January 5, 2009

Chicken Soup, Canned

Canadian columnist Heather Mallick is one of my favourite editorialists but I'd lost track of her for a while. I spent four years pouring obsessively over two of the pulpy dailies, and then I took an extended leave. I am sorry, Heather.

She wrote this article a few days ago, which I read today and wanted to link to as an extension to my previous posts where I mention my "deflowered" capacity for sentimentality (here), and my pot shots at Oprah (there). Oprah has recently found herself yet again unwittingly promoting a memoir that turns out to have been significantly fictionalized. One of those great "true love conquers all" stories. Mallick writes:
[Winfrey] has made the managerial mistake of hiring people too much like herself, people so relentlessly high on self-belief and inspiration that skepticism must hide its face in shame at story meetings.

This is why she so often falls for the lure, indeed the syrupy narcotic allure, of sentiment. It's human, it's understandable and, to a certain extent, it's even praiseworthy.
She continues the article on the theme of how emotionally powerful the pull of sugared stories are, and on the strange twists such sanitized fictions take in the minds of the susceptible. (That includes me, sometimes. Diaper commercial babies can make me tear up on a bad day.)

After a few days of reading news updates and editorials on the Gaza situation, I'm even less a fan of cheap sentimentality lately. And by supporting wholesale the Israeli government's position against the Hamas, never mind the repression and starvation of Gaza civilians by Israeli blockades, Obama has already cast off his aura of enlightenment and oratory tokens towards unity. The political climate he's been elected into tends to support naked emperors.

Uhm, the title of this post makes more sense if you read the Mallik piece. Read it!

January 4, 2009


This is a quote on writing I really like. Nick Cave, one of my favourite musicians, was speaking about his acclaimed lyricism. Cave was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal (here) back in April 2008:
"The false things glare at you, but if you learn your craft, you know to get rid of them. Stealing of a line is a lesser thing than the false line."
I used to think of "stealing" as a clear-cut case of plagiarism, a concept I've abhorred since the Sixth Grade when my friend Andrea drew that portrait of a unicorn under a rainbow that I was sure she had copied from my own equally unimaginative art project. In an art class in Grade 11, again, I thought I had come up with an original concept, until another student asked me if I had been inspired by a particular movie. I had not.

It's taken the longest time but I think I finally and fully appreciate the difference between plagiarism and inspiration. Frequently, I will watch a movie in the same genre as a novel I am writing only to see them use the same plot twist. Even a year ago, I would wonder in dismay if I could still use my own instance anymore, or it might appear as if I had lazily stolen their idea rather than developed it on my own. Once they even used a line of dialogue I had already written on an episode of, like, Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was irked until I realized there are so few ways to express that sentiment in that circumstance. Besides, being accused of "borrowing" from Joss Whedon is not the worst scenario facing a writer, and accusations of imitation can also be flattering in that sense. Virtually everybody is borrowing from others anyway, and everything has already been imagined. (Researchers recently recovered an ancient Greek comedy routine very closely resembling Monty Python's Dead Parrot skit. No parrot, but the mechanics of the joke are the same.) All we can do as writers is try to invoke a fresh spirit into the thing by recombining ideas or adding new elemental twists. (I retain the right to refine this idea later, probably by finding a better description of this dynamic written by someone else.) It's also important — as noted by Guy Gavriel Kay, quoted in an older local post — to investigate the source material and not find inspiration only in recent books or movies where even they may be borrowing superficially from other recent narratives.

Fortunately, that particular novel I'm writing contains the idea, both structurally and referentially, that everything is connected and the same ideas or events play out repetitiously over the ages with a slightly different tune, until we come to think that current ideas or events are a whole new song entirely. They are not.

As for inspiration, sometimes I find listening to music inspires me to write a line of poetry, even though what I wrote isn't the same as the lyric; sometimes I find watching movies inspires me to write some dialogue that is only tangentially related. It can jog my memory of an element I want to introduce, just by invoking the same emotional response or insight. And by reading novels, I am 'inspired' to avoid certain plot devices or writing styles or, more positively, by the rhythm and cadence of that writer's narrative. In that way, other people's creative output can get my own creative process churning.

