thomasibenton

Fictionish tales of hillbillies and stuff.

Month: September, 2014

Disaggregated

I am not the first, or the smartest, or the most thorough to observe the massive disaggregation happening to all media in a cadence with technology. As technology builds upon itself exponentially, so does the disaggregation, albeit as a lagging indicator.

If you wanted to distribute a book, you used to need monks to laboriously copy the words by hand–up until printing presses made monasteries unnecessary in the literary business. Eventually printing presses became sufficiently cheap and common to permit firebrands like Thomas Paine (nice name on that fellow, btw) to rouse the rabble with pamphlets. Add in the telegraph, and even seeming limitations of space and time no longer stood as barriers to near immediate knowledge.

The same story applied to “new” media. Used to be, you had three television channels and a few radio stations, the one’s within broadcast distance from your antenna. Then you could get dozens, and then hundreds of television channels on cable. Soon, satellite offered those channels to even those who lived beyond the reach of coax. Radio went satellite, too. The few slots for talking heads and perky voices opened up to permit a few more in. But now you can download more podcasts than any person could listen to in a lifetime, and YouTube has an unwatchable amount of video. There are seemingly more slots for media members than there are media consumers.

When the means of production becomes cheap enough, there really remains nothing for us proletariate to seize. I am blogging on a free account, no seizing required–just registration and a tolerance for the occasional ad. I can publish as many books as I want, should I lower my standards sufficiently, and I can podcast and even shoot video of myself for everyone to watch if I harbored sufficient narcissism.

I am not even close to being the first to observe any of this. The monks no longer stand between me and readers, the television executive no longer blocks the viewers from your show idea, and we all get to be artists if we have the courage. Now the only gatekeepers we need to please are, well, you.

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90%

I have heard it said that ninety percent of life is showing up. More than one person has told me that, so I assume that someone famous said it first.

[brief break for internet searching . . .The Google Machine suggests to me that the famous person in question might be Woody Allen, which makes me feel a little dirty. The Google Machine also tells me that he may have assigned a different percentage of life to showing up than ninety, but no matter. To steal a line: I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it. Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.]

I have found plenty of success in my Real Life, the life not documented in blog posts and tweets, and as much as I would like to attribute that success to my personal brilliance and work ethic, the overwhelming majority of that success came from simply showing up. Whatever personal brilliance and a strong work ethic I may have doesn’t go very far if I don’t report for duty regularly, ready to work hard at being brilliant on a task at hand.

I see no reason why writing is any different. In fact, I see lots of reasons why writing should be the same.

Depending upon when I draw the line between wanting to write and actually trying to write, I have been seriously writing around my day job for somewhere between one and five years. I have met some success with my writing endeavor–you’re reading this, aren’t you?–and I now have a sufficient sample size to observe that I have been vastly more successful when I actually show up at a keyboard or pad or at least a slab of touch sensitive glass and write something. I have had more success of late, and that increased success corresponds with (brace yourself for this) actually showing up more.

Brilliance and work ethic certainly matter, as do less virtuous things like luck and timing. But those are the remaining ten percent; none of those can even come into play if you don’t show up.

I’ve made an appointment with myself.

Lowering the Marital Bed

I spent the weekend lowering our marital bed.

That sounds both more scandalous and fun than it really was.

I don’t mean that my wife and I spent the weekend doing something that lowered the value of our proverbial marital bed in some symbolic way.

I physically lowered our freaking bed. As in, I took a saw (two saws, actually) and lopped several feet of height off of our bed.

For reasons not particularly germane to this post, my wife and I were long that rare couple in their thirties and then their forties who slept in a loft bed. We had an over-engineered custom built monstrosity of heavy lumber that fit so well into our peculiar modern-industrial-barn design aesthetic that we dreaded having to part with it when age inevitably left us unable to climb up and down six feet for sleeping and . . . other things better done in bed.

Sooner than we expected, for health reasons also not germane to this blog post, the climbing up and down became an issue. A near fall late last week meant the bed would have to be replaced with something without a ladder. For both convenience and safety, I set about disassembling the old bed Saturday morning, suspecting that it would be replaced by a mattress on the floor for the short term, and some boringly average bed in the longer term.

While moving the 482 pounds of books from the shelves under the elevated platform, an overambitious thought came to me, with some encouragement from my wife: why not just cut the loft bed down to size, so to speak?

In retrospect, one reason why not to do something like that would be that our bedroom was many steps and a flight of stairs apart from all of my tools. Rather a lot of tools were required, and even when mostly disassembled most of the components of the loft bed were as heavy as the sins I don’t believe in. Fortunately, our Cozy Boudoir has a concrete floor, so once I lugged a power saw into place and had the legs of the old bed sufficiently detached I could cut the bejeezus out of them right there in our bedroom. We just had to sweep up afterwards.

The process of lowering our marital bed wasn’t tricky so much as it was time consuming and painstaking. More energy was spent planning, preparing, and cleaning up than actually doing the exciting and slightly scary sawing. While I started out thinking that I was lowering the bed, by the end I realized that I was evolving the bed to meet our needs now. The old version of our bed was quirky as all hell, standing taller than me and seemingly as heavy as a small car, but the new version looks really damn good.

