Saturday, November 1, 2008

More Digital Drawing Homework

So the assignment was to create a dust jacket for a real or imaginary book, including the copy. I figured that I'd be able to knock it out quickly using a simple graphic approach to the design; instead I got caught up in the copy writing. Click on the image for details...

Friday, October 31, 2008

Well, He Started It.

So Rob sent me this letter that was sent to Swill inquiring about our pay rates. I'm not going to print it here; you can probably figure out everything you need to know from my response. I am so going to hell for this.

Dear Mr. -------,

I’m not sure what the appropriate response to something like this would be. Part of me wonders if in your innocence you’ve gotten the impression that a display of brash vulgarity would impress us; part of me wonders if you’re as arrogant as your letter makes you seem, which would be unfortunate for both you and those around you.

If my first guess is true, please. No one responds positively to this kind of rudeness. If you aren’t an asshole don’t play one for effect; from the outside there is no difference between someone who pretends to be an insufferable dickwad and the genuine article. And unfortunately you simply are not gifted in your chosen arena -- this letter doesn’t just give the impression that it was written by a jerk; the incompetence with which it is riddled eliminates any strength of provocation you may have intended. Rather, it falls under the category of ‘irritainment,’ something simultaneously laughable and annoying. I love it because I hate it. Of course the appropriate response would be for me to ignore this but hey. It’s not often I get an opportunity to let someone know exactly what I think of their writing; thank you very much for the opportunity.

(Incidentally, when you say that your fiction is better than that of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald two thoughts immediately came to mind. One is that I dislike the work of both writers; the other is that I doubt you’ve read much by either. Or by ‘others of their ilk.’ Or anyone else. And I guarantee you that there are a lot of ‘candy asses’ in the world who are better writers than you are – and quite possibly better human beings.)

Allow me to make a few suggestions that might prove useful.

First, learn to swear properly. ‘What the piss’ is the kind of thing you hear from a child first experimenting with profanity – by starting out with this phrase I immediately pictured you as a strutting fourth-grader who’s just figured out how to give people the finger. ‘What the fuck,’ or ‘what the hell’ are, though timeworn, still sturdy expressions. To insert a random word into a familiar phrase is a gesture in the direction of creativity, I will grant you. Perhaps further study and experimentation may produce results – let me know if your research along these lines progresses usefully.

One suckles at his mother’s breast, one sucks at his momma’s tit. (I wonder if this is your problem – were you breast-fed? It is important to an infant’s physical development and ability to resist disease. Perhaps you suffered an early fever or a diet deficient in protein?)

And it’s interesting that you chose to capitalize Goddamn but not hell. Consistency is important; pick an approach and stick with it.

In the non-cuss category of errors there is the issue of exclamation points. Good writers use them sparingly. Some very good writers such as Joe R. Lansdale never use them at all. Your ratio of periods to exclamation points is one to four. And to use two exclamation points in conjunction with a word written all in capitals gives the impression that you were taught to write by one of those diseased imbeciles who write hateful anonymous messages on the Internet. I assure you, they are not good models for anyone with literary aspirations. Perhaps you should consider text messaging as your medium of choice.

‘Layout’ is a noun – you meant ‘lay out.’

And finally, when you say that ‘most lit mags’ list their pay rates in their submissions guidelines, well. That would be true for paying markets. The literary small press tends not to pay. It is either a calling or a hobby, depending on your perspective. I put a considerable amount of work into Swill and have not seen dime one nor do I expect to. I’m not sure if we break even on our sales. And that’s what it’s like for the little magazines such as ours.

If you want pay, I’d suggest submitting to magazines like Granta or The New Yorker. LET ME KNOW HOW YOU DO!!

Thank you very much for your letter; it was a real pleasure.


Sean Craven

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Filler Post: Ceratosaurus nasicornis

This was the preliminary drawing for the life-sized rendering I wasn't able to complete. It was later used as the basis for the computer-rendered version I posted a while ago. In some ways I prefer this one -- I've learned to be wary of Photoship textures.

I'm gonna try and put up a real post this evening. If I do it'll be another lost project...

Now to write as much as I can before I have to shop and cook and attend class. One more chapter before the climax!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From the Valley of Lost Projects -- Greetings From Grid City or Cyberpunk: The Future of my Youth

You know how old fashioned cyberpunk is? This was done using Zipatone. And Grid City, the comic script it was based on, was written on a typewriter.

Well, I promised a non-mopey update. I didn't get any work done on my novel this morning -- I used up my juice on three short fiction pieces for the next issue of Milvia Street. But here's a blast from the past, the first time I tried doing a comic book story. I wrote a hundred and thirty pages of script and some concept drawings and that was as far as it got. I gave up because I thought I sucked; now I look at this stuff and think, hey. Back in eighty-seven this would have been a hell of a comic book.