Of Nick Cave, WSJ's Jim Fusilli writes:
[He] is a successor to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bob Marley and other artists who used narrative techniques to expand our perception of a rock song. He's the writer Jim Morrison thought he was, or might have become had he not flamed out early. When you enter a Cave song, the experience it most resembles is reading a piece of short fiction — except that the music by his fierce backing band alternately pounds and slithers across your body and Mr. Cave sings in a manner somewhere between that of a tent preacher and that of the world's most insistent lounge singer.
The whole article is interesting from a writer's perspective, as his career has included unconventional rock lyrics, screenplays, and a novel. He mostly speaks about the writing process itself, not so much his background as a musician.

January 2, 2009

OM Oh Bah Ma, Om

Here are two blogs that catalogue the cultural phenomenon of people trying to draw religious parallels between President-elect Barack Obama and Jesus or, alternatively, a Bodhisattva, depending on your spiritual persuasion. I was genuinely moved by Obama's election and his acceptance speech, and I have a nascent talent for finding parallels to religious narratives and current events as a kind of storied exercise in symbology; but, this? This is as sad as silly can be. He is going to make mistakes, and some people are going to be crushed and confused. Unless they decide his mistakes too are part of God's great plan, as did the evangelists in reading the failure of the McCain/Palin race. I'm not clear on why God would grant humans self-determination and then thwart their democratic process, but I envy the certainty of those who ignore such challenging counter-implications. Their logic may yet serve the Obamadans.

Obama for Messiah '08

The creator — not, The Creator — writes at the bottom, "Barack Obama may be a great candidate but he’s not likely to turn water into wine at any point in the near future. This site is intended to poke a little fun at those who seem to be waiting for Christ to abdicate his throne to Senator Barack Obama." And to sell the related merchandise, like blasphemers are wont to do. He also provides a link to the next site.

Is Barack Obama the Messiah?

While the above is a fun, quick diversion, this site is way exhaustive. It's an ongoing blog with quotes from and illustrations by people who clearly do need another hero, yet find Mel Gibson's messiah-empathy complex unsettling or misdirected. Obama may smoke, but he has yet to demonstrate a paranoia towards Jews or a mocking disregard for women in authority. No, Obama loves everyone — sinners like Mel included — and speaks ill of no one. High Priestess Oprah Winfrey has proclaimed that he has "a Tongue dipped in the Unvarnished Truth." Note the capitals. They draw away from the laughably poetic imagery so favoured by people ordained in B-movies. If the thought contained genuine gravitas, it would not require Reinforced Gravitas. We should be glad that Oprah promotes fiction, and does not write it.

I was intrigued to read that he "carries with him a bracelet belonging to an American soldier deployed in Iraq, a gambler's lucky chit, a tiny monkey god and tiny Madonna and child." Not sure about the gambling chit as that represents Mammon, but tokens of Hanuman and a female-inclusive Christianity(1) is kind of reassuring. Maybe he really does love everybody. Or, maybe, in his hubris, he thinks of this as his family portrait. (Hanuman is an avatar of Shiva, one of the Trimurti gods in Hindu cosmology, considered the Supreme Being by one major Hindi sect.)

This is my favourite post so far, because I'm helplessly drawn to Platonic philosophy, all the more romantic because I know so little of it: "Barack Obama is the Platonic philosopher king we’ve been looking for for the past 2,400 years." Okay, but, the philosopher king I'm writing a (fictional!) story about would never, ever take political office. She's too wise.

(1) I'm considering this charm to be female-friendly based on the specific imagery, not the definitely non-inclusive dogma of the Christian sect that the Madonna is most associated with. This whole paragraph, I know I'm stretching.

