Saturday, October 23, 2010

"To Each Her Own Triceratops" at The NOT

A micro-story of mine appeared in Michael Solender's Dog Days of Summer anthology. The theme was summer. Because my imagination likes to be difficult, mine was about the summer the dinosaurs came back. The story, "To Each Her Own Triceratops," was featured this week over on Solender's NOT. You can read it here.

As an aside, thanks for all the kind wishes over the last week. I'd tell you how hard it is to abstain from writing, but then I'd have to write about it. Oh no - am I cheating right now?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: People Want Dark Fiction

The reader rolls her eyes at her friend and pushes the YA novel away.

“I don’t like that simpering crap. Fiction needs to be dark like real life. Lives don’t end with the good guy winning and faeries dancing. It’s twisted and gutwrenching—”

At which point an author looms over the divider between their tables and smashes her square in the mouth with his laptop. It’s a construction-yellow Toughbook, folded up into a tidy bludgeon.

The reader shrieks, while all the other diners freeze. Even her friend is shocked. The author, dressed in tweed and khakis, climbs the divider and mounts the reader’s table. Everyone’s eyes go up, not at the author, but at his direction. They’re like deer.

“You want it bleak, right?” he asks. It’s a rhetorical question, something that he can seldom pull off on the page but is so easy when you’re speaking out loud. “Got to be bleak! And violent!”

She scrambles to exit the booth, but he swings overhand and connects with her chin. She flails back into the cushions, stuck in the corner of the booth. Before she can contemplate another escape route, he begins swinging the Toughbook into her nose and mouth repeatedly. Its yellow plastic is speckled with red bits in no time.

The diners-cum-deer scatter for the exit. Even the reader’s friend, abandoning her French fries and YA Fantasy.

“Because you lead a joyless and hollow life, I’ve got to write stories validate it! If I write happy things you might be challenged to change. If you laugh at something other than sarcasm, you might grow a soul, and we hate believing in those!”

Her face is a red and pink paste. If she’s conscious, we can’t tell it by her eye movements. They’re erratic in an absent way.

“You want a dark ending?” he asks down at her. “Then don’t press charges. I won’t get brought to justice and you’ll live happily ever after with a mangled face. Choose your own adventure.”

He hops off the table and looks for napkins to wipe off his Toughbook. He hates writing with them dirty, and he has a great story idea.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: The Brilliant Scheme of Bit Torrent

You always hear conspiracy theories about the government inventing crack cocaine or time travel, but they never get credit for the beloved stuff. For instance, the government invented Bit Torrent. It was one of their easiest cover-ups - point the finger at a scruffy white guy in a t-shirt and everybody thinks, "Of course he made that computer thing. Now shut up while I download all nine seasons of Scrubs."

Bit Torrent was a simple program. It was P2P, connecting your computer to every other one with a user that had or wanted a certain file. A movie, an album, etc. People scaled back using normal websites to download because all the users connecting to a Torrent allowed it to go faster, or for them to browse more conveniently, or eventually, because it had taken over the market. It caused trillions of dollars of media to be accessed freely. It became the platform for media piracy, just like they wanted.

The government had set this all in motion. They received obscene campaign donations from Hollywood and music moguls. Who would believe they’d help college students pirate blockbusters?

While Bit Torrent was on the rise, other companies came up as well. Netflix, which offered to deliver DVD’s to your house or let you watch things instantly. Wal Mart for people who might buy things in person, and for internet shoppers, both very consciously telling you that you were getting a cutrate deal. Nobody would patronize these services, of course, so long as they used Bit Torrent.

That’s when the last part of the plan came through. Internet Service Providers everywhere throttled bandwidth – meaning all those HD videos you were downloading at 800 K were suddenly going at 50 K. They knew exactly how to do it because they had the code. They had been planning the slowdown all along. An hour download turned into a day. The vehicle Bit Torrent had built, of instant free gratification, slammed on the breaks. Before this time, 50 K per second was actually a good speed. Now it was absolutely unacceptable, and rendered Bit Torrent useless. But because it controlled the market, there was no serious competition. There was no other program to run to. All you had were a dozen other slow Bit Torrent clients.

Meanwhile, you could watch that movie you wanted over on Netflix instantly, for a moderate fee. And while people blasted Supernatural or American Dad for being garbage, that garbage had filled an hour-long void in their lives every week for a while. They were hooked on crap. The options were either to tune in when it was on, a skill the next generation had not learned at all, or pick it up from Amazon for 56% off with free shipping on orders over $25. It’d get there faster than the throttled Bit Torrent would download it, and it was sort of a deal, so they bought it in bulk while writing negative reviews of the shows on their blogs. Bit Torrent had been the most expensive advertising campaign in history.