These two are a couple of good-natured drug manufacturers. When they combine cocaine with the amino acid precursors to the neurotransmitters whose release is stimulated by coke they have a hit on their hands. Too bad it winds up making people allergic to their own neurochemicals... When I heard the story about people getting those kinds of reactions to aerosol pig brains I got a nostalgiac glow. Oh, and the benefit of this rig is that they can each choose their favorite details for the lovemaking session without bothering the other person.

When I first read a review of Neuromancer in Heavy Metal I avoided reading it for a year just so I could let the idea of cyberpunk twist in my punk-rocking SF geek brain. When given a copy as a gift, I fell in love with it and tried to push it on my brother. "Fuck that," he said. "I've got this copy of Omni with a story called Johnny Mnemonic. It's the best fucking science fiction ever!" Took us a while to put two and two together. William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley! I salute you!

Any Big Black fans out there? This here's Dead Billy. He's a former soldier who had a Tin Man number done on him. Is he is or is he ain't a person? Who knows -- just don't get on his wrong side.

The Grid City script is long gone but I did write a short script for a screenwriting class that draws on the background. Ol' Dead Billy and his main squeeze Helter Kitty play prominant roles. The teacher said, "Give me something as weird as you can imagine." Well, I wasn't going to do that -- but here's a compromise.

Take a look at comment number one for the animation script Chad and Debbie's Vacation Wonderland!

Riding The Bummer Train

Here's my studio and myself in the late eighties, back when I had a dog and some hair. This was done in pencil and ink on tracing vellum for an architectural rendering class -- I drafted the room from the blueprints, then drew the rest with a combination of classic perspective and guesswork. Yeah, that is the actual shape of the studio. And at the far end, that is a lavender staircase.

I took the line drawing and had it copied onto watercolor paper. I took six of these and painted them simultaneously, discarding the ones I fucked up until I had this at the end. I hate trying to get accurate results with conventional media... Note the boot print in the upper right-hand corner, a not uncommon feature in my work. I need to learn a little respect.

Well, there's a good chance this post will fall into the Too Much Information category. Please, if you don't have any interest in the complaints of an overprivileged white boy skip this. It's all pissing and moaning intended to get my bitching out of my head so I can get on with my work.

I've been going through a very nice little period in my life for the past week and a half. Last night it came to a screeching -- or rather a hollering -- halt.

In many ways I'm an extraordinarily fortunate person. But there are a few issues in my life that give me real problems and make me feel concerned for my future. And unfortunately they act to reinforce each other.

They're located at each end of my spinal column.

I have a bad back and I suffer from mental illness. As a nut, earlier in my life I was able to find refuge in physical labor. If I slapped my headphones on and worked until the sweat flowed I was able to cope and be useful at the same time.

My last job of this sort was in the warehouse of an employee-owned book distribution company, BookPeople. After working there for a couple of years I had the single most physically demanding job in the place, restocking the gravity flow racks. These were a series of racks with wheeled tracks installed in them and they were where the fastest-moving titles were stored. Instead of stacks of books on a shelf, the gravity flow rack held whole boxes of books, typically five or six boxes of a given title at a time.

This was a perfect job for me. I was able to work four days a week (yeah, I took a substantial pay cut for this -- but I had no real choice -- explanation to follow) I had my own little kingdom, I had minimal interaction with the people around me, and I had as much work as I could handle. But during my first couple of years I had a bad habit -- I'd straddle the cart I used to carry the boxes and then twist to the side to load the box into the rack. These boxes averaged about thirty-five pounds each and went up to about seventy-five pounds and I did this all day long.

When I was told that this was a really bad practice that could lead to a bad back I changed the way I worked. It was too late.

When I started to feel sciatic pain I countered it with exercises that helped for a while. My routine involved getting up at four-thirty or five and doing an hour's workout to prepare myself for work. Let me tell you, I was in monstrously good physical condition. I miss it -- having a genuinely powerful body is a real pleasure.

But the pain continued and got worse. And they installed a new set of gravity flow racks and the most strenuous part of my job was doubled. Finally after working in constant pain for well over a year I went to see a physical therapist. Who after a while had me get an MRI. One disc compressed, one disc spectacularly ruptured. And it seems that working hard for a long time has given me nerve damage. I will never not hurt again.

That was it for my career as a big strong guy.

I don't want to go into detail about the drama that attended my settlement. Maybe in a later post. But I will say that everyone associated with my rehabilitation training -- including my insurance adjuster -- told me it was inadequate. If I'd been injured a few years earlier I would have gotten a lot more rehab. If I'd been injured a few years later I would have gotten a much larger settlement. I was just lucky enough to hit the sweet spot. And the lawyers who act on behalf of the insurance companies are honest-to-God sociopaths. No fooling.
If the money that had been spent on the PI they had videotape me (which actually hurt the case the insurance company was trying to make against me -- truth is always the best defense) had been spent on my rehab I'd fucking well have a job now.