December 17, 2008

Gen. Director

This is from an interview with Ari Folman, director of Waltz With Bashir. EYE Weekly (Dec 11 2008) describes the animated documentary as a "stunning enquiry into the psychological after-effects of combat, as experienced by himself and other veterans of Israel's first war with Lebanon in the '80s."
Q: Movies like Persepholis and Waking Life have expanded ideas about animation, memoir and documentary in recent years. Did you look to any of these as models for Waltz With Bashir?
A: No, I was mostly influenced by books I read when I was younger: Joseph Heller's Catch-22, William Saroyan's Adventures of Wesley Jackson and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. All those books take a step backward and see war as this surreal, absurd, sometimes funny thing. And they're all by storytellers who were there. I think that makes a whole lot of difference. Sometimes with movie directors, they direct these big anti-war movies but they haven't been there and it's easy for them to fall in love with war. It's because they're like big generals on the set — they say "Action!" and five helicopters fly over and burn everything. In terms of ego, they go through the same experience as those generals, I think. That's why a lot of anti-war movies are not really anti-war movies — they put the glamour of war out front.

Q:The other thing that happens in movies is that wars get defined by heroic narratives rather than the more troubling and confusing experiences.
A:Yes, they want everything to be about manhood and brotherhood and valour and glory and sacrifice. I was completely not interested in that. The response I got from many people back home was that the most symbolic shot in the film, the one that represented war better than anything else, was the one of the armed vehicle going through the night and the soldiers shooting like crazy into the darkness without knowing where or why. A lot of people told me that's what war was like for them.

December 1, 2008

Echoes (echoes) ((echoes))

A friend wrote a thoughtful blog post, about the recent terrorist bombing in Mumbai, which reminded me of a favourite quote I recently rediscovered.

I had written it carefully with pen in a small bound journal, along with other short texts I thought were pithy back in 1997. Many I found second-hand, in the books of writers who touched the idea in its original context and javascript:void(0)published the echo of that thought in addition to the din of their own. Eleven years later, my inky choices have either stood the test of time in a mind since deflowered of sentimentality, or have wilted in the face of my cynicism, which I had since built up and only recently partly deconstructed.

I have no idea who Donald Hogan is — or was. Google turned up many names when I asked, including Anna Nicole Smith's father, a dentist, a lawyer, and a writer who has been published in Harper's Magazine. Whoever this Hogan was, he made this statement in 1972 as "A Personal Testament."
I am not an idealist, nor a cynic, but merely unafraid of contradictions. I have seen men face each other when both were right, yet each was determined to kill the other, which was wrong. What each man saw was an image of the other, made by someone else. That is what we are prisoners of.
Aside from some quibbling about what constitutes "right," I do believe this. I can also try shouting this into the cavern — "This is only my image, made by someone else" — but terrorists who survive their own efforts are prisoners trapped mentally in solitary confinement, and they cannot hear me to answer back. I've wondered before, thinking particularly of Palestinian rebels, how many of them are now themselves shouting because no one listened to them until then; no one except those who convinced them to make these terrible choices, and who told them to listen to no one else.

November 17, 2008

I Can Has Clever Subgek Line?

I was never completely sold on the whole internet Lolcats /"I Can Has Cheezburger?" phenomenon, but at Salon.com, Jay Dixit (of Psychology Today) explains it in a way that makes sense to me. I guess. This theory in particular is cute:
The comic form is generally a prophylaxis against sentimentality. By articulating profound feelings through cats and marine mammals speaking garbled English, we're able to shroud genuine emotions in pseudo-irony — which means those animals can evoke deeper emotions without fear of mockery or cheapness.
One problem though. People who abhor sentimentality will still hate these captioned kitties. I fall somewhere in between. For instance, I never use 'LOL' in an email.*

* I did use it once, actually.

October 13, 2008

Bed Head

From "Erewhon," a novel by Samuel Butler, a 19th century English satirist:
The judge himself was a kind and thoughtful person. He was a man of magnificent and benign presence. He was evidently of an iron constitution, and his face wore an expression of the maturest wisdom and experience; yet for all this, old and learned as he was, he could not see things which one would have thought would have been apparent even to a child. He could not emancipate himself from, nay, it did not even occur to him to feel, the bondage of the ideas in which he had been born and bred.
As for the social bondage we are born and bred in:
For property is robbery, but then, we are all robbers or would-be robbers together, and have found it essential to organise our thieving, as we have found it necessary to organize our lust and our revenge. Property, marriage, the law; as the bed to the river, so rule and convention to the instinct; and woe to him who tampers with the banks while the flood is flowing.

