Archive for the ‘Art’ category

The White Album

November 20, 2016

For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.

It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968.  I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before.  That album exploded into public consciousness.  I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967).  That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music.  My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.

We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.

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And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.

It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation.  It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected.  It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.

The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it:  the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man….  I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.

But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.

The summer and fall of ’68

That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread.  Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together.  Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.

With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November.  My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.

The oldest son of the family was a renegade.  I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals.  He drove a flash pick-up.  He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.

But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up.   He had The White Album!  In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go.  He was eager to play the first LP for us.  The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little.  And that was the first time I heard The White Album.  We were all amazed by it.  It was an event. “Listen to this!”

I’ve recently found a  remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.

So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.

the-beatles-pr-608x408From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation.  The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.

But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.

There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.

But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.

The Ukraine girls really knock me out

Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”

Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.

There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality.  They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think.  For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.

And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.

One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is.  The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.

I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).

Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio.  I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).

And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.

I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly.  He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to.  It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two.  Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up.   I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes.  And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it.  There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”

It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track.  Not any more.  I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.

It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now.  Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.

It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.

The Beatles.  They were a force.

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Summer 2016: Ugly Haircuts, Adult Coloring Books, Pokémon & Trump

August 13, 2016

Once in a while I put my head up just to see what’s going on in the world, and it never fails to bemuse and alarm me.  I did something similar back in 2008, and traumatized as I became at that time, I have only now attempted to take another peek.

First off, I have to say as a developing curmudgeon that men’s haircuts, the trendy ones, have become incredibly ugly.  I am of the generation that enjoyed flowing locks, although in certain cases I admit that style might have had a few scraggly, greasy, over-the-face messes.  (If you would like to relive those fabled days of yesteryear, you can listen to the song Hair….)

However this new crop often looks like a small dead furry animal draped front to back over an otherwise shaved head.

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It’s just the young trying to be different, I know.  But I would like to see long hair and bell bottom jeans come back some day… although I’m glad the one fellow above has maintained the tradition of the tie-dyed shirt.

Adult Coloring Books

They were probably out there before now, but as I hang out in bookstores, those that remain, I’ve come across adult coloring books a lot this year.

As an adult, by appearances anyway, I wouldn’t be caught dead breaking out my crayons and trying, tip of my tongue peeking out in concentration, to put colors in the little spaces.  But I guess people are buying them and doing just that, probably in the privacy of their own homes.

There are an amazing variety of them: The Great Canadian Cottage Colouring Book, a Vogue Fashion Coloring Book, Paris Street Style: A Coloring Book, Chill The F*ck Out: A Swear Word Coloring Book, The Aviary: Bird Portraits to Color, and the Meditation Coloring Book.

All seem to be predicated on the idea of relieving stress, which is a good thing.  And it is good to get some color in our lives in the midst of the drabness of city streets and monochrome workplaces.

An article in Medical Daily, The Therapeutic Science of Adult Coloring Books declares that adult coloring verges on “art therapy” and the activity helps people to focus and relax.

Pokémon Go

As a semi-luddite, as indicated by my lack of a smart phone, I know only a little about Pokémon Go, all of it hearsay.  (I’m proud to state that I own a wise phone – a flip cell phone – that gives me as much interactivity as I can stand.)

But this game has taken over much of the social media world it seems, and it is a fascinating combination of the virtual and the real.

It basically is a GPS game that takes off on the similar pursuit of geocaching and that activity’s variations on orienteering.

But Pokémon Go has figured out how to monetize geocaching in a way that captures, among others, an entire generation of adults who once played Pokémon on the old Game Boy video game system.

The intriguing thing about the game is its real world activity, and how players will engage in adventures, even dangerous ones, in pursuit of the wild Pokémon.

There are the players who broke into a zoo in Toledo, Ohio to catch a (virtual) Pokémon near a (live) tiger.

Australian players invaded a police station to catch a Sandshrew (whatever that is…).

Some entrepreneurial folks are taking to Craigslist to advertise their services as professional Pokémon hunters.

And then there are the criminally inclined who use Pokémon lures to gather players to isolated areas to mug them, as happened recently in Missouri.

On a more upbeat note, as a welcome diversion for hospital patients, some are even catching Pokémons in their beds.

Trump

This is certainly the summer of Trump in the US presidential election campaign.