So. The reason why I worked part-time? I'm nuts. The one time I was in counseling I asked how I'd be diagnosed. The answer was complex.

Agitated depression with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, violent and suicidal impulses, accompanied by visual, tactile, and auditory hallucinations. The last shrink I consulted with said he'd tentatively peg me as borderline schizophrenic. The combination would seem to indicate psychotic agitated depression -- but I think the schizophrenia and the depression are compartmentalized enough to clear me of that diagnosis.

(Of course I never told her about my Whitley Strieber-style saucerman experiences. For the record, yeah, abductees experience the things they report. I believe that it's a form of mental illness rather than an exterior phenomenon. I think that getting caught up in the mythology around UFOs is really, really unhealthy for people with schizophrenic tendencies. I think it should be studied and I damn well would like it if they came up with an effective treatment.)

I was given tricyclics -- Nortryptiline, to be specific. It was worse than useless. These days they say that anti-depressants are bad news for people with agitated depression -- powerful tranquilizers are reccomended and I am considering getting a supply for emergency use. My couselor told me I was the sanest person she had ever met. She also wanted to have me institutionalized because I represented a danger to myself and the community.

Agitated depression is the kind of mental illness that results in death. Here's one way to get a glimpse into the condition. It's a metaphor but I suspect there's some literal truth to it.

Our emotions are generated by physical structures in the brain. (I suspect the body as well -- my own belief is that the mind is concentrated rather than isolated in the brain -- but that's just one nut's opinion.) Just as with any other part of the body things can go wrong.

So imagine the way you felt when you were betrayed by someone close to you, or someone you loved died. Think of the very worst that you have ever felt, those moments when it seemed as if there was nothing good at all in your life. These feelings are generated in your brain. What if your brain generated these feeling spontaneously? Think of it as emotional epilepsy.

Or imagine that your ability to feel pleasure suddenly vanished. That nothing felt good, tasted good, looked good. That every sensory stimulus was a source of irritation. It is possible to be blind to pleasure the same way you can be visually blind, or deaf, or lack any other sense.

Those two states are components of depression.

In agitated depression this misery is compounded by a flood of nervous energy that compels some kind of action. This is what makes it one of the most dangerous mental illnesses. And this is what I've got.

And how did I get this way? Heredity and environment and plenty of both. A violent life during childhood and my teen years and a history of mental illness on both sides of the family. It's like I'm the result of a eugenics program intended to produce the craziest redneck in the world.

The thing is, when people at work (I was a janitor in a high-end department store at this point) found out that I was seeing a shrink they were baffled. See, if you aren't right in my immediate circle I come across as a really nice guy who seems to have his shit together. (Haw! Haw! Haw! As an aside, this period in my life is one of the major elements in the novel.)

Potential employers -- I'm great on the job. I'm a good friend. When the crunch comes down, when there's an emergency -- that's when I shine.

But living day-to-day? I just don't have the knack. I think of myself as being like one of those British sports cars that are soooo much fun to drive when they aren't in the shop.

And at the same time my creativity is directly linked to my insanity. That's why I have to work part-time if I'm going to function in society. Creative activity, whether art or writing or music, is the best therapy I've found. Ol' Lunchboxxx commented on my ability to crap out art -- this is where the ability comes from.

For those familiar with drug use, at my most sober and stable my mental state is comparable to a half-hit of bad acid. Twitchy, excitable, nervous, uncomfortable, and vaguely hallucinatory around the edges, just waiting for the overwhelming visions to roll in. Distressingly, the closest I come to what I would regard as a 'normal' mental state is when I have a mild hangover. There's a strong history of alchoholism on both sides of my family so this really isn't the solution I'm looking for...

When my back pain is bad, the only things that can make a dent are narcotics. But they tend to trigger my depression. But so does the pain. Cue the trombone -- bwaa-waa-waa.

So. Two things that are important for my maintenance of a tolerably mental state are eating and sleeping. And that's why I'm back on the bummer train.

My back's sensitive this semester. I have a four-hour class on the same day that I have band practice and that hurts and the next day I have a three-hour class. It takes me days to recover from that one-two punch. When I attended the Digital Arts Club Meeting followed by the Milvia Street release party Friday before last it screwed me up. Saturday's writer's group meeting didn't help. And on Monday I went to grill some lamb for lunch (I do the cooking -- my food tastes better than what you'll get in most restaurants) and found that the missus had stacked a bunch of plants and planters around the grill. The lamb had been coated with a mustard/garlic/horseradish paste and thus was not fit to put in a saute pan. It had to be grilled. I moved the pots because the missus wasn't home.