December 27, 2007

Shoelaces untied, he trips, but in the right direction...

Something Jimi Hendrix said, quoted in the "Electric Gypsy" biography:
Listen, you want to talk about music. That's what I really know about. I don't want to say nothing about comparisons with other groups, because if you do, that puts you higher or lower than them, and that's just the same old cycle. Our music is in a very solid state right now. Not technically, just in the sense that we can feel around the music and get into things better. We don't have any answers this time, but we'd like to turn everyone on to all we know....We know for instance that Jesus was starting to get it together quite nicely, but that ten-commandments thing was a drag. The bogey man isn't going to come and get you if you don't tie your shoe. You don't have to be afraid to make love to one of your boyfriend's wives. Brand-name religions like Buddhism and Zen are just clashes. The Catholic Church is spreading and vomiting over the earth. The Church of England is the biggest landowner in England. Your home isn't America, it's the Earth, but things are precarious....You know my song, "I Don't Live Today...Maybe Tomorrow"? That's where it's at...

September 6, 2007

Haiku: funny cause it's true

I'm now sitting on a handful of incomplete blog posts, including the one about how perfectionism keeps me from completing anything, so today I am submitting someone else's work. A selection of haiku poems by Tom Walmsley were published in the current issue of This magazine. These two struck most.
# 32

i generalize
just like everybody does
people amaze me


i had a short dream
i shot our hateful leader
dreams will soon be banned

The word 'haiku' was formed by the Japanese words for 'amusement' and 'sentence.' I was more amused by what Walmsley says in the quote at the bottom of his entry in The Encyclopedia of Canadian Theatre. I relate for sure, except for the daddy part or having been a heroin/alcohol addict; nonetheless, status quo be damned.

July 16, 2007

Mythinformation, Mythappropriation & Mythapplication

Writing in the Globe & Mail's Books section, July 14, 2007, Guy Gavriel Kay adds justification to the value of mythology and the contemporary fantasy narratives that have grown out of these classic myths and legends. In the wake of excitement about the new Harry Potter book and movie releases, GGK wants us to "consider context and antecedents."
Keith Thomas, [in his book "Religion and the Decline of Magic," 1971], explores the tensions that emerged during the Enlightenment as science added its voice to that of the clergy in denouncing "primitive" rituals, beliefs, traditions. The irony? Science was denounced too, of course, and much of its own early history emerges from studies such as astrology or forbidden alchemy: men trying — wizard-like — to transmute one element into another in search of the elixir of life, or gold from lead.

An understanding of the enduring power of this idea of magic in the world, the notion of wizards (or witches) among us with arcane knowledge, and how this lies at the gates of our modern age, emerges clearly from reading Thomas's masterpiece. You will also know which way widdershins is.

Before Potter there was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Any discussion of wizards in contemporary literature quickly reaches the figure of J. R. R. Tolkien. What too few readers might realize, especially those who know his vision only through Hollywood's rendering (or distortion) of his trilogy, is how brilliantly Tolkien the novelist made use of Tolkien the scholar.

This was a man who spent a lifetime reading and reflecting upon myth and folklore. Magic in Tolkien isn't arbitrary or superimposed. It is elegantly derived from traditions that go back to Anglo-Saxon epic poems (and riddles!), Icelandic sagas and the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, among many other sources.

Here is my favourite part:
The point (in this context, at any rate) is that Tolkien's wizards and his magic are grounded in elements of our culture reaching back a long way. There's nothing childlike in an awareness of these roots. Myth and legend, folk tradition, are the underpinnings of a society. Indeed, one might say that to be unaware of them leaves us at risk of being as children, oblivious to the origins of our own world and worldview.
And the last bit I'm quoting here, because it's an important consideration, even though it frustrates me that I have so much research to do for my own story project that borrows elements from religion and mythology:
In purely literary terms, no one writing fiction in this vein since, no one making use of the idea of a magic-wielding wizard, can honestly say they were not influenced — directly or indirectly — by Tolkien's work. But a great many of his horde of imitators have never bothered to go back to the sources as he did. It makes a difference.

