Strange Doors, Moving Loops

Thinking about Writing

THE THING-NESS OF THE BOOK

“A book is a network.” Great phrase. Evocative. From new-publishing guru Todd Sattersten. I picked it up at a mind-widening webinar he hosted last week via O’Reilly TOC. (I highly recommend him and them to authors, publishers and marketers.)

So: book as network. Let’s mess around with this. Let’s riff. WWHS? What would Heidegger say? He’d call a book an “occasion” (translated from the German, of course). He’d say it’s an experience the reader has. A special experience. One to which a reader is invited, as to a wedding. So that thing that we normally call “a book”–the bound pages of ink, the pixels glowing, the audio bytes–that is but an invitation. The book is in its reading. It is its reading. A book is more verb than noun.

Let’s play some more. Let’s go sci-fi. WWACCS? What would Arthur C. Clarke say? He might speak of a book as a dynamic, meta-spatial space-time portal. Portal. Okay. So a book is a door. But where is that door? In the ink on paper? In the pixels? In the recorded voice? Well, yes. But that’s just Door Number One. Door Number Two opens as those letters/pixels/sounds evoke words that suggest worlds. Each word operates as a door to image and meaning. When well-crafted, words then self-assemble into worlds. Worlds that live in non-spatial space. In mind and imagination. So a book is a series of doors. Doors opening doors. The operative word here (pun intended) being “open,” not “door.” A book is a dynamic process. It happens. It plays out. Its deeper nature is more temporal than spatial. After all, reading is not instant. Unlike painting, it’s serial (though the Cubists might claim that absorbing a painting is equally serialized, formed in our minds by restless, parsing-reconstructing brains…). When we read, word-worlds pile up sequentially, building phrases, building meaning, spooling forward (there’s a directionality here) into poems, stories, narratives. A book begins in imagination, beyond space-time. And, moving through the reader, that’s where it “ends.” Or, more accurately, “lives.”

Which leads to one more juicy image. WWJAWS? What would John Archibald Wheeler say? He coined the word: a book is a wormhole. A shortcut through space-time. It’s a “moving” (forgive the pun) point of connection. A non-dimensional, omni-dimensional channel. From nowhere to somewhere. From author to reader. From this world to another. From real worlds to imagined ones. From ourselves to characters. And from all of that back out/in to ourselves and each other. A grand, twisting, strange loop that exists only when a reader co-creates it by moving through it.

And therein lies the tale. Therein lies the only important reality with which I live day to day as a writer. Forget the publishing hysterics, the marketing hoopla. I follow/create strange loops every day. I go over and over them hoping to craft the most beautiful sequence of doors, the most gravitationally-powerful wormhole into meta-worlds that I find meaningful. Hoping that my meager invitation of words will be enough to compel a reader to bring my book into existence. It’s frought, this work. But it’s what I’ve been given to do.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Design, Expression, I:DEAS, Our digital culture, PAGE, Publishing, Writers and Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

This One My Niece Made

Thinking about Writing (and Design)

LOOKING AT, LOOKING FOR

She sits right on my desk. Peering at me just this way, day after day. My niece. She’s concentrating really hard because she’s taking a picture of herself. Or trying to. We’ve given her one of those cool little cardboard, throw-away cameras on a special trip to an amusement park and it’s been a great day and she’s taken a bunch of pictures of the sidewalk and people’s butts because they are at eye-level for her, but now, on the drive home, she’s thinking that if she turns that camera around and braces it on the carseat, she just might be able to take a picture of herself. Wow. So this is her pressing the button, wondering as she does so what’s going to come out. Because this is back before we could hold phones up and look at the result instantly. Back when photos were invisible, magical. You pressed the button. You mailed a strange metal capsule away, or handed a cardboard camera to some guy in a drugstore. Then you went home. You waited. Then an envelope came to you by mail or your mom drove you down and that same guy at the drugstore handed you an envelope full of prints and that was how, days later, you found out what happened when you pressed the button.