What can really be said about Trump that hasn’t been said?  Senator Elizabeth Warren has him nailed: “Donald Trump is a loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud who has never risked anything for anyone and who serves no one but himself.”

I am leaning towards the view, though, after all I’ve read and seen that the man is actually mentally ill.  He may be sick in his brain.  His father died of dementia, and we may be seeing the playing out of the very early stages of such a syndrome.

Beyond the cagey  goading of the media with outrageous statements which are retracted, sort of, as jokes, there are times when he is incoherent and quite muddled.  I’m thinking especially of his response in an interview to questions about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s Crimea.  But there are many other examples.

This idea and concern about Trump’s mental and brain health is not new.  From psychologist Dan McAdams’ piece in the Atlantic, to neuroscientist Howard Gardner’s analysis quoted in RawStory, to Kathleen Parker’s column, “Could Trump Be Suffering from Dementia?” , to an article by Steve King, “Does Donald Trump Have Dementia?” the suspicion is certainly out that the man may not be all there.  Perhaps he will end up a figure of pity rather than scorn.

The current Time magazine article on Trump, “Inside Donald Trump’s Meltdown” gives rise to the same impression.  Reportedly a Clinton campaign aide said of the billionaire’s recent antics, “On other campaigns, we would have to scrounge for crumbs. Here, it’s a fire hose. He can set himself on fire at breakfast, kill a nun at lunch and waterboard a puppy in the afternoon. And that doesn’t even get us to prime time.”

At least the Olympics are on now (with their own set of problems in the midst of athletic excellence) to display a better side of humanity.

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Sources for images:

http://mulpix.com/instagram/shaved_bald_hair.html
http://www.menshairstylestoday.com/shaved-sides-hairstyles-for-men/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/426786502166444248

Whatever Happened With The Voynich Manuscript?

February 29, 2016

Back in 2010, I wrote a post called I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript.  I figure it’s time to see what has happened since then.  Has any of the mystery been dispelled?

In brief, from that old post, the Voynich Manuscript originated at least as far back as the 1400s, and was written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown.  It was also decorated with unknown plants and star constellations, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the manuscript’s features are the proliferation of theories about it, ranging from that it’s a complete hoax to being authored by Leonardo da Vinci, or that it was written in the language of the Aztecs.

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The 240-page document can be now seen in its full glory on The Internet Archive.  It’s amusing that one of the reviews there claims the enigmatic writings explain how women think and their minds work.  A true mystery explained, if we could only read it!

So what has happened since 2010?

In one blog devoted to the Voynich that I referenced in the old post, Thoughts About the Voynich Manuscript, there have been entries as recent as July, 2015.  Apparently people are still doing statistical analyses of the characters and drawings, and dating inks and papers to still no definite conclusions. There are those who still think it is a hoax.  Theories continue to be devised about it, so many and so harebrained that the proprietor of that blog had to stop in 2013 providing a form for people to give their ideas on the matter.

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The other blog I referenced, Cipher Mysteries, is also still around and has more recent entries, up to February, 2016.

As the title of the blog indicates the author remains highly interested in the unknown alphabet and cryptology of the work.  He even investigates other unusual medieval manuscripts also written with unknown scripts and alphabets.

I remember reading a couple of years ago that someone claimed to have deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich.  A professor of applied linguistics in England, Stephen Baxter, believed he’s picked out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams.  He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

He made his announcement with the hopes that others could follow up and decipher more.  Baxter believed that the book is “probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.”

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Back to the Aztecs: also in 2014, according to Wikipedia, Arthur Tucker and Rexford Talbert claimed they had identified plants and animals in the Voynich with the same drawings in a 15th Century Aztec herbal.  They claimed that this was Colonial Spanish in origin, and specifically the Nahuatl language.

This proposal has not been taken up by other Voynich researchers.

I kind of like this theory that I found on the site Mirrorspectrum: Your daily source of news — “Given the fact that the ancient manuscript depicts star charts that are unknown to us, the Voynich Manuscript could have been created by a being not from Earth, who during the 1400’s crash-landed on Earth and created the manuscript documenting life on Earth.”

The enigma has even stimulated the creation of a symphony by Hanna Lash, composer-in-residence of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.  Each movement in the symphony is based on the rough divisions of the manuscript.  The first movement, “Herbal,” debuted last year and the second, “Astronomical” is due this spring.