Biiig mistake. If I take care of myself I hardly notice my back. This makes me start thinking, "Dude, you are totally goldbricking. Time to find your lazy ass a fucking job." And then I push it and I wonder how long it's going to be before I need more surgery. I need a job I can do from my workstation. That's why I'm trying to be a writer/artist -- but when the novel's done I'm getting training as an editor. Please, please, please don't make me have to go on the public tit, no SSI, no welfare...

So for the last two nights my sleep has been interrupted by a new pain. It's like two sharply curved hooks coming out of my spine and jabbing into my hip joints. The only place I can be comfortable is in the recliner that's the center of my workstation. Which means I can't sleep. Which is why I'm sitting here bitching into the intertubes.

And for the last two nights I've gone to make myself dinner and found that the missus had eaten the last of a crucial ingredient. She's got food issues (my take on it is that the masculine tendency is to be perverse about sex while the feminine tendency is to be perverse around food) and so if I've bought something for my own meals -- I don't cook all of her food, since she's a food nut and thus is compelled to eat a lot of seaweed and pureed green slop and so on and so forth -- she will unexpectedly devour it all.

I have to be patient; I have to understand; but it screws me up. If I'm in an emotionally delicate state I have to convince myself to eat. I have to focus on what I'm going to make ahead of time and coax myself into looking forward to it.

And if I can't have what I've set myself up for, I either eat randomly until I get indigestion (best case scenario and that happened Monday night) or I can't eat at all (the more common result and that's what happened last night). If it's because the missus has eaten all of something she's sworn she will never eat again I become frustrated with her.

So last night when I found she'd eaten the salami I'd intended for a pizza I snapped at her. Keep in mind that I'd been in a state of pain for the last two days and have slept badly even by my (typically five hours a night) standards.

But she was going through a hassle with one of her friends and was emotionally delicate herself. So she got mad at me for being mad at her. I think of this as two-for-flinching. She does something to piss me off and then punishes me for being unhappy. This ain't the typical mode in our relationship -- but it is one of the typical hassles.

So the bottom drops out and I plunge into the pit. And she tells me that because of what's going on she feels like there's no one she can turn to, that she's alone. So I choke down my feelings and comport myself in a way intended to alleviate what she's going through.

But inside I'm eating out my fuckin' liver and she knows it. But since I'm being nice she doesn't press matters. Finally, when we're in bed at the end of the day I'm laying next to her seething and hating myself and I realize that if I lay there I may scream or put my fist through the window or some goddamn thing and the best recoure is to go to the studio and work for a while. But when I get upstairs the kava and melatonin I've taken in order to have a chance at sleep make me incapable of functioning creatively. And she had earlier told me that when I went out walking she worried (quite legitimately) that I might do something that would get me in trouble.

I kept my voice even and my manner low-key when she asked what was going on. We lay next to each other and talked ("I don't understand how you can go from the top to the bottom so fast.") and we both settled down and appreciated the love we feel for each other. It was a satisfactory ending to a stupid conflict. Despite these occasional flareups we really are good for each other -- thank god, because we love each other enough to stick together no matter how bad things get.

But my back still hurts and I didn't sleep well and I was only able to eat one meal yesterday. I'm back on the bummer train -- but the last week and a half was great. And there will be more good times in the future. But.

I been shot at and missed, shit at and hit.

I've got a hell of a lot to do today -- get three stories ready and delivered to Milvia Street (the editor contacted the woman who runs the Saturday writer's group and asked her to get stories from me -- I quit submitting short fiction and now editors come to me), so I'll be taking a walk downtown. While I'm there I may as well make an appointment with the school shrink and see about those tranqs. I want to knock out a full chapter of the novel (I'm almost done and if I crank hard I can be finished in two weeks), and I want to do a logo for Deborah. But if I can find the time I'll put up a more cheerful post to compensate for this disgusting outpouring of self-pity.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The First Time At The Saturday Afternoon Writer's Group

This is from a camping trip. I was up before anyone else, as is my wont, so I went off into the woods to look for something to draw and I found a lovely bay sapling. I just scanned it in in two sections and used the Automerge function in Photoshop to stitch the scans together and as you can see it worked like a dream. All of a sudden my large-scale pieces including my life drawing stuff are back in play. I have the option of drawing large and processing the images in the computer! This rocks! I really want to color some of my nudes, add a few layers of texture...

When I was working on the inked version of this someone looked over my shoulder and said, "Oh, that looks like it was so easy and natural to do."

Easy? EASY?!?

They had no idea how close to death they came in that moment.

So these are the exercises that I did in the writer's group on Saturday. As I said before, while I didn't feel at ease I felt like I got something out of the experience. What I produced ranged from typical oaf to stuff that's a lot more artsy than usual, including the first poem I've written in quite some time and another piece that's more-or-less a prose poem. But I must confess -- I'm scared of sensitive, delicate people. A vast loaf of vulgarity such as myself needs to be on constant guard in such company. I think I fucked up the balance of the universe, or at least the group, even though I toned myself down by about eighty per cent. And my back is freaking killing me -- that chair was deadly.