What I love about this picture is that she’s too absorbed to be self-conscious. Sheer thinking comes straight through the lens. Unposed. Poorly framed. Snap. Shot. She looks out at me every morning, though, of course, she’s not looking at me, she’s looking for herself. She reminds me to do the same when I’m writing. To look for things intensely. To concentrate. To figure things out. To restore the invisible in the process. The magic. Not foofy, fairy-dust magic, literal magic. Where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? magic. She reminds me to press the button. To capture moments without worrying about what I might be getting. To write on faith and then let go of it and then wait. Wait for things to develop. Go away for a while and come back and open the envelope and see what came through the lens. See what I was looking at while I was looking for. With any luck, there might be a few pictures in there, a few captured moments that tell me something as clearly and truly as this one my niece made.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Design, Expression, Family, I:DEAS, LIFE, PAGE, The Little Things, Writers and Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Shaggy and Nosy and Loud

Thinking about Writing

FIELD WORK 

A balmy Sunday afternoon. Bright sun. Cool air. I drive myself well out of town down a dusty road to a sheep farm. It features a modest farmhouse, not a mansion. Worn wooden fencing surrounded by fields on all sides, dry by now, the grass gone entirely yellow as summer ebbs. I’m not a farmer, I’m a book lover. I’ve come to join a bunch of like-minded, non-farming book-lovers in support of our county book festival.

It’s a fine afternoon. We make our way in and out of paddocks sipping local syrrah. We vie for slices of oven-fired pizza adorned with home-made cheeses and home-grown basils, drizzled with olive oil from the ranch next door. We’re here to celebrate books and food by celebrating books about food. We’re here to listen to two authors–Anne Zimmerman and Michele Anna Jordan–talk about a shared love: the writing of M.F.K. Fisher. Their conversation is soulful. Together they fill us in on the sorrows that darkened M.F.K. Fisher’s life, even as she turned out book after glorious book.

And then, right in the middle of a particularly moving moment, someone–could it be me?–makes the mistake of shaking some crumbs from her napkin. One minute we’re leaning in to absorb every last word from our guest speakers, the next: BAAAAA! Just as loud as you please. BAAAAA! One. Then another one. And another. They call it “bleating” for a reason. There’s nothing cute or lamb-like about the sound. Instead it’s piercing, nasal, strangled sheep screaming. Yelling back and forth across the paddock where we’re standing because some farm neophyte starts throwing crumbs around when it’s dinner time and we’re eating and they’re not. BAAAAA! Hey, that’s our paddock! BAAAAA! What gives? Where’s mine? One of the bigger ones, the ringleader, starts shoving his head through two wooden slats, trying to squeeze his wool-swollen body through a space barely big enough for his ears. BAAAAA!

I freeze. Thankfully, so does everyone else. I’m in civilized company here. Arts lovers all. They’re kind enough NOT to turn and look for the fool who’s managed to rile a herdful of starving quadrupeds. Instead, they stare straight ahead, trying to focus on poetic readings as the baaaa-ing subsides.

That leaves a golden retriever to provide the afternoon’s grace note. She’s clearly beloved of the farm owners. Gray-muzzled. Shambling with old age. The epitome of stealth, she circles among us. While everyone listens, she cleans up. Anything within tongue’s reach, on a stray plate or neglected tray, she snarfs. Snuffle snuffle. Slurp slurp. Licking her chops, she makes short work of our feast. Then, as the sheep chorus dies, she shuffles to center stage, just in front of our speakers, just this side of their beautifully sandaled feet, and squats to take a slow, incredibly slow, quiet pee. Blissful. With the sheep looking on. A little mozzarella hanging off one whisker.

Surely this has M.F.K. Fisher smiling. In fact, she probably orchestrated the whole thing from her heavenly rest, reminding us that things artful can never hold a candle to things shaggy and nosy and loud.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Going to Solace, Home, LIFE, PAGE, Small Towns, The Little Things, Writers and Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why I Live at the P.O.”

Thinking ’bout the South

SOCIAL MEDIA: OLD SCHOOL

Great New York Times article this morning on the vanishing of little post offices around this country. I was lucky enough to “come up,” as we say in the South, summering in a town which at the time wasn’t big enough to register as a town. There was no mail delivery (there still isn’t). Too mountainy. The roads are too narrow. So we had to go down to the P.O. to get our mail. Of course, we had to “go down” to get anything we might need because everything above us was wilderness. The world of human beings lay below. How we kids would bitch and moan about having to trudge down to get the mail. Because, of course, after the going down, there would a lot of steep climbing back up to get home. No matter where we went or what we did, there was always the climbing up. Always on foot, on our own two feet, in the steamy heat of a summer day or the scary pitch black of an evening. We complained while our mom told us to Get out of this house and don’t come back empty-handed. We were kids. Kids complain. But now I bless every day I had to walk to that post office. I miss the business of nosing into that room of funny, old-fashioned lock boxes, of running into this or that neighbor sorting junk mail into a giant round trash can. The older people would have driven down in their gigantic whales of old-people cars which they’d then ease back up to their driveways at .05 miles an hour. The pace of it! And our wonderful Post Mistress, Catherine, who had decorations and usually home-made cookies for holidays. It meant absolutely nothing to me then — or so I thought. But now it means the world.