The conundrum of the Voynich Manuscript is so complete that it becomes a screen upon which to project whatever rational, or obsessive, or delusional construct one may be predisposed to make.  The most appropriate response, up to now, may well be the one the composer is making.

If you’re interested, you can download the Voynich Manuscript to take a look yourself, from the site HolyBooks.com.

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The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On

February 11, 2015

I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
— Steve Miller, Jet Airliner

At this point on my guitar learning adventure (as previously chronicled in such posts as The Impatience of Learning Guitar and Manchild with Guitar), I’m trying to challenge myself to play in more difficult territory and perhaps be able to claim to have some intermediate skills eventually, rather than to be just a beginner.

I’m still taking lessons from the same rock guitarist and music producer I’ve gone to for several years.  They are funny kind of lessons, but they have evolved over time and suit me.  I bring in a piece I want to learn how to play.  One time it was a simplified, if still complicated, Bach tune, another time a very fast (for me) blues-rock number.

I’m not quite sure what Eddy thinks when I bring along something like these to learn, at the edge of what I’m able to do.  He very patiently goes through each piece with me as we work on phrasing and technique.  As a working musician and quite a good teacher for a young guy, he’s a master at simplifying, if only temporarily, until I get up to speed on difficult passages.   I tend to throw my hands up in dismay at my effrontery in even thinking I can play them.  But we work through that, and with more practice than I like to say, I make progress.

Because Eddy loves to work with music, even my efforts, he’s taken to recording them in his home studio.  I think he likes to record me because I’m not going anywhere in particular with what I’m doing, and there are no expectations or demands or requirements on him for the finished results.  We just get to play around.

I now have a half-dozen or more recordings of my renditions.  They sound pretty good after he’s done splicing and editing them meticulously together.  They’re fun to have and to show off to any friends or family whom I can impose upon….  And I get to learn a little about music production, although half the time I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.

All Along the Watchtower

My latest project is to learn to play All Along the Watchtower, that wonderful version of a Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.  I think that’s my favorite Hendrix tune.  So I gathered together a bunch of instructional videos off of YouTube, got some sheet music together and backing tracks, and presented it to Eddy as what I wanted to do next.  I have to hand it to him, he didn’t blink, and started putting the backing tracks and the original song into ProTools to work on.

I want to do it like a Ventures tune, an instrumental version including the voice parts, which you don’t find done so much.  Although I had started trying to learn the opening rhythm section and the first intro solo, it was a bit of a shambles.  It’s another example of me ruing my ambitiousness.  So we’re going through the song step-by-step.  We’re up to the second solo and it’s starting to sound not too bad.

Hendrix was a monster player, as every guitarist realizes.  He played like there was absolutely no barrier between his musical will and his hands and fingers expressing that will on the guitar. And he must have had incredibly strong hands to bend the strings like crazy as he does.  Eddy has got me cheating on some of the more extreme bending, but it still sounds good.  And there’s one very fast passage so far — I’m working hard to get it into my fingers so I don’t have to think about it, and just do it.

There are many great solos in this song, and even if I’m not able in the end to play any of it very well (although I hope for better than that!), I’m still learning a lot by pushing at the boundaries of my ability in this way.  Even if I feel like a schmuck when I flounder, as I often do….

Useful Guitar Learning Resources on the Web

In my guitar journey, in addition to the useful sites mentioned in previous posts such as the great Robert Renman’s two — Dolphin Street and Master Guitar Academy — I have found some very good additional sites.  Almost all of these sites have a free lesson component and then offer lessons or material to buy.  The proportion of free on the ones I’ll note here is quite high.

The kind of free instructive material is also important — some of the most commercial sites just offer fragments to entice you rather than anything useful.  I think the better sites like Renman’s are actually very smart marketing — I’ve learned a lot from his free stuff and I’ve gone on to buy several lessons I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in.  I know the detail and care he puts into them.

1) Fundamental Changes — Lots of lessons “In the Style of ….” (Dave Gilmour, B.B. King, Keith Richards, etc.) which are good for picking up new licks, and also many videos on theory and technique (Harmonics on Guitar, Chromatic Notes in Solos, etc.).

2) Fret Jam — Very clear and well taught videos (and written material) on many aspects of guitar musical theory, in particular.  For instance, one recent free lesson is on “Suspended Guitar Chords — How and When to Play Them.”  Another recent article is “The Best Guitar Chord Software & Chord Tools On the Web” which will lead you to a number of other good and informative sites.

