successfully stayed one day ahead of schedule, and I remember one glorious patch where I had three short posts all lined up and scheduled for publishing through the end of the week. I was never able to repeat that.

What I still want to play with and figure out:

  • I want to invest in the Thesis theme or something similar and more plugins. I would like to play around more with the site's look and feel. It's a rather bland looking site.
  • My friend Mike Uhl, who writes two very focused blogs, continues to urge me to commit to a theme. Not for this site, which will remain a repository of jottings and fancies, but perhaps my next one.
  • A Creative Commons notice and how to attach it to the end of every post.

A few remaining points:

  • I will continue to write posts, but not to a schedule. I look forward to a break. One of the great things about this project is that I now have a new hobby. If I'm ever at loose ends and wonder whatsoever shall I do -- writing a blog post is the activity that will leap to mind.
  • I have purposely not promoted the blog. I haven't advertised my posts on either my Twitter or Facebook accounts. This blog has been my private lab where I could try things out, play around, and generally make lots of pots while letting the process work its magic on me. When I start a more focused blog, it will be to support my side-business and then I will be more interested in the social media side.
  • It's not the goal that's important, after all, it's who you have to become to achieve the goal. In the past 10 weeks, I've become someone who spends his free time writing, getting better at writing, and sharing what he knows (or thinks he knows). And it's been great.
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Pay the writer

A glorious rant from one of the keystone authors of my first couple of decades on this spinning rock, Harlan Ellison. This is a clip from the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which is itself quite good. (I'd forgotten that I'd linked to this clip before. Forgive me!) I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost all of HE's books are available in Kindle format via Amazon and at great prices.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

 

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Progress Report: But is it fun?

At a recent mastermind meeting, my fellow blogger Mike Uhl asked what I felt about having crossed the halfway point of writing 50 M-F blog posts. Did I feel great about accomplishing that milestone? Was I having fun doing this thing? I've always had a tough time with "fun."

I was once asked years ago what I did for fun, and I really had no answer. I don't think I'm a drudge or mechanical person, but this was a question I never thought to ask myself. There are many things I enjoy -- reading, comics, museums, eating out, sitting on the back porch during a thunderstorm -- but "fun" is a different type of word that suggests abandonment of self, losing oneself in an exciting activity. I’ve always thought or believed that people were referring to roller coasters or white-water rafting or some other intensely physical activity when they referred to fun. It was just something I never really noticed in myself.

"Ain't We Got Fun" (sheet music) pag...

(Perhaps my life has been lived minimizing pain rather than maximizing pleasure? Discuss.)

So, let's overthink about this. I like the idea of breaking "fun" into "fun-fun" and "serious fun." This paper defines serious fun as "play with a purpose."

Serious fun goes beyond the apathy of strict order and the over-excitement of chaos to generate an ordered chaos that permits freedom within structure and fun within limits.

Fun-fun has no purpose beyond itself. Which is great. We need this. For me, that can be laughing till I hurt at a Flying Karamazov Brothers show or, from my distant past, performing in a play. The most fun I ever have, I think, is talking to friends, losing myself in conversation and connection with other people. My 50th birthday party last year was one of the peaks of 2011 and I enjoyed every minute of it -- the anticipation, the singing, and the remembering it later.

And while I enjoy watching a movie or TV show or most performances, I don't call that fun-fun. My years as a theater and movie reviewer, and as someone who enjoys thinking about writing fiction, have enforced a habit of judging, balancing, guessing where the narrative or performance is going, and then evaluating its execution. It keeps direct experience at an arm's length.

When I think about how I spend my time, I lean more toward "serious fun." I enjoy losing myself in an activity, but I want that activity to have a result. I can happily lose myself in emptying my bookshelves and then putting all the books back in some new ordering scheme. I can rename a folder full of PDFs so they sort just as I want, and time flies. I can also easily lose myself in writing, whether it's fiction or a blog post, and enjoy seeing what I produced.

I can't say that I have fun-fun writing these blog posts; there's no sense of physical abandon to the writing (more like stiffness and eyestrain).