The picture here–it’s a little piece of rug-hooking my mom did to commemorate things. Like everything she ever made, it says Here! Here I am! Here we are! This is Home! This is our town! The landmarks she chose to immortalize? From top to bottom: the local inn; the church–yes, round, with a red roof; our house, whose scale is blown up to be bigger than the inn (Here I am! mom was saying); at the bottom you see some stone gates. But that building with the flag in between: that’s the P.O. The Post Office. The hub. With its proud flag saying We’re official. This is an Official Place. I can feel my mother’s love of home in this piece. Mine too.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Family, Going to Solace, Home, LIFE, Small Towns, The Little Things, The South | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Villains

Thinking about our Great Wide World

WHEN TO FIGHT AND HOW

He buried the lead. In last Sunday’s NY Times Opinion section, Drew Westen wrote an article called “What Happened to Obama?” (Maureen Dowd quoted it a few days later.) I’m still thinking about it, not for the political content, but for Mr. Westen’s ah-ha moment in one of the last paragraphs. It’s the kind of insight we writers jump at:

“When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.”

Regarding this singular observation, I’m of two minds “like a tree with two blackbirds” (apologies to Wallace Stevens). On the one hand, I’m sick of villainizing. Movies pumped up with super-baddies who require superheroes. Novels opening with murder/mayhem all in that first sentence. Politics poisoned with character assassination. This Manichean good-bad thing by which we divide our own nature, our personal yin-yang into us vs. them, is a big problem globally. We render the “villain” as other than ourselves. Then he/she/it/they can be blown away in whatever fantasy of retribution soothes our helpless, paralysed, righteous hearts whether in art or video games or life itself.

But (here’s the second blackbird): there is surely villainy in this world. Villains, plural. Complex webs of evil. Institutional oppression. Most important, there’s everyday evil, that accretion of petty wrongs, Arendt’s banal surround, where, on top of everything, insult to injury, we must count ourselves among the villains because by turning a blind eye, by not fighting or fighting ineffectively, we perpetuate that which gradually erodes our lives.

That’s where Mr. Westen comes in. When we don’t identify a villain, he suggests, we collude. When we don’t name a villain, we fight poorly or not at all. Then the bad guys win. But when should we fight and how? Against what or whom? Can we permit a warrior spirit–that which comes up naturally in the face of injustice, cruelty and evil–can we permit such a spirit to inform a Zen approach? What’s a Gandhian hero to do? How should an MLK-Dalai-Lama-inspired heroine proceed? I’m of two minds, many minds frankly, and my characters are too…

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

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Postmodern

Thinking about Design

A PICTURE OF A PICTURE OF A PICTURE

When I say I live in a “postmodern” world (which I seldom do, but taking this snapshot made me think about it), what I mean is that I live “postmodern-ly.” To me (for me), the word “postmodern” works better as an adverb. A case in point: We’re out at Fort Baker on a Monday morning. Fort Baker is a former military campus at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Talk about gorgeous. Small working harbor. Public walks, picnic areas and stunning views of the bay and the bridge. It’s a very busy place on a weekend, filled with tourists and locals out for a day trip. But if you’re lucky enough to be able to sneak away on a Monday morning, it’s deadsville. Which is heaven.

Okay, so, it’s Monday and there’s nobody much there and we’re strolling. All is simple, elemental. Water. Sky. Fog rolling back. The pleasant dimpling of weathered planks beneath our feet. Screeling gulls overhead. We wander up a path onto a bluff and come upon a guy with a fishing rod. Two fishing rods, in fact. He’s working them both from way up on the rock. This is no weekend warrior. He’s wearing a jacket. That means he’s been there since early and he’ll be there ’til dark. His rods look like they mean business. His tackle box, on the other hand, couldn’t be less flashy. He’s got his lunch in there, a home-wrapped sandwich wedged in between various lures and bait. He neither speaks nor looks in our direction as we come into his space because he’s busy, by god. He’s fishing for his dinner, either his own or maybe somebody else’s for cash.