3) Fachords — Although it also has free video lessons, the most interesting part of this site I find are the free online Guitar Apps .  These include a scales finder, a chord finder, fretboard trainer, speed trainer, interactive scales harmonization, and more.

There is just so much good guitar instructional material on the web.  I am guilty of buying more books, having more links and downloading more videos than I will probably ever go through in the detail they deserve.  I just wish it was all available when I was a kid, when I made my first unsuccessful stabs at learning the instrument.

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Thoughts On Building A Novel

June 27, 2014

I’ve had ambitions towards writing most of my life.

I wrote science-fiction short stories as a kid from time to time for my own amusement.  I did find them frustrating, unsatisfying.  They never quite turned out as well as I imagined they should.

I liked to write stories with unexpected endings for school.  Typical what-I-did-on-summer-vacation fare, with the last sentence something like, “Then I turned into a wolverine.”  This amused my friends more than the teacher.

But the urge for writing wasn’t so strong that it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.  I haven’t known what I wanted to do, really, for most of my adult years.

I went to university and got a degree in psychology, figuring it was more valuable to understand what makes people tick instead of learning how to be an engineer, to mention one alternative.

I learned more about rats in psychology at that time and school than about people, I’m afraid to say.

The Urge for Writing

Then I thought, what about writing, as a reporter?  I went on to more university to study journalism.  That didn’t work out so well, either, although I did eventually end up working in one ghetto or another of that field.

I still had ideas about stories though.  I should be able to write a novel.  I read them all the time — science-fiction, modern day thrillers, even an historical novel or two.

My big ideas about subjects for novels — almost always science fiction — came to me in the form of settings or milieus.  I would start collecting material and background information, but when it came to actually write anything, the lack of any characters to speak of left me completely bogged down, as one might expect.

One lengthy period when I was out of work, just as I turned thirty, I did force myself to write a first draft of a novel by slogging through three pages a day, every day.  Then the same thing to revise it.  It was a non-science fiction story, this time, kind of an adventure/thriller, about an out-of-work character getting into trouble while on a canoe trip around the Bowron Lakes.  This is a famous location for canoeing here in British Columbia, a journey over a group of lakes, rivers and creeks that form a rough circle that can be travelled during a week or so.

The geography of the location helped give coherence to the structure of the novel’s story, and its grandeur and variety were something to ground and inform the main character.  This journey mechanism is a useful one, I would learn later.  But at the time I just floundered on with it and got to an end.  That effort now sits in a drawer someplace in this house.  Again the result felt very unsatisfying.

There have been many more ideas since then.  Some would take seed and sprout into mind maps of spaghetti notes on a big sheet of paper on the wall.  Others might get elaborated in a notebook in the first flush of enthusiasm, before realizing that what I thought could be a story was going nowhere.

I Don’t Know How to Write a Story

But now, most recently, I have a science-fiction idea that seemed to come this time with characters dimly attached.  It’s become more than just an idea over the last few years, as I collected notes and reference material.   But again, just as I started to get going with scenes and world-building, it all bogged down again.  I really don’t know how to write a story.

The last post or two on this blog have been about my struggle with story, and my efforts to learn more about it.  I have no craft.  I have read many books on writing that sounded good and were full of advice but gave me no tools.  Although probably I wasn’t ready to receive what they did have to offer.

But working through John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, I’ve found a guide that I’m actually able to bring to bear on what I want to write.

Many years ago, in yet another novel-writing attempt, I tried to follow Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald.  It actually has most of the structural necessities I’m learning from Truby’s book, but it is presented in a more abstract English Lit kind of manner that I was never able to fully take in.  I thought it was a great book at the time though, and looking at it again now, I still do.  (I still have the same paperback, $2.50 in the US, $2.75 in Canada.)

This Time, It’s Going to Work!

So where am I now?

I’m working through Truby’s 22 steps list — an expanded version of his minimum Seven Story Steps — to build a novel.  It’s not like a three-act or any other imposed structure — besides being much more detailed and contoured to every kind of story, it allows creative flexibility.  It’s not so much an overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated obstacles.

I’ve got about 25 pages of detailed notes about the wheels and gears of the story itself — what will turn and drive the events of the novel.  A kind of story treatment….  This is all new stuff for me — I never had the advantage of having done that kind of work before.