Still, I got a real kick out of the writing, both mine and that of the others. I love a creative challenge, especially if it's nice and fast -- I adore limits and deadlines. These are all unedited, just as I wrote them. Maybe after I accumulate a few more I'll make a chap-book out of them just for shits and giggles.

For the first exercise a bag of Halloween-related objects was passed around and we were given the chance to select one to inspire us. We were to write for twenty minutes. I picked a mask, which made me think of costumes, which brought a childhood memory to mind...

When I was a child, at Halloween my elementary school would have its students go home at lunch and change into their costumes. On returning, we would organize into a parade that would march around and around the playground and then we’d be judged on our costumes. I honestly can’t remember most of the prizes – there were quite a few different ones – because the only one I ever coveted was Most Original.
For years I tried to come up with something that would get me that crappy little gold-colored plastic cup. I felt as if I was owed this award due to my fundamental nature as a human being. It should have been mine. And until the sixth grade, it wasn’t.
Particularly galling was the year I spent well over a month making myself a Tyrannosaurus rex costume out of cardboard boxes. This was in the third grade, the year before Robert Bakker kick-started the hot-blooded dinosaur revolution with his article in Scientific American, so an upright Tyrannosaurus was still regarded as within the realm of possibility.
My costume was almost more an exoskeleton than an outfit; I didn’t wear it so much as operate it. I’d given it an elaborate skin pattern in green, yellow, and brown poster paints; it towered over even my father’s head, being nearly seven feet tall.
That year I was beaten by a garbage can.
I had to acknowledge the fairness of the decision; it was possibly the best costume I’d ever seen. It consisted of a trash can with the bottom cut out – and here’s the good part – it had a bundle of bamboo cleverly attached just off to one side. This kid wasn’t going as a trash can; he or she was going as the corner of a yard and was totally convincing in the role. You could sense the presence of a driveway, of the side of a house… This was art and I was shamed by the comparison with my own vulgar efforts.
I was so demoralized that the next year I went as Spock. The next I was a different spaceman, one of my own design that sprang from a cosmos of my own creation; nobody knew what the hell I was doing.
So in the sixth grade I gave up all my ambitions. I decided to have fun. I figured I’d go as a mummy. My mother was delighted; she was the kind of person who could really relish tearing up a bunch of bedsheets and safety-pinning the rags to a child.
And in the parade, as I walked those safety pins started to give way one at a time and the shredded sheets began to drag on the ground behind me. Other children trod on them, making me stumble and trip and make small bleats of anguish.
I won most original costume that year. For what the judges referred to as my portrayal of an accident victim.
That night, while trick or treating I decided to carry a lantern and go as Diogenes. I’d look at whoever answered the door and sigh heavily, shaking my head. Nobody got the joke but at least I knew what I was doing.

For the next piece a photograph taken by a friend of the woman running the group. It showed a mound of dirt with boulder at the far end, the reddish color of the soil and stones making me think it had been taken somewhere on Mount Diablo. The shadow of an oak tree formed an intricate pattern across the composition. It looked like a giant's grave to me and with twenty minutes to write I didn't want to go wandering around mentally.

One thing that was interesting: Everyone in the group liked my 'spilled ink' simile for the shadows but I thought it was a weak link, being the only word that calls human civilization to mind.

The stone man lies dead and dreaming, the shadows of the trees crawling across his body like spilled ink. He waits, lifeless but for the lichen and moss, the tufts of grass that have taken root in the hollows of his body, and he dreams.
He feels the steady pull of the Earth spinning toward dawn, the spin of heavy fire at the Earth’s core. Seasons are as fleeting and permanent as the cries of the birds; days flicker by and he closes his unseeing eyes against the strobe of their passage. The seasons wear at him, hot and cold and hot and cold and he feels himself falling apart, grains of sand and rough pebbles shed one by one.
And he dreams.
The sand washes downhill into the stream, the pebbles are worn smooth, the trees grow, shed leaves in a constant shower that pulses with the heartbeat of the seasons until no more leaves come and their bare trunks are overgrown by the shoots from their last acorns and the stone man dreams of the day he will rise, boulders gritting against one another, brush the leaves aside and walk out of the shadows and into the mountains rising higher and higher until the superficial world of life is behind him, until he is surrounded by rock, raw and naked, and there under nothing but the sky, over nothing but the earth, he will take his rest.
The stone man lies dead and dreaming.

For the next piece we took fifteen minutes. Carla gave us a list of words and we were to choose one to write from. Three out of five people picked 'sandwich' as their word, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.