You wouldn’t believe what Youtube is for.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Appearances in Toast

He didn’t look like Jesus to me. In fact, he looked like a girl. The long hair – I guess it suggests different things to different people. But it was my toast, and by the way the nooks and crannies were burned, I thought the face that appeared in it was too narrow to be a guy, let alone a god. The eyes drooped, and if there was a mouth then it was gaping. It was a sad face. A ghost face. So maybe not Jesus in my toast, just the Holy Ghost. I pretended to scarf it down, because if Mom knew it survived she would have built a shrine around it. I built it a nest of napkins and hid it behind the textbooks on my shelf. At night I’d bring my ghost toast out, to chat. I figured it was safe at night, when anyone who might see was unconscious, and ghosts like the night. It’s never haunted me and never gone moldy. I talk to it, ask it for bread’s opinions on things. It doesn’t answer often. Mostly its char face simply stares out at my wallpaper, mouth wide open. Kind of like it's hungry.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Writer’s Exhaustion, OR, Writer’s Block is Good for You

In 9th grade Social Studies we learned three major things about Japan. First, that Admiral Perry and his U.S. fleet had royally screwed them over. Second, that women were still struggling for respect. Last and most interesting to me, that businessmen in their twenties were dying from overwork. “Karoshi” was sudden stress-related death such as from stroke. The documents claimed it resulted from a mixture of demanding corporate culture and inherited ideas of samurai dedication. Like many teens I was unhealthily cynical and thought the whole thing was both fake and deserved.

I’ve been thinking about karoshi for the last few weeks. My arms are shaking. I have slept about twelve hours in the last four days, and no two of those hours have been in a row. My syndrome-related pain is so acute that I can’t exercise. I can feel the swelling in my lungs and esophagus, the tender heat-like pain when I exhale. I’ve long known that mental stress worsens this syndrome’s severity. But I think, “Have to work through it. I’ve only submitted twenty-one short stories this quarter.” I turned twenty-nine this month and am far from famous. There’s so much work to do.

I have sworn to stop. No more shorts after I reach thirty-five submissions. Four more in this file folder, submit them, and finish. It was “two more” this morning, but I argued myself up.

It’s a vain promise. Rationally, I ought to stop right now. When I open up the vampire story I’ve been wrestling with, I can’t read it. I’ve edited five drafts and seven revisions of those drafts. Now when I look at the page I cannot focus the words into sentences. My vision gets a little fuzzy, and my brain goes right along for the ride. Syntax falls apart and I notice the shaking in my arms gets stronger. Last night I tried to convince myself that shaking was a muscle memory urging me to reach out and type.

This is a fatigue that has not gone away with a little rest; coming back the next day, I find the same problems with my work and my health. Nobody in college told me what this is. I’m calling it writer’s exhaustion. It is a burnout that screws with you on technical writing, in critical thinking, and your whole frame of mind. It’s made me, as best I can tell, incredibly unpleasant to be around. I’m chipper for twenty seconds before this fatigue dries me up and I get snippy; I yelled at someone over how to clean a blender this afternoon. It’s always worse directly after I write. The blender episode was right after finishing a murder scene. I need to do fewer of those.

The worst is that with this intense mental fatigue, I still want to write. I’m rambling this first draft into a tape recorder so I can type it up when I’m more lucid. I’m doing it with no irony whatsoever, which is, I guess, an even greater irony.

In college I struggled with writer’s block. Mine was never a deficiency of ideas. I could come up with a hundred bad ideas before you came up with two good ones. My blockage was perfection. I insisted that every paragraph be pristine on the first draft. The epic novels I wanted to embark upon had to be thoroughly plotted without much notation, since notes were themselves imperfect. I only squeaked out one short story my entire first term, set in a world I spent at least two hundred hours putting together. When the professor asked how much I’d written for this world, looking to indulge in the enthusiasm of a young Fantasy nerd, I admitted, “about thirty.” His frown still haunts me.

The best writing advice I ever got in person was from another professor, Rebecca Godwin. I described my writer’s block to her. This cheery lady was remarkably stoic. She had no sympathy and immediately launched into anecdotes about her time at an ad agency. Perhaps she’d once been like me, but she couldn’t remember if she had. Her department had to produce new material every day and if it sucked then they had to roll with it or they’d be fired. She didn’t say it, but she expressed this thing I carry around: that perfectionism is a luxury.