Besides that, I’ve come to learn, whether or not it is ultimately true or not, that it is most useful to think about a novel as something that I, the writer, discover.  The parts of the world or characters that I don’t know yet, I am beginning to have the confidence that they will reveal themselves, at least partially, as some already have, while I fill in the pieces around them.  At the same time, all is in a partially obscuring fog, subject to change.

I forget which writer said it, but writing a novel is something like driving down a road in the dark with your headlights on.  You can only see a little ways ahead.  You can still get to your destination.

The thought of world-building, especially in a science-fiction story, can be overwhelming.  But I’m coming to realize that only where the world intersects the characters, like a cross-section in an engineering drawing, does it need to be so detailed, and the rest can be alluded to in the background.  Specifics can stand for the whole, and they are much more writerly.

There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story.  How can one portray the really alien?  I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be.  Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Now, I haven’t actually gotten back to writing the novel yet, after seizing up after getting a few scenes done.  The next major job in my preparation is what Truby calls the scene-weave.  In some ways again it is like the process that Butler describes that I posted about a number of years ago.

It makes me think about learning guitar.  I’ve practiced hard and I think I’ve learned a piece, and then when it falls apart when I try to play along with a backing track or to show somebody, I realize I’ve just started the process of learning it.  There is much, much more practice necessary.

So the novel-writing preparation will go on for a while yet.  It’s just that this time, I have real hope of being able to write with somewhere to go.

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Notes:  There is a whole industry built around selling advice to would-be writers.  This takes the form of an avalanche of books on writing, magazines and also software which promise to make your novel writing a breeze.  I’m tried a couple of the novel-writing programs over the years in my desperate quest.  They don’t work very well, because the story that’s going to live for you can’t come from a ready-made scheme or formula.

Related to that, but also possibly useful in some ways, are various story-planning worksheets, or beat sheets.  These feature various versions of what their authors see as the necessary structure of a story, coded as “beats” or the major plot events that a story must have.  Such a beat sheet might have the “Four Major Beats” and the minor beats to fill them out in a table to allow you to script your story events.

(As with many of these story-planning worksheets, a lot of well-meaning and even useful story advice comes out of the National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — endeavour where people make a commitment to write a novel during the month of November.)

I’ve also read that editors can spot any story based on these beat sheets a mile away.  The method tends to give its products a certain artificiality.

The question is, does Truby’s guide lend this artificial aspect?  I don’t think so, although it could degenerate into formula.  In Truby’s words, he wanted to “lay out a practical poetics — the craft of storytelling that exists in all story forms….

“You are the never-ending story.  If you want to tell the great story, the never-ending story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps.  And you must do it every time you write a new story.”

The Synergy of Two Books About Story

April 2, 2014

“The writer is a man who seeks a larger world.”
— Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer

“You are the slave of your story, not its master.  You don’t make decisions, you make discoveries.”
Brian McDonald, in Invisible Ink
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I don’t like the word “synergy” very much, although I’m not so sure why.

I am a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-my-parts kind of guy, but the word smacks of marketing, as if it’s the name of a used-car dealership.  Maybe my skepticism is because it’s a description of process that’s everywhere anyway, of emergent properties arising out of separate elements.  It probably has a lot to do with the management-speak where I work, of “incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward.”

But in the case of two books on fiction writing I’ve been reading, the word actually seems to have some meaning, in the sense of the “cooperative action of two or more stimuli, resulting in a different or greater response than that of the individual stimuli.”  But then maybe the word I’m really looking for here is “synchronicity”, the seeming purely coincidental occurrences that take on meaning….

The two books are Techniques of the Selling Writer, published in 1965 by the late Dwight V. Swain, who wrote prolifically for magazines and films, while teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma, and Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, 2010, by Brian McDonald, screenwriter and teacher.

I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel, just getting started really.  I’ve written a few scenes, I know my primary characters pretty well, I know how the story begins, how it ends, and what the main character thinks he’s doing.  But I slowed down, and then came to a halt.

I’ve been realizing I don’t know what a story is.  I know one when I hear or read one. But I don’t know how to make a real story, what propels it, what keeps it moving, what gives it heart and meaning.  Characters, setting, plot, dialogue, scenes, conflict, all those elements of so many books on writing, don’t give me what I need to know about story.