I’m haunted by a sandwich that has never been made. For nearly a year now during the times when an opening appears in my overcrowded noggin – and I’m hungry – this succulent phantom on a roll has flooded my senses, real as my boots and intimate as the taste of my tongue. The sandwich comes from Alabama and China and Vietnam and Texas, places I have never been, places I want to eat.
I would start with a slab of uncured pork belly and I’d marinate it in soy and molasses and garlic and black pepper and five spice powder, redolent of cinnamon and star anise. Then I’d smoke it for hours as the fat drips down into the water pan and the pork shrinks and darkens and the flavors of hickory and mesquite insinuate themselves into what I’ve heard described as the five layers of delight – skin and fat and meat and fat and meat.
Then I’d take a banh mi roll, a Vietnamese baguette made soft and yielding by the addition of rice flour to the dough, and layer on slices of cucumber, orange and white slivers of carrot and daikon marinated in sweet rice vinegar, sprigs of waxy cilantro and jalepeno sliced into rings, rings of green with white-hot cores studded with seeds.
Then the pork belly, a dense red smoke ring infusing it half an inch under the sweet-spicy crust, sliced not too thick but still thick enough to taste of smoked and seasoned grease against the dry raw burn of the jalepeno and the tart peppery daikon.
When my mind bites into my sandwich the roll parts cleanly and gently under my teeth and each time I chew the flavor changes as the roots and seeds and leaves and flesh give up their flavors as they’re ground between my teeth…
And then I snap out of it and drop back to earth, return to the task of the moment – a class, a picture, a paragraph, a conversation – and promise myself that when I get home I’m going to go to the phone book, make some calls and find out where I can buy banh mi rolls and a slab of raw pork belly.

The last exercise was a five-minute piece. We were shown another photograph, this one of a neatly groomed man in a disheveled state. It was a close-up showing his face partially concealed by his hand. There was a sense of worry and despair to his expression and I got an oh-got-I-fucked-up vibe off it. When we read these out loud the only other man in the group said, "So you're married, right?"

Don’t lie to her unless you really believe it.
Don’t compliment the parts of her she doesn’t like.
Don’t like any part too much.
Don’t answer any question containing the word fat.
Don’t answer any question concerning any other woman.
Don’t smoke pot in the house.
Don’t smoke cigarettes in the house.
Don’t take a second trip to the liquor store.
Just keep your goddamned mouth shut
and be sweet, sweet, sweet.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Further Notes on the Working Habits of the Monday Night Writer's Group

I did this for a pal who had a brilliant idea -- use off-the-shelf equipment to make ethanol out of green waste. He did the numbers and the research and shopping and it would totally work. He got a lot of support from some high-powered people but it never gelled, which is a damned shame. It should be a standard practice.

This is the second version I did. The first one looked fine but then my buddy stepped up his promotion and needed a colored version. When I laid some hues down on the original it became grotesque -- the features were asymmetric, the left foot was turned at a ninety-degree angle to the knee... it was a nightmare and at that point I'd given up drawing in favor of writing so my draftsmanship was at a low point. I decided to take a class but by the time I'd gotten good enough to do a halfway decent job my buddy had been forced to stop his campaign for personal reasons.

Interestingly, that's when Swill got going -- so when I started work on that my visual skills had regrown. Funny how life works.

So Deborah sent me an email suggesting that I give a few more details as to how the Monday Night group functions and is organized.

First off and most importantly: You need to be able to trust the people with whom you work, and you need to be trustworthy. We all put out our best efforts for everyone else. The goal is not to tear each other down or build each other up; the goal is to help each other produce writing worth reading. It's important to call attention to both the strong and the weak in a given submission.

It's also important to be able to tell someone when something isn't working for you without having to worry about hurting their feelings. The fact that we work hard on each other's writing helps this a lot. We all get a sense of gratification from each other's successes and we all know that the others really, really want us to be doing our best because we can see the effort that's being put out.

Not everyone thrives on criticism; such people would not be happy in the Monday night group.

Part of this trust is the result of a certain amount of familiarity and social interaction. We usually talk for a while before we get down to work. The resulting relationships are similar to the kinds that you form on the job -- you get a feel for the person even if you don't really know them that intimately.

It may help that we all wear glasses; they make us look smart and give us a common point of reference.

We typically meet for about two hours, from seven-thirty to nine-thirty -- and I typically spend anywhere from three to five hours reading and editing the week's submissions. As a rule of thumb, we don't stop on the clock. If someone needs to leave they leave but usually we go until we're done. Nine-thirty is typical but it's not unknown for us to go until ten or even ten-thirty. We're there to do the work.

Al produces about forty pages a week in eleven-point Times. I generally do about twenty pages in twelve-point if I'm not coping with a creative logjam, when I do less, or if I'm working on a short story as well as the novel, when I do more. Eleven point saves paper, twelve point is standard manuscript format. I'm thinking of going to eleven for group submissions for the sake of paper conservation. Linda and Deborah have varying submission lengths; Debora is usually the soul of brevity, typically around ten pages, and there are extended periods when she doesn't submit, while Linda varies in her output, occasionally rivaling or even exceeding Al in her productivity, sometimes skipping submissions entirely.

It's unusual for us to break except during Jewish holidays and the summer when Al travels with his family (man, I'm jealous of his kids) and Deborah has to deal with the rush of business that landscapers and gardeners get at that time of the year. Since my back won't let me take summer classes -- too much time in the classroom either sitting or standing -- so I usually collapse into a puddle of useless misery and alternate between snarling at the dogs and spouse and drinking too much. (This year's gonna be different, he said. I have a cunning plan with which to thwart me. I just hope it comes off...)

To repeat, the keys to making this kind of thing work are trust, commitment, and effort.

And finally. The amount of time and effort I've put into helping develop other people's work has paid an enormous dividend in my own abilities. I write as well as I do to a great extent because I've spent so much time trying to help others write better.

(Hey, Deborah! I hope that does the job...)

Return Of The Son Of Monster But-Is-It-Art

The next assignment for my Digital Printmaking class is to do a print of a number in the style of a known artist. I chose Chuck Close and based it on a piece I'd seen in one of my few trips to a museum. I spent all day on it yesterday and it kinda sucks -- but this was not an assignment that was gonna inspire me so it's good to have it done so I can do my own stuff. Funny, though -- there's a bit of synchronicity between my doing this and the examples Glendon used in his post.

If you've found interest in my But Is It Art posts you really should go take a look at this post on Glendon Mellow's The Flying Trilobite. I am not fooling.

Thoughts On Writer's Groups -- Two Different Ones

This comes from my short-lived attempt to train myself as a scientific illustrator, a goal to which I still aspire. When the novel's done I may well take science courses for a while in order to further that end, said the perpetual student.

So on Saturday I attended a writer's group led by the poet and short-fiction writer Carla Kandinsky. We've had a couple of creative writing classes together and as I previously mentioned she invited me to attend the writer's group she runs.

When I first decided to take my fiction writing seriously one thing that influenced me strongly was associated with my former editor (I wrote cartoon scripts for Mondo Media for a while around the turn of the century) Megan MacDonald. She'd recently won an award for her scriptwriting and mentioned in the linked article that the best things a wannabe writer could do were reading a lot and joining a creative community. I was a compulsive reader already -- but the latter was news to me. "You could've told me that," I thought to myself, and then hit Craigslist.

Due to an odd series of circumstances a good writer in a good writer's group found me and suggested that I should meet her group, give them some sample work, see how things fit...

Worked out well for me. I've been in the group for maybe five years now and have seen a lot of growth in my abilities. I've also seen a lot of crazy politics, made a lot of friends. Everyone who's left the group has worked or spent time with me afterward. I can't overestimate how rewarding its been.

Currently, there are three other people in the group. I don't mention the names of people who may not want to have themselves put into the public sphere but since these folks are writers I'm gonna risk it.

The first of the current crop to join was Al. He's an unpublished mystery novelist working on a series about a police homicide detective who had trained as a rabbi. Good stuff hovering on the cusp between literary fiction and police procedurals. Al's a serious, disciplined writer who is my bet for the first one of us to make the leap to a professional career. A responsible family man with a strong spiritual streak. My dad once said, "Usually I can't stand religious people but with Al I don't mind it." Which sounds a little patronizing in print -- when spoken it had a note of admiration with which I concurred.

The next to appear was Debora Kuchar. When we were looking for some fresh blood she responded and sent in a piece of surrealist science fiction that got good responses from the group.

She never showed up for a meeting -- this is not unknown.

But a while later I was exchanging critiques from noted poet Maria Chavez at Jupiter, a downtown Berkeley beer bar. While we were wrapping things up a friend of hers made an appearance. He had Deborah in tow and in the ensuing conversation we found out about our previous contact. She showed up and got hooked. She's done a lot of extremely individualistic material with a strongly surrealistic edge to it (I wish she'd figure out a venue to show some of it off) and now she's focused on her blog -- go ahead and click on her name for a taste. She's a skilled and gifted (the two are different) landscape architect and gardener and this has influenced her writing in some fascinating ways.

The group got to the point where it was just Debora and Al and myself. Then Linda came back into the picture and has been meeting with us since last July. She'd been in the group for a while before having to bow out but now she's back with both a vengeance and a novel, a thriller partially set in the LA riots set off by the Rodney King verdict.

I met Linda in Lee Marrs's scriptwriting and storyboarding class and it was one of those things where you just lay eyes on someone and you know there's something between you. Sometimes love, sometimes hate, in this case friendship. We differ in so many obvious ways it's ridiculous; at the same time we are basically two versions of the same thing.

You ever have someone whose boyfriend or girlfriend changes periodically and at the same time it seems like the same person every time? Kinda like that.

So each week we send out our submissions via email as .doc documents. Then we each print up everything the other people have sent and edit it. On Monday night we get together and go over the edits, ask for thoughts and suggestions, and in general engage in very practical and specific critiques. Since we've got three novels going it's a lot of material -- Al is the most productive and the pace he sets is a great example. He also has a fascination with the mechanical details of narrative structure that has been a real prod to my own exploration of that area of fiction writing. I'm probably the most intrusive and heavy-handed editor due to my fixation on prose style. Deborah and Linda are both great for their ability to think about physical continuity and clarity of expression -- I spend a lot of time listening to them and whacking my forehead at the things I didn't get.

Now the writer's group I attended on Saturday is the antithesis of what I'm used to. I don't have a lot to say about the membership since I'm not familiar with them -- but as group they give the impression of a certain type that's very visible here in Berkeley.

At forty-four I was the youngest person in the room, and to be honest I felt very out of place. Everyone else seemed quiet, gentle, aesthetically oriented, spiritual -- they struck me as hippy-types, to be crass about it. Nothing against the hippy, and of course it's inappropriate to label people like that without knowing them well. But I felt too big and loud and... vigorous isn't the right word but if vigorous were a pejorative term that's what I'd mean. They wrote in pens in notebooks; I wrote on a laptop. Maybe that's the best way of putting it.

Not that I didn't like them; I just felt like a pit bull in a goldfish bowl.

The way this group works is to do short writing exercises and then read them out loud. The emphasis is on expression rather than narrative. There were some lovely bits of writing produced; it was fascinating to see myself picking up on the vibe and running with it. What I did was atypical and on the precious side; I kinda dug it. I'll put it up tomorrow.

I'm going to try a few more sessions before I make up my mind. Yeah, I felt ill at ease, I'm not entirely thrilled with what I did. But it's not good to stay entirely in my comfort zone and I don't think I was grossly offensive. Fuckin' killed my back, which gives me a legitimate out if the social discomfort (please note this is my pathology, not their persons or behaviors) proves intolerable. This new kind of writing might be good for me; I've at least got a seed for a short story out of it.

Listen, if you want to write you'd probably do well to find or form a group. They get a bad rap in some circles but for me they're a necessity, plain and simple.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Flat-Out Refuse To Make A Pun About Beets

I'm not sure why so many people hate beets. Try making a salad out of julienne cooked beets and raw carrots with sweet red onion dressed in a vinaigrette seasoned with black pepper and fresh mint. Hmmm... the next time I see sour oranges in the store I'll do this and use sour orange juice instead of vinegar.

So yesterday I had my first meeting with a different writer's group. I'll blog about it next time. The rule is that I have to have at least one image with every post and I didn't have anything that would fit that post in particular. So I went grubbing around and found a motherload of old art. You'll be seeing more of it.

Anyway, this was the very first drawing that I ever colored on the computer. I was doing a lot of botanical stuff at this point and I was working a lot with technical pens so computer coloring was a natural. This was a looooong time ago.

I'd dabbled in computer graphics before but found them pretty much useless to me -- I could not work with a mouse at all... A friend at work wanted to show off his new computer so he told me to take a drawing to the copy place and have a scan made and put it on a floppy disc (anyone remember those?) and bring it over and he'd show me how to color it.

He had one of the first Wacom tablets and as soon as I started messing around in Photoshop Two or Three I knew I'd found my medium. Of course at that point I was a warehouse worker pulling down seven-fifty an hour -- but I managed to convince the missus to plonk down the bucks and let me pay her back. She got hooked as well so we split the cost of the machine. Took me a couple of years to pay it off but it was totally worth it.

When I ran across this old drawing (tracing vellum wrinkles just like people do) I decided to scan it in and recolor it. The first file is long gone and was probably at 120 dpi or something else ridiculous like that. Also, the colors came out way, way too dark.

So once I had it scanned in again I opened Photoshop and used a Levels adjustment layer to bring out the blacks and whites of the drawing, then started laying down flat colors in Darken mode in a layer on top of the scan.

I selected the color of the beet by eye and then made a seperate document with a sample of that color which I opened in Illustrator. Illustrator has some color selection functions I really like; it gave me a choice of contrasting colors from which I selected the rest of the palatte, which I tested on the document until I had a combination I liked. Then I closed out of Illustrator and opened the palatte document in Photoshop. (There is a way to transfer palattes from one Adobe program to another and I'm gonna bug my teacher about it next class.)

And there we go -- a beet which is, as my old teacher Maurie Lappe would say, "Fit for the Louvre."