May 28, 2007

Zen Cohen

Leonard Cohen, in an interview with Sarah Hampson, Globe&Mail's Weekend Review, May 26, 2007:
You have to take responsibility because the world holds you accountable for what you do. But if you understand that there are other forces determining what you do, then there's no pride when the world affirms you, no shame when the world scorns you.

February 26, 2007

What would Jesus's DNA do?

Over the weekend, there was some exciting news in biblical archaeology. A site of ossuaries, possibly containing the family of Jesus, possibly including his son and wife, has been publicly revealed by the filmmakers of a new documentary. DNA test results are forthcoming. There are lots of fascinating details in the article I read today, and my VCR has a date with the doc that will air in March. Among other things, they will raise questions about the biological veracity of the virgin birth, the celibacy of Jesus, Mary Magdalene's supposed inferiority to the male apostles, and the notion of the resurrection.

But for all the attendant speculation, what difference will conclusive test results really make? Some will ignore or refute the evidence indefinitely. For every question answered, the faithful who are willing to entertain the possibility of meaning outside of literal biblical interpretations will find themselves new questions, new narratives, to keep the myth alive. I know these religious narratives are simply stories, but I still experience a profound emotional resonance in them because they wrestle with the big, timeless themes of existence. (No, I don't fall asleep easily. And I haven't even started reading my Nietzsche collection yet. He'd not sympathize with the Christians as much as me, no doubt.)

It's in our nature to create new stories when the old ones lose their punch, but our collective imagination is limited so we pretty much just build on old ideas and narrative structures. (Inspired individuals may have less restricted creativity but their ideas don't always broadcast to the rest of us or they take time to trickle into the mainstream feed.) That's okay, because when stories are living, instead of entrenched, and we don't get too attached to the details that flesh out the story in a temporal context, the flash of inspiration stays alive too. (Hey Friedrich! Freddy? I bet if 'God' really does exist, it's in that flash right there — that vivid encounter between an active mind and a good story.) That's why it's important imaginations are encouraged; at the very least, allowed to fully develop. That's why it's so tragic when so many minds are coerced into slavish adherence to the same interpretations of the same stories handed down to them by, let's call them 'publishers,' who have vested interest in submissive audiences. Since most of us have had our imaginations hobbled — if not by churches that decide what we should think about the really old stories, told in a way that empowers the professional shepherds instead of the flock, then by the constant stream of passively consumed entertainment from competing publishers — we must rely on new storytellers to update the essential narratives in terms that refresh our suspension of disbelief and allow us to get excited about the story and characters again. Sometimes that can be achieved through satire; it definitely shakes up our lazy imaginations. So this letter to the editor in today's Globe&Mail from Ken DeLuca seems like a pretty neat little adaptation for our times, which is to say imagined in a time slightly ahead of our own with an updated political/ social/ scientific context.

I see a Tom Robbins/Dan Brown collaboration here with a twist of John Le Carré. The plot: Raelians steal a sample of the DNA of Jesus and successfully clone cells for in vitro fertilization into the womb of a virgin. Her child, J2-C2, is raised by a secret "End of Days" cult dedicated to fulfilling the prophecies of the Book of Revelations. In time, the Miracle Child discovers the secret of cold fusion and saves the world from global warming. But the multinational oil companies conspire to assassinate him because he is a threat to their power.

I can already see the movie. Sadly, the only part that seems entirely plausible, in this or any version of the Christ story, is that some body or group with too much power to lose or too little to believe in gaining any for themselves would arrange for our hero's murder. Happily, as long as our collective imaginations are fired up about stories of heroes who consider us worth saving, there's a chance one day we might collectively consider saving ourselves with the same passion. In the meantime, if Jesus's DNA proves that he was entirely human, maybe we'd start believing in humanity more. I know... what's possible isn't necessarily plausible.