Techniques of the Selling Writer sets out to do just that.  With that title, you might think it’s a book about being as commercial as possible, of following some set formula in whatever genre can make you the most money.

In fact, it’s not that at all.  It’s about the survival of the fittest, the fittest way to tell a story that can stand out amongst serious competition in the marketplace of fiction publishing.

It’s about the basic bolts and nuts of story framework, from building scenes and character development to larger issues of what makes a writer.  It’s a handbook about getting to grips with story.

It’s not about avant-garde writing, of encouraging the James Joyce in each of us, but about the craft of story as we may find it widely distributed in the culture about us, of books and film and games, although often we will find that such stories are lacking.

These comments won’t be a review really, just the main things I got out of each book in my quest, almost like that of a character in a book, for story….

Most Useful Description of Technique

Techniques Selling WriterSwain starts his useful description of technique for me when he begins to write about “motivation-reaction units.”  That almost sounds like widgets from a factory, but he’s really talking about building feeling as the character confronts situations and reacts, which the reader then begins to participate in.  There is cause and effect at the core of effective story, and these motivation-reaction units link together as you write to provide a thread of meaningful causation.

Something happens of significance to the character, and of pertinence to the story: the reader sees that an active response is necessary from the character.  The character’s reaction ensues.  There is some change, perhaps small, in the character’s state of affairs or state of mind.  This should precipitate another motivating stimulus and then another reaction.  These linked units gradually build.  “The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”  The chain should be strictly chronological so that the writing leaves an impression of a continuing stream of reality, with appropriate “haptic” (bodily) sensation and involvement.

There is much more detail in Swain’s teasing out of this basic story process, of course, but this gives the gist.  And each M-R unit, as Swain calls them, must be pertinent to the story as a whole.  It may be harder to do than to say….

But at its simplest, for a beginner: Write a sentence without your character (becomes motivation).  Follow it with a sentence about your character (becomes reaction).   Of course, as one becomes more skilled, the units of each type may be somewhat larger.  And although this method might sound simple, or simple-minded, it “sometimes poses problems of choice that are little less than fiendish.”

The next level up (can we say storey?) in the tower of story is that of scene and sequel.  I kind of know what a scene is, but I hadn’t really thought about sequel as a technical term in this context.

Scene and Sequel

Story, Swain says is built with those two basic units.  A scene is a unit of dramatic conflict lived through by character and reader.  Sequels are the transitions between scenes.  He makes it sound so simple….

A scene functions to provide interest, and to move the story forward.  It provides opposition to your character.  It’s a unit of conflict.  The structure of a scene is 1) Goal 2) Conflict and 3) Disaster.  I like that no. 3!

What is disaster?  Swain says it’s the scene’s hook — providing logical but unanticipated developments.  It often comes in the form of new information received.  If a scene doesn’t end in actual disaster, it must raise an intriguing question for the future.  The skill in this may be to make the disaster potential, rather than actual.

Swain insists that all this can succeed for the literary work as much for the potboiler.  But one can’t be afraid of drama.

What then of sequel?  “It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”  The sequel functions to translate disaster into goal, to telescope reality and to control the story’s tempo.  Swain says its structure is 1) Reaction 2) Dilemma 3) Decision.  (I’m continually impressed about how logical Swain is about these creative tools.)  Our hero decides on a new goal and the next scene, with its struggles, begins to arise.

Swain says the source of story satisfaction for the reader is the release of tension.  Or from another angle, the way the story turns out is your reader’s key source of satisfaction.

He goes on from scene and sequel to discuss the beginning, middle and end of a story, and what constitutes each.  The beginning ends for Swain when the main character commits to action against the danger or threat he realizes he faces.  And then the middle of the story becomes how the main character becomes more and more constricted as to his avenues of action.  Towards the end we see more clearly what the main character deserves, and what he gets.

Populating the World

Swain’s chapter on story characters, The People in Your Story, is refreshing in its straightforward and common-sense approach.  Use the least number of characters to do the job of advancing the story.  If a character is not in some way either for or against your main character, then they’re not serving a useful story function.  And remember that stress reveals character.

Each character must appear to move under his own power.  So one must supply each character with 1) Lack and 2) Compensation.  What makes a character interesting?  Contradiction.