We’ve gone from Nature to Nature + Fisherman.  Technicolor postcard meets Hemingway. Then, as we round the bluff coming down off the rock, a BMW pulls up. Not in a parking space, mind you (the parking spaces are two steps away), but as close to the bluff as a BMW can get without driving onto it. Two guys hop out. Pricey shoes. Casual city wear. Probably famous. Probably faces I should recognize, but I don’t. One’s got a fancy video camera and tripod. In a heartbeat they’re setting up next to our Fisherman, ignoring him because they’re doing a stand-up shoot in this perfect, telegenic location with San Francisco in the background and — bonus aesthetics — a real fisherman for local color.

Naturally, I take the picture. We’ve got three guys who appear to be in the same place inhabiting totally different worlds. Overlapping, contiguous-discontiguous realities. Parallel universe stuff. (From now on, when I try to work my way through some article about string theory and branes and metaverses, I should pull this picture out to help me “picture” multiple dimensions.) But, of course, it gets better. Because I’m there too. Taking the picture. Layers upon layers. Someone could have gotten a great shot of me taking a picture of picture-takers taking a picture next to a fisherman who has become, by virtue of all these cameras, picturesque, framed by the picture of the bay.

Our experience is so layered these days. Maybe too layered. That’s what “postmodern” means to me. It’s an adjective, yes. A modifier of the world around us. Three guys did have to show up on the same rock at the same time. But more interesting (and sometimes more distressing) to me, is the adverb thing. We experience the world in a postmodern way. I took the picture. It’s something we do. So maybe it’s a verb. As in, we “postmodern” our lives…

I’m reminded of one of Robert McKee’s great insights. He’s the guru of story structure (see the link below). His seminars are a hell of a ride. I remember his suggesting that if stories seem different today, that has less to do with story structure or storytellers or story styles. What’s really different, he says, is us: the folks to whom stories are told. Because we’ve seen and heard so many stories by the time we hit kindergarten–zipping through time and space virtually, holographically, traveling around the world in our living rooms, having any and every reality available in our laps, on our phones. We’re flooded with stories. As a result, we can’t look at anything un-layered. We’re always taking a picture of a picture of a picture. Fractylizing by association. Compounding reference into irony.

I had a great time taking this snapshot. I like looking at it now. But as I do so (yet another layer), I feel both what is gained and what is lost as we crowd even our off-hand experiences with more-more-more, morphing snapshots into cultural commentaries, stuffing the frame. I love postmodern richness, but there’s a simplicity I sometimes miss, don’t you?

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Design, Expression, I:DEAS, LIFE, The Little Things, Uncategorized, Writers and Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Richard Jenkins

Thinking about the Performing Arts

GREAT ACTING MOMENTS

It’s about an hour and 22 minutes in. I know because, while I love the scene, I’m not that crazy about the movie so I’ve figured out how to time my tune-in. We’re talking Eat Pray Love. Up on the ashram roof. Richard Jenkins and Julia Roberts. Their work makes me wish there were Oscars for individual scenes. It’s the one where Richard (the character) tells Groceries (that’s what he calls her) how he lost everything and had to start over. It’s shot with such grace. We get Mr. Jenkins in profile. Ms. Roberts too. So that we’re not in their faces. So that they can shed any subtle awareness of camera and just play the scene for themselves, for each other, into the dirt, out to the sky. Oh my goodness, watch Richard Jenkins try with every fiber of his being NOT to cry. Watch him twist through agonizing silences, stop and start his words, bite on a fingernail, his face flushing as he does everything he can not to break down. To get technical for a second, it’s a textbook example of the relationship we directors/teachers are always looking for between the emotional life of the scene and the objectives/obstacles driving each character. It’s what makes US cry. And Julia Roberts is just as riveting, even though we see only the edge of her cheek, a single eyelash. She too goes red as she listens. She hardly moves and yet we’re aware she’s doing all she can to stay calm. Giving him lots of space. Trying to stifle, first her horror, then her pity. Her objective: be there for him; her obstacle: being there brings feelings that may shut him down. Watch her hand reflexively fly up to cover her mouth, then ease back to her lap. Therein lies the power of the scene. They are wonderful together, these two actors. Wonderfully present for each other. Because Richard Jenkins is able to go real and deep, Julia Roberts can too. He’s the scene partner any actor dreams about. Yet another example of an artist whose renown falls far behind his due.

© i.e. ideas expressed 2011

Posted in Acting and Actors, Artistry, Expression, STAGE (and Screen) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment