Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Passing It On: Blogs I Read

Attention: I did a cut-and-paste which introduced some crazy old HTML into this page; I am too inept to erase it without screwing things up. Size and greenness and so on carry no meaning other than, "Gee, he's not very good with computers, is he?"

So Amy Sundberg over at The Practical Free Spirit was given a validation ticket by Parking Lot Confidential. In turn, she mentioned a number of writing-related blogs she read, and this was among them.

I left a comment on her site recommending some blogs; may as well post it here. Among them I mentioned Miranda Suri's Comedy or Tragedy? It was pointed out that I mention that one a lot.


Let's start out with Candy and Cigarettes by Joe Clifford. Yep, he's the guy who runs Lip Service West, where I've read twice and have another piece in the hopper. Nepotism rocks. His blog covers his experiences as a new father, his memories of the good/bad old days, and most importantly, his efforts to push forward as a writer.

Honestly, the man has a direct, workmanlike approach to the situation that's provided me with a lot of good ideas already. He decided to target specific markets and write to them directly. This is the kind of thing that raises my artistic hackles, but you know what?

His work improved dramatically, he placed all his stories...

So I'm working on doing the same thing with the high-end lit mags, The Atlantic and so on. Yes, I am stealing his idea. And "put the love story up front" is actually damned good advice.

The Erin O'Brien Owner's Manual for Human Beings is just delightful. She doesn't write about writing, she's a fucking writer. Everything from phone-cam roundups with appropriate commentary to links to her professional work, with a strong local flavor. Since Harvey Pekar died, this is where I get my Cleveland fix. It's the New Journalism grown up with a kid, sitting with a can of beer at the kitchen table, and one of the counters to nihilism upon which I rely.

And, finally, I'm breaking with writers (although he writes). Glendon Mellow, the Steel Tzar of Toronto, has recently begun the Symbiartic blog at Scientific American in partnership with scientific illustrator Kalliopi Monoyios. (I covet her skill, so her work makes me a little unhappy when I see it.)

Glendon is an artist who incorporates
imagery of meaning to scientists into symbolist- and surrealist-influenced compositions with a strong narrative component, typically executed in oil, frequently featuring novel materials such as stone. (He also does pictures of Man-Thing.)

Symbiartic covers areas where scientific and artistic interest overlap. Everything from the flexure of tetrapod necks to the optical qualities of oil paint gets covered. For me, this is heaven. If you're a fiction writer who deals in ideas as well as character, this is a goldmine.

And when you're done with those, take a look to the right. If a blog's there, I think it's worth reading.

And tomorrow? Gonna discuss my position in the hierarchy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Considering The Virtues Of Stress

"You need to act as though you're allergic to stress," the nurse said. "Like a peanut allergy."

For those who might be stumbling onto the site for the first time, this was said to me last winter when I'd been told to go to a psychiatric health center by some emergency room... well. You know. Like that. It's one of those stories.

Anyway, I agreed with the nurse. And that's how I've tried to live my life. Minimalization. Cut back on the input. Don't get involved. Don't get political. Don't get into hassles.

Right. If stress is such a toxin to me, then why have I had the habit of stalking the rough parts of the Oakland/Berkeley border looking for trouble when I'm emotionally distraught? Why is a public exchange of hostilities with a street crazy something that brightens me up for days?

If I'm allergic to stress, then why did I cheer up and start eating and sleeping when we had a series of shootings in our neighborhood a few years back? Why do I sooth myself with things like dangling from heights and cutting?

I don't even have to get as far as cutting most of the time. Simple negligence of low-level physical safety means that I've never had a moment in my life when I didn't have half-a-dozen little scrapes, bruises, cuts, and dings healing. I never thought to ask about that until just a couple of days ago, and the missus was horrified.

When I moved from Richmond to Santa Cruz, what did I say? I feel like I been drug up from the depths and my swim bladder's coming out my mouth.

Let's put this in another context. What about the reading on Friday? I loved that. But let's consider this.

How do I feel about crowds?

One of the most uncomfortable conversations I have ever endured in my life was one where my wife was on one side of me, my first girlfriend on the other, both making physical claims on my person while discussing my shortcomings. Thank God for open bars.

Anyway, one subject that came up was crowds. It turns out that what I perceived as the occasional dry witticism was actually a steadily muttered series of descriptions of mass murder, including specific details I will not print here because they would work. And that every time I was in a crowd in either of their companies, I'd begin emitting this at some point.

Ew. I stopped doing that.

But I didn't stop thinking it. I hate crowds, I hate large groups, they frighten and anger me. I have been attacked by crowds. I have been surrounded by crowds and forced to fight people one by one.

And I adore standing up in front of crowds. Love it.

Here's what I think now.

I think I need stress. Lots of it, on a regular basis.

I think that growing up the way I did left me needing stress. When I collapse it's because of a lack of concrete demands as much as anything else.

But I think I need stress applied under circumstances where I have control. Where I am confident and active and functional. And there are places in the world where this happens. I need to place myself in situations where my strengths are the strengths that apply.

These circumstances alter the proportions of stress hormones released under stress. There are two types of stress reaction -- prepare for performance, and prepare for a beating. I need to train myself to respond to stress with a performance-enhancing mix. Let me tell you, that is a serious cocktail.

Honestly? If I wasn't fucked up physically, I'd start checking out martial arts and danger sports, but my back is too vulnerable. So that leaves me with one arena in which to exercise this particular peccadillo.

The arts.

The most stressful situations for me are social ones, especially dealing with strangers. But the world of the arts is partially a meritocracy, and I do well there. The long-dreaded, long-avoided task of putting myself out into the world has proven to be very different than what I've been led to suspect.

People tend to react well to me. I get some hassles, I'm dorky and awkward at points, but I've got something going here. I'm being not simply received by the world, but welcomed. I may as well see if I can get some mileage out of it.

So I'm going to engage in human society.

If only for therapeutic reasons.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

So How Was The Reading?

On Thursday night, our stove went crazy and turned into a sort of jet engine. By the time things were settled, I'd called 911, burned my fingers, and so on. So I didn't get a lot of sleep, and I had a bit of a dose of anxiety at the start of the day on Friday.

I had my reading to do that night.

When I first began feeling the jitters, I assumed they were leftovers from the night before. But as the day progressed, I realized that despite my confidence, even eagerness regarding the reading, I was still experiencing stress.

But it didn't really bother me -- I was nervous, I was jumpy, I was stalking around the house, but I was in a good mood. I had no idea I was setting myself up for one of the most spectacular endogenous neurochemical events of my life. I will go into further detail in later posts, but I've been forced to rethink my positions on both the place of stress in my life and my relationship to the concept of hierarchy.

I showed up early, and there were few people there. As folks trickled in, I saw that people I'd expected hadn't shown up, but people I hadn't, had. Fair enough! It was particularly pleasant to see Chrissy from my last scriptwriting class and Chris Cornell from Viable Paradise, but I was very happy to see everyone.

There was an unexpected but welcome change in personnel -- Allison Landa was there, reading from her memoir. It was nice to hear how she'd been working with the material since I'd last seen it; Joe was lucky to get her.

Howard Zalkin read a marvelously hallucinatory piece about recovering from encephalitis. Pamela Holm gave us a look at middle-age adolescence and addiction in which warmth and snark mingled pleasantly, and W. Ross Ayers told us about how much fun it is drinking in redneck bars. Exactly as much fun as you'd guess.

And then it was my turn.

I'd been feeling more and more disconnected from my immediate surroundings as my moment approached. I felt strong, I felt confident, and I knew the actual piece was rock-solid. It deals with issues of racism and violence, and it is not intended to be a source of comfort. I'd spent the afternoon carefully re-formatting it so as to clearly establish a rhythm for performance -- lines which needed to be said alone were set apart, paragraphs broken up to ensure that I maintain eye contact with the audience, etc.

Because there are two things I'm using in conjunction here -- there is the quality of my actual prose, and then there is my ability to emote, to project, and to, well. Project a certain intimidating physical presence. It is my intention that this be not simply a reading but a performance of a piece intended to be read aloud.

The style of writing I used is more flowing, more musical, more polysyllabic, less concerned with word-by-word clarity than with the human voice; that said, it is as clearly and directly written as possible.

I've spent the show standing at the back; when Joe calls me up, I have to walk the length of the room.

When I reach the stage, I look back. Damn, the room a lot shorter from the other end. I can hardly see the people in the back. I take a second and make eye contact with Joe, give him a nod -- "Thanks for the chance, dude" -- and then...

I take a breath. I turn around slowly, inspect the entire room, the entire stage. And I take another breath.

I'm in no hurry. I'm claiming this place. Where I stand, what I see?

It's mine. This is my place and my moment and I own it.

Then I take a shallow breath, announce the title of my piece, and begin reading. The piece begins with a lengthy bit of exposition. My favorite part is when I look out at the audience and say, "You are all racists, and I am a racist, and that is how it is in a racially divisive culture." You cannot imagine how much I enjoy the little pause I give them after that statement. "How the hell is he going to get himself out of this?"

I find that it's taking an effort for me to stay near the mic, and through my performance one of the things that bothered me was drifting off-mic and then scooting back. I have the kind of voice you don't really need to mic, but this is being recorded.

I am loving this. There is an impulse to perform in me, and those who converse with me can testify that there's a point where I slip into performance mode. I struggle with this, even though folks seem to like it, because it's sort of loud and attention-hogging, and you know what?

I can fucking unleash up here. I hold nothing back. I am angry and honest and wretched. I do not tell people how I want them to feel; I tell them the truth and give them the space to react to it. The pressure is forcing laughter out of them every time a line reads as a little less grim than the ones around it.

Then the expository passage is over, and the moment I begin reading the actual story of my experience?

My brain blossoms, lobes opening like the wet, fleshy petals of an orchid.

(For the record? I was stone cold sober. Didn't even hit up the wine.)

My field of vision registers not as an assembly of solid objects, but as flat areas of tone, shifting and overlapping like so many cut-out pieces of paper. I have vertigo; more, a sense that my body is dismembered, each joint a real gap in space.

But I am a skull ranger; I know this is my brain fucking with me and I know how to cope. The sheer emotional pressure I'm experiencing blasts the associated hallucinations into the edges of my mind. I can see the writing on the paper, one paragraph crystal clear and the rest like gray ants warring, and I do not move my body more than I have to.

It isn't dismembered; I'm a four-dimensional creature in disguise, the visible 3-D cross-sections of my body cunningly arranged to give the impression of humanity. If I keep my hands within three feet or less of my shoulders they'll never know.

Again, these stray thoughts, like my visual flow of data, are blown to the corners by the massive, the concrete blows of emotion that travel through me. The cauldron of rage that I keep in my chest isn't a cauldron, it's a blast furnace and it's pointing right at the audience. All of my anger, my violence, it's all right on the surface right now nothing held back.

And the words flow smoothly, the contact with the audience constant, palpable. I am shattered but I am whole, more complete than I've felt in as long as I can remember. Everything about me that I hate or fear -- the rage, the bitterness, the judgment, the brutality, the madness, the capacity for violence -- all of these have been forged against the anvil of my morals, turned to tools, and now I am speaking the truth as strongly as I can.

The feeling of strength, of precision, is overwhelming. I cannot be wrong in this moment. I am absolute.

Fuck you all, this is Art, this is big Art, this is the real motherfucking thing, and it's blowing through me, pumping me fat as a firehose, rigid with pressure, the eternal explosion inside me finally powering an engine.

This is mine. This moment. This place. These people. This art.

And when I finish, I have an experience that I've longed for my entire life, since reading about it in childhood. Syneasthesia, interpreting input through the wrong sense. Smelling colors and so on.

The sound of a handclap is a white spark, like fireworks.

The applause blinds me like a burst of flashbulbs, I feel it as pressure, but when the sound dies down and my eyes clear, the first thing I see is the missus. And what I see in her face? It's not just affection. It is the face of someone who has just been completely blown away, who is amazed at what I am, and who likes what she sees.

And she ain't the only one.

So how was your Friday, motherfuckers?