But I have serious fun. I enjoy finding something out and sharing it on my blog. I enjoy taking an inchoate idea and surprising myself by shaping it into something like a mini-essay. I enjoy documenting the Byzantine curlicues of my baroque thought processes, though I am often dismayed at how complicated I make my life. I like documenting my little habits and routines; each post becomes a message in a bottle that I will look at years from now and go, "Huh. I forgot all about that."

Merlin Mann had this great P.S. to a 43Folders.com blog post:

Has anyone ever figured out that 90% of the posts on this site are actually (notes|pep talks|reminders) to myself? I sometimes think not. The site definitely makes more sense once you get this.

I enjoy losing myself in the activity of writing, in creating this object. The fun at the start of the writing, which is playing with the idea and being surprised at the words it collects around itself, eventually gives way to the more serious business of making this machine work. From the first paragraph, the reader enters a contraption from which the only escape should be the last paragraph.

The crafting of that machine, the polishing and fixing -- it takes focus and time. Even for short posts, I think about placement, context, wording, sentence rhythms, etc. What I hope is that, after I hit Publish, I can feel good about the time and energy I spent. The result of my efforts can be several hundred words of adamantine prose and unblockable metaphors, plus a feeling -- a satisfied feeling -- that my time was well-spent.

When I look at the calendar to the left of the post and see another day in bold italics -- signifying a new post -- I am pleased with myself for sticking to the plan.

When I peruse the finished object later in my feed reader, I hope to lose myself again in what I created --  this time, as a reader.

When I scan my ideas and drafts for the next post, I start feeling that little tingle of excitement -- what will I write next? What do I want to share? How long do I want it to be? What's interesting to me today? What idea has been ripening for a while and is ready to fall?

That moment just before I decide -- like the moment the curtain goes up just before the show begins -- is probably the most fun moment of all.

 

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Progress Report: Content and Themes

Without the topic of school to provide a throughline or readymade theme for the blog – which was the reason for its birth, after all – the content of my posts has scattered itself across self-help, tech, and cultural themes, though there has been silliness too. Mustn’t forget silliness. I tend to find the longform deepdish essays more satisfying to write; they also sometimes require longer gestation periods or hours of intense focus. I always enjoyed Montaigne’s  brief essays in his first book and that served as a sort of model when I started blogging in the mid-aughts. Although it is telling that his longer essays in Book 3 tend to be both the most conversational and the ones I and others enjoy re-reading the most.

I start a post with the intent to keep it brief, but I too often fall in love with the sound of my writing voice, and – as if I were having a conversation with myself – think about this or that idea which simply must be mentioned. I need to curb that tendency though; in technical writing, the worst thing you can do is to dump every thing you know into the documentation. It shows a lack of discrimination in understanding what to include and what to leave out. This makes the reader’s experience less pleasant and their job even harder.

For the longform essays, I try to follow the advice of academic writing coaches and start a post by writing a key sentence for each paragraph. When I see the thread of the argument, I can thicken the blessay with more detail and supporting evidence. Having decided what I will include, I am more likely to stay on track and let go of ideas or witticisms that don’t fit.

I try to. More often, I simply start typing and ramble away, generating huge rafts of text that need to be considered, pruned, tossed out, refined, etc. Whichever method I use depends on my mood, time, energy, and so on. I am consistent in my inconstancy.

I find that writing about my personal systems for organization or productivity or techie stuff are usually fun and easy to write. They can be long, though. When I write about things that are a little more personal and ruminative — such as my information packrat nature or what I find inspiring and why — I touch more chords with my reader(s). In the end, I write about whatever I want to spend time thinking about and playing with. I find that I’m not reading as much as I used to , but I’m writing more, and I think that’s a fair tradeoff.

One of my goals for the blog reboot was to burn through a lot of ideas that had piled up during the years when I was not blogging regularly. Then, after I’d gone through those, my plan was to see what was left for me to write about. But as I predicted in my first post, the more I write, the more I find to write about. I do sometimes raid the old list, but I as often pluck new ideas to think about as well.

Of course, the real topic of a personal blog is me, my life, my interests, and my exploration of my thoughts. And journaling the process of “learning as I go.” These posts are cups drawn from a well that, so far, thankfully, seems bottomless.