There’s much, much more to all of this of course than I can relate here.  Swain’s strength is his logical analysis of the mechanisms of how to move a story along, while leaving in the would-be writer’s hand the extent of the creative variations that can be devised.  He has an old-fashioned (but perhaps ever present) sense of what the novel can accomplish that’s definitely not postmodern.

So, Swain made me all optimistic about being able to get my hands on the levers of story.  Then I read Brian McDonald’s short book (only about 150 pages), and my optimism took another turn for the better.

Invisible Ink

Invisible InkIn Invisible Ink, McDonald has let me finally understand what theme is and more importantly how it functions in a story.  Lots of books about writing place importance on thematic purpose and consistency.  I just could never feel what it really meant in whatever I was trying to write.

McDonald’s description of the armature as a way of talking about theme suddenly made the whole thing much clearer to me.  He likens the armature to the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  The armature is the moral of the tale, the purpose of the story, the point of all the drama.  What does one really want to get across?

As an example, he refers to the animated film The Iron Giant.  The intriguing armature of this work is: “What if a gun had a conscience and didn’t want to be a gun anymore?”  If the armature works, in the end it will move the reader.

Armature provide the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.  McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool.  “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

Bring in the Clones

The concept of characters as clones was another aha! moment in McDonald’s discussion of the invisible strands that tie a real story together.

“Clones are characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path.”  Clones can display, often very subtly, the shades of meaning in the story’s world.

For instance, the cravenness, corruption and pitiful nature of Gollum in Lord of the Rings represents what could well happen to the hero Frodo if he gives in to the Ring.  We can measure the success of one character by the failure of another.  Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz — the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man — are another example.  They are all artful clones of Dorothy.

This concept allows characters to serve the needs of the story, to make it more powerful, and not just be random personalities that the writer allows to wander onto the set.  Not every character has to be a clone, but it is obviously a powerful tool for illustrating the armature.

 Ritual Pain

“…It is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible.  You must back them into a corner and force them to change.  Make it as painful as you can.”

The thought of causing other people pain usually gives me the horrors.  But as a writer you have to put your poor fictional people through hoops of fire on the horns of dilemmas.  This is a bloodymindedness that I definitely have to work on in what I want to write.  I should think of it, though, as McDonald recommends: “Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.”

He notes also that you have to find the right kind of ritual pain for each character.

The Masculine and the Feminine

McDonald takes the politically incorrect, but intuitively true, notion of real differences between men and women and applies it to storytelling.  Men do tend to prefer action flicks.  Everything is on the surface and introspection is not much in evidence.  Woman do tend to prefer depictions of people emotionally involved with each other, with not necessarily a lot of forward movement in the story.  His main point is that to get readers to care about what they’re reading, both these aspects need to be evident and in balance.  They deepen each other, just like men and women.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is another mechanism by which an author can show the extent of a character’s change, of his sincerity, of growth.  “Simply put, the climax of a story puts the protagonist in an intense situation that forces a choice that shows growth or lack of growth.”

Superior Position

McDonald describes “superior position” as one way to cultivate either suspense or humour.   It’s when the audience knows, or suspects, something that the characters do not.  He says this bit of craft is what made Alfred Hitchcock a masterful storyteller during his fifty-year career.

There’s more, of course, in McDonald’s book but these were most of the kernels that I took from it.

It remains to be seen of course if I can incorporate what I’ve learned from these two books in my own writing.  But I do feel more confident.  At the same time I seem to aspire to what Thomas Mann (cited by McDonald) once wrote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

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Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)

February 16, 2014

“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
Judy Collins

I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.

The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s.  The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.

220px-The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallIt’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”  It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too.  But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….

I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online.  But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.

After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle.  She had gone there to see her mother  and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad.  There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.

In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records.  Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them.  It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years.  The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.

Sierra Exif JPEGIt strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends.  None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure.  But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.

As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!

Pete Seeger After the Weavers

So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.

I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.

Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew.  Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs.  Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.

If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations.  A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”

But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:

“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”

Bob+Dylan++Pete+Seeger+2943980698_ec9703aeec_oThere are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie.  He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.

And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way.  The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar.  Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”

At first the audience is hesitant and quiet.  We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him.  The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice.  Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does.  They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise.  Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race!  …But you got to have hope….”  The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.

You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out.  For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.

He’s gone now.  That embodiment has given way.  The songs go on.

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Note:  The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.