The new version of the bed is a lot easier to get in and out of, too.

There may even be a metaphor in this story somewhere. The truth is like that, sometimes.

Distracted reading

I am trying to read a lot this weekend, particularly from journals I would like to submit to. This is all short fiction, not necessarily quick and easy reads, mind you, but stuff I ought to be able to finish in a single go.

Nevertheless, I enjoy interacting with my wife and children, and the animals around here demand interaction sometimes. The girls acquired an extra kitten this summer. We named her Fizzbit, which I have lengthened to GoddammitFizzbitStopThat when she flays my exposed flesh unexpectedly in the middle of a story.

I cannot always read a story in a single go.

Perhaps this would work better with a tighter genre focus. The rather diverse set of journals I am reading reflects my limited patience for writing a single genre, with some general fiction, some science fiction, some hillbilly-Americana type stuff, and a few personal essays.

Occasionally, after staunching the bleeding I will pick up a different journal than the one I left. So it came to pass that I went from reading about an Indian-American woman returned to her parents’ home town regretting both a prior marriage some and an even earlier abortion to reading about a disembodied girl floating through Jupiter’s atmosphere, and I thought to myself, “I didn’t know the air was that heavy in India.”

I have concluded that I need another cup of coffee.

Unhealthy Enthusiasms

We all have enthusiasms, things we like. Football or opera, video games or cooking, volcano watching or organic gardening — we all have something that we like to do or learn about. If you are fortunate, your enthusiasms correspond roughly with how you spend your time. Better yet, you may be lucky enough that someone actually pays you to pursue your enthusiasm.

Some people, unfortunately, have unhealthy enthusiasms. I don’t doubt that narcotics are tons of fun to take — why else would anyone take them, as Irvine Welsh explained — but just because something is fun doesn’t make it healthy, and it doesn’t mean that the enthusiasm will even stay fun. Enthusiasms can be unhealthy in terms of the actual harm it does to body and mind, but also by pushing aside other things in life. We all know this.

I have recently concluded that novelists are people with unhealthy enthusiasms.

I don’t mean that all novelists are necessarily using prodigious amounts of drugs or anything, although that is not exactly unknown. I have simply concluded that voluntarily producing a written work of novel length requires the author to be in the grip of an unhealthy obsession. That obsession need not be “to write a book.” In fact, I suspect that simply wanting to write a book, no matter how fervently, will not propel anyone through the ordeal of actually, you know, actually writing a book. The object is simply too diffuse to propel the writer onward.

The would-be novelist requires an unhealthy enthusiasm, an utter obsession in something more specific than a longing for completing the work. A novelist needs an unhealthy enthusiasm with telling a story, with playing with an idea, with expressing a point of view, that simply removes the option of not writing the novel. To have written something is pretty cool, but the actual process of writing inevitably degrades at some point in the process. Some times along the way, the words won’t come, the characters won’t ring true, and the plot will fall apart. At those points, the entire ordeal will be considerably less fun than mopping the kitchen floor, changing the oil in the car, or getting a filling put in by the dentist. If you can stop writing, you will. Period.

Not finishing the novel you think you want to write may not be a sign of your laziness so much as an indication that you are actually able to function as a mostly normal human being. So don’t beat yourself up over all those barely begun books on your hard drive, because your family, pets, and personal wellbeing are likely the better for your abandoning the projects.

Me, I can’t stop working on this damn thing.

The beauty of writing many Things

Over the weekend, I thought I would do a quick tally of how many Things I have written over the last year or so. That seemed simple enough, just a matter of counting files. I soon discovered that the task was not so simple, though, because of all the different types of Things I write and all of the different places I put those Things. So I gave up getting a precise count, and instead I settled for scanning my writing folder on my Mac hard drive, iCloud on my Mac and iPad, my DropBox Scrivener projects, the odd bits of notes I have made in Vesper on my iPhone, the work related Things I have stored elsewhere, and on an on and on until I decided I had scanned enough.

By any reasonable measure, I have written well over a hundred Things in the past year. Some are work Things, some are blog Things. Some are essay Things, some are memoir Things, some are fiction Things. I have attempted to craft maudlin hillbilly stories, dystopian science fiction, humor, and romance. I even made one ill-fated stab at erotica. I made a promise to myself a year ago to fight my perfectionist tendencies by writing many Things to see what would happen. What happened as a result was a proliferation of files containing those Things.

You know what else happened? Even though most of my Things aren’t very good, I really like 4 or 5 of them. Those are pretty Good Things. I figure that about 3% of the Things I have written over the past year are truly Good Things, which sounds like a pretty bad batting average, but do you know how many Good Things I wrote in the twelve months before I promised myself to write many Things? You guessed it: zip, zero, zilch.

So, writing no Things at all under the paralysis of perfectionism resulted in no Good Things, which seems obvious enough. Getting over myself and writing many Things resulted in at least a few Good Things, and those make all the other Things worth the effort. I even have a feeling that my Good Thing to Bad Thing ratio is improving of late, now that I have practiced by writing so many Things.

Maybe if you are worried that your Things aren’t the Good Things you want, the answer is to stop worrying so much about making each Thing a Perfect Thing; instead, write many Things, and some of them just may be Good Things.