Progress Report: Routines

I started out writing my blog posts every morning for about 15-30 minutes, but now I may write throughout the day or write three on a Sunday night or tinker with a post or posts throughout the week. In fact, this series on what I've learned from my recent blogging experience started as a brain dump of disconnected bits (and may read that way, I don't know). I've tinkered with various bits of it over the course of a week, a la Mark Forster's continuous revision idea, adding sentences, fleshing out fragments, moving paragraphs around.

I seem to have two speeds when it comes to posting: the quick hit-and-run post with a link to something interesting, or a more in-depth musing that benefits from my walking around it every couple of days and judging how it looks from all angles.

What is also happening is that I find myself thinking about writing posts all the time. When something crosses my path, I wonder if it will make good blog fodder (blodder?). Newspaper columnists face the same situation; the column becomes a hungry beast that demands incessant feeding and attention.

My tools adapt themselves to the kind of writing I'm doing that day or week. I discovered I'm fine composing my quicker posts with the WordPress editor. Longer posts tend to start out in nvALT and may move to Microsoft Word, if I want to use the tools there. (I also keep a long list of ideas in nvALT and add to it all the time.)

I thought at one time I'd buy MarsEdit or some other desktop app to write my posts off-line, but I find that it's not really necessary. I build my posts up in layers, so the tool I use is independent of the writing/gestation process. I work on the words in several passes, move the text to WordPress, layer in the links in another, and then use the Zemanta plugin to suggest images or to spur my quest to find better ones. I don't always use the same tool for the initial drafts.

Before I publish, I preview the post and read it again in the browser; I regularly find formatting, typo, and phrasing problems that way.

This process is not bulletproof, of course. I would like a more scheduled, routine time to write and edit my posts, rather than the pockets of time I spend on it throughout the week. My drafting process feels too haphazard and too subject to disruption.

I'm at that point on the mastery curve where I've plateaued. The big a-HA! discoveries of technique and content came in the first 2 or 3 weeks, and I'm now trying to establish a regular writing routine, an assembly line that can crank out widgets in the shape of blog posts. The a-has are rather slower in coming and I need to be content waiting for the idea or insight that kicks me up to the next level.

Until then: make lots of pots.

Progress report: Epic or epigrammatic?

I started the Monday-Friday blogging cycle on July 30 and am surprised to find myself still here and churning out posts. My goal was to do 50 posts -- 10 weeks of posting -- and I passed the 5-week mark on August 31. So -- to echo this blog's subtitle -- what have I been learning as I go? The next series of blog posts explores my typically blathering answers.

Epic or epigrammatic?

Andy Ihnatko said on a recent Ihnatko Almanac podcast that he yearns to do brief blog posts, a la John Gruber's Daring Fireball blog (my own model would be Michael Leddy's Orange Crate Art). But whenever he starts writing, the post grows to 800 words and it's not a brief 2-sentence comment that concisely distills his feelings on an issue -- no, it's a full-out deepdish essay that could be a chapter in a book. For Andy, Twitter is the microblog he prefers because it enforces a length restriction.

The desire for concision vs completeness is true for me. My gambit of setting a timer to write for 15 minutes worked for a week, and then not at all. When it alarms, I simply shut it off, continue writing, and maybe take a break later, if I think about it. I'm a natural longform blogger, I suppose. My posts on Doctor Who and being an information packrat were intended to be single posts with only a few sentences on my opinions. But the opinions quickly got out of hand.

I have, therefore, gotten a bit better at noticing when I will need to break a post into parts and adjusting the writing accordingly. If the goal is to post 5 days/week, then I break the long ones into multiple parts, artfully round off each part so it stands as a whole (I hope), and so meet my self-imposed quota.

This post, for example, started as a bulleted list of random sentences and ideas, which I shaped into four organized thematic sections, added links and more contextual "thickener," as it were, and the draft mysteriously embiggened itself to 1200+ words. I was about to hit the Publish button on this monster when I thought, "Wait a second -- I could get four days of posts out of this!"

And on such expedient decisions are great works of art made.