I had to wade through my own emotional mire. I could advise anyone else through theirs (most of us think we can do that), and I did so for some Freshmen. Nothing you can write will be enjoyed by everyone – not the Bible, not the Constitution, not Shakespeare. I told them they couldn’t aim for it, and they looked at me like a genius. Yet I was deathly afraid of negative reaction. To this day any negative feedback makes me cringe inside, but back then it stayed my hand entirely and pre-emptively. Fear of negative response, fear of incorrect syntax, fear of typos and logical loopholes and saying something somebody else said first (darn you, Yann Martel, for beating me to “fig mints”).

I only overcame these issues after falling on them over and over again. I did public readings to unhappy audiences, and sometimes got them to laugh. I did some performances that would have humiliated me if I hadn’t embraced them (there’s nothing for the ego like stuffing a canteen into your shirt to mimic breasts to play an old crone). I took shallow advice like, “You could be a novelist if you wrote 1,000 words a day,” and did my damnedest to ford the shallow waters, because over time routines erode what prevents them. I added to my novels every day, often with stuff that would only make me laugh, but at least I was getting somewhere. Soon I posted routinely to a blog, and later, posted daily. With hesitation gone, the fountain of a thousand bad ideas got tapped. Bad ideas – ones a literary critic might say were bad, ones my roommate might, or a teacher, or an imaginary cynical teen on a message board somewhere. I waded in that fountain, trying to filter out the ones I genuinely liked despite all the imaginary naysayers I had.

For a while I got a brand new problem: writer’s plenty. I had so many ideas I was afraid to write any of them, because in penning the first I’d forget the second. This silliness cost me months of work and perfectly workable ideas.

One night, when the ideas were so plentiful that I couldn’t focus on the TV, I finally did something about it. I opened a Word file and jotted a couple lines down. Then I opened another, and put down a title. A third, and typed out three lines of dialogue. A fourth, and a fifth, until I had thirty-two documents, exhausting my muse. With every story accounted for by some reminder or placeholder, it became a question of which seemed most attractive. There was no fear an idea would be lost on the hard drive.

Since then I’ve jotted down notes on the black spaces in a program at a play, and on recycling bin paper in waiting rooms, and even the terrible cliché of the backs of envelopes. I have gotten at least ten stories off the white space on envelopes. Have the ideas anywhere, get the kernels out and save them for when the work can be done. Then, of course, make sure you do the work. An easy formula. I whizzed along so much that I ditched word minimums, because I couldn’t keep track of how much work I did throughout the day.

It’s been three or four years of this. That first night ended with shakes of laughter. Tonight it is a medical tremor. I had this condition back then, and back in college, and back in Middle School when I decided I wanted to tell stories. But tonight and for the last week I have been acutely aware that if I do not stop writing, it will stop me.

Writer’s exhaustion. I’ve produced so much that I can’t stop thinking about the work, and at the same time am so burned out that I’m messing it up. I forgot to delete one of the thirty-four occurrences of my name from my Writers of the Future entry, which will cause it to be disqualified. I had been looking over that document for half an hour before I submitted it and did not notice what was right in front of my eyes. It was only last night as I lay in bed that I realized it.

Beyond the typos and brainos, I am getting sicker. There is no day when I do not feel guilt for not writing, even on days when I have high output. I’ll try to unwind and half an hour into a videogame I’ll think how lazy this makes me. How lazy for not writing more, and when I write more, for not writing better, and when I write better, for not having enough published and not being far enough into my career and, at some point, some god whispers about what they do to you first when they want to destroy you.

I can’t help but think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. She felt we put too much stress on our artists as a society, and so wound up with Woolf, Hemingway, Cobain and many others killing themselves. I’m not saying that writing (or writing alone) drove any of these people to suicide, but there is a distinct need for certain artistic people to take perspective and care.

My case is severe, in that my health turns stress into malady. I’m a psychosomatic realist and physiological drama queen. Of course, my case is also very not severe compared to Ms. Woolf going back up the beach for more rocks. But I feel it’s important to express that there is an opposite to writer’s block that is potentially more dangerous and that may lie in wait for a lot of people who are trying blindly to escape it.

I also think about other occupations. The stock broker, the plumber and the cable TV installer have days off. They have their own demands and are all tougher on the body than I could take. But they do not wake up Saturday and fear they’re behind on that novel. Maybe they wake up afraid about car payments or fertility, but those are human regrets a writer also gets. They may anticipate when work resumes, but it has a clear starting and stopping point, so they cannot loathe themselves like this (or at least I hope they don’t). In this vacuum of responsibility, I’ve somehow gotten to the point where most of my waking hours belong to worrying about some kind of story.

At the same time, this is not an addiction. I cringe when writers compare their craft to addiction. A heroin addict shuffles out onto the street to satisfy dependency, perhaps with a glimmer of future pleasure, but he does not feel the obligation I do. I feel obliged to the work, the market I’m going to submit to, and to the audience I’d like to have. It is every bit as conscious as it is unconscious. Somewhere out there is a real writing addict who starves to death rather than leaving her keyboard. The rest of us make decisions.

I love stories, I love telling them, and I love reading the good ones. But I’m making the decision to stop for a while. I hope to only stop for a couple weeks. I doubt I’ll last that long – if you’re reading this, then I not only recorded it, but typed it up. Probably did a few drafts. I’ll lie in bed tonight thinking over the way the shapes of the paragraphs compliment each other.

I hope good sense will get me to take a deep break and that this break will fix things. Not a day off, because you don’t take a day off walking when you break your leg. When it heals, I’ll approach again and monitor myself so that I don’t go too far. I’m pretty sure I know what novel I’ll begin working on next, too. But for now, I’ve had a migraine for at least 36 hours and the sound of a door slamming causes my inner eardrum to spasm like someone is jabbing it with a pipe cleaner. I believe in karoshi.

Please take care of yourselves.

(As pertains to the Bathroom Monologues, they’re going to continue daily. Did you really think you could trust John? He’s written a few weeks of material in advance for this literary vacation. We hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to leave comments or start discussion below - he'd love your feedback.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Indiviso

She showed me a room that looked more like a casino than a math lab. Hundreds of men and women in various conditions of dress, from underwear to lab coats to three-piece suits, worked busily on hulking laptops equipped with levers and jacked into four additional screens. Every so often somebody’s quad of screens would flash. They’d smile, then sink back into work like a gambler feeding quarters into the slots.

I asked, “What are they doing?”

Pi beamed at her flock of mathematicians. “We’re working on the answer.”

“The answer to what?”

“You know,” she said, waving her middle and index fingers in what most people would consider the sign of the cross, though using the two fingers to her meant the pound sign. “ Life. The universe. Everything.”

Being someone who reads Douglas Adams and thinks himself too clever, I asked, “Have you tried forty-two?”

“Forty-two?” Her face wrinkled at me. “That’s divisible by at least four numbers. There’s no way that’s the answer.”

“The answer can’t be divisible by four numbers?”

“Realistically, it can’t be divided by any numbers. Not even itself. Otherwise we’d have calculated it by now.”

I knew enough math to disagree. “It’s not a number if it can’t be divided by itself.”

“It can be the unique number. The original number.” She made her pound sign again.
“We call it ‘Indiviso.’”

“So you figured it out?”

“No, just got the name ready for it. Naming stuff is way easier than getting to it. It’s probably not supposed to be conceivable.” She folded her arms and regarded the rows of mathematicians. Somebody's screen flashed gold, then went back to streams of binary. “But if it is, math is doing its half of the work.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Supernatural Warehouse

There is an audio edition of this monologue. To listen either click the triangle on the left to begin streaming audio, or click this text to download the MP3.

Shackled serial killers, revolutionaries in iron muzzles, lobotomized banshees, chemically sterilized succubi, single malt water elementals, and werewolves that only salivate when I ring the dinner bell. De-fanged vampires, de-horned unicorns, de-winged angels and demonized saints. Fire magi covered in sulfur, terminal necromancers, and wizards who are allowed to keep their wands but not their fingers. This prison is a warehouse and I am a catalog of torture and disaster. What would you like? A troll sun-dried into a permanent statue? A giant squid so thirsty its tentacles are cracking? I am positively overstocked on little prophetic children that can no longer tell the future because I’ve made them afraid to dream. Or perhaps you have a child – I have faeries that don’t believe in themselves, in both insecure and existential varieties. Perfect for pets. I’ll grant you some for profit, because money keeps my inventory full, but this is a place of research. I tell you that if there is a magic thing on this continent then I have it and have ruined it. Broken and alive. No formaldehyde, no mystical nonsense or textbook theory. I have everything ready for interview and experiment. You want your class to really know what ghosts are like? I’ve got ten haunted houses that owe me mortgages. Gryphons? Shrink at the sight of a whip and a birdcage. A golem or gargoyle? A closet full, filed down to the head so they can’t get away. I can get you anything from any book, compliant and whimpering. It’s all for knowledge.
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