Thursday, September 26, 2013

Maybe someday you can go to Detroit.

From the inimitable Uncle Shelby's ABZ. Shel Silverstein is a god. 
It's kind of literary, right? Tomorrow I'm heading out of town in the afternoon with my friend Jex to drive to Detroit for the weekend to see an exhibit of Dr. Seuss's hats. No, really. 

I admit it's a pretty random thing to do. But what's life for, if not to do random things with? 

I'll report in. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Collaborating kick start

The Kymeras' show at CAN*CON (Evelyn: A Time Travel Love Story) is coming up fast. We met up this weekend to run through the first real version of the show and figure out exactly what order things would go in.

I'm in an interesting position in this process. We're expanding a poem of Sean's into a full show. Marie and Ruthanne are filling in details of the narrator's story. I was given pretty much anything to do on my part, and in the first meeting it was suggested I could fill in the other voice - that of the narrator's wife. That way the two "characters" are voiced by poets while the narrative details are done by the storytellers.

But that meant I had to go home and write some poems about a very specific thing, in a very specific voice. It was tricky - I wrote a lot of fragmentary pieces which I then stuck together, or picked up and expanded. My character is only in the story in a strange, sort of disjointed way, so I wound up writing her voice in a series of short journal notes and fragments of letters and thought processes. Her speaking, in her mind, to either her husband or herself. When I brought them to the second meeting I thought I had a bunch of crap. But then we started shaping the story up, and it started to take a form with our four narratives interrupting each other and interweaving. We went off so the storytellers could craft their bits and Sean and I could tinker with our poems. Sean wrote a longer, more satisfying denouement and cut the poem into sections that could be interrupted by story. And I poked at my little poem fragments and couldn't really see how to make them into anything else.

But then this weekend we met again. I still just had my little fragments, and one full poem that I was happy-ish with. But magic happened. As we started the rough runthrough - Sean reading his intro, then Marie walking us through her story framework, and me reading out the poems I thought would go in various places - things started to fall into place. I still only had my fragments for the second half, but while people were reading through their parts I started crossing stuff out, drawing in arrows, reshuffling everything on my page. Between me and Ruthanne - covering most of the second half of the show - we rearranged the stuff I'd written, fit in in between Ruthanne's short vignettes, and suddenly there were all these resonances bouncing around between the different voices and threads of the story. I could actually see how the bits I'd written related to each other, where they could fit together into more coherent wholes.

And suddenly I felt more like writing than I have in a long time. Having some other brains around to bounce things off of, yes, but more importantly, working with those other brains on an actual collaboration got my brain engine rumbling. And I remembered, again, how much I like working with the Kymeras.

Good news, by the way: you can now buy a day pass for Saturday evening at CAN*CON, so you can come for just the evening's shows, including Evelyn.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Revisiting Watership Down, and some thoughts about stories

A while ago, a friend of mine started "The Most Awesome Book Club Ever": a book club where the idea is to read books that are considered "Great Books" that you might have been asked to read in school but somehow missed. Books you're supposed to have read. Things like War and Peace, or the Odyssey, or The Origin of Species. (Which was our first book, actually. I didn't like it that much.)

This month's book is Watership Down, by Richard Adams. I've read it before: in fact, I grew up with it. I went to see the movie when I was seven: my family was living in Indiana at the time, and I think it was screened at the university there, but I don't really remember - I do remember images from the movie, some of them quite terrifying, and some of them quite beautiful. I think my parents read me the book first, as part of our usual bedtime stories. (My parents read me all kinds of books at bedtime, from Watership Down to The Lord of the Rings to Robinson Crusoe, and if they had scary bits, we dealt with that. In various ways. Depending on the book.) So when I was a kid, I sometimes pretended to be Hazel or Fiver (usually Fiver: I always liked psychic characters) and I had nightmares about the Black Rabbit of InlĂ©.

And I read it again, this week. I just finished it. Correction: I just finished wiping the tears off my face, after finishing it. How dare a book about rabbits do that to me? 

I re-read another of Adams's books recently, The Plague Dogs, because I'd just been to the Lake District, where it's set, and so I had the literary equivalent of an earworm. They're very different books, and for a while I thought I liked The Plague Dogs more. It's certainly more aimed at adults. It's also preachier. Angrier, maybe. In Plague Dogs Adams goes off on long flights of reference, paraphrasing chunks of Shakespeare and Ovid. In part I think it's deliberate: he's echoing the hyper-associative, disjointed internal world of his insane protagonist Snitter, a dog who's undergone brain surgery as part of an experiment. But it has always struck me as a bit self-indulgent. It's a satirical voice, and being satirical can often mean getting self-indulgent. You can read it as Adams being arch and sarcastically angry and having fun with his overblown language, and I did, and I do like The Plague Dogs. But now that I've reread Watership Down, I've revised my best-Richard-Adams book order. Watership wins, hands down.

It's his economy in Watership Down. It's a long book, sure, but because I read it as a kid, it all seemed to take longer (reading is so immersive when you're ten or so). I realized, this time around, that in fact a whole lot happens in a few pages. There's so much detail packed in, neatly, unnoticeably, that it feels longer. The friend that started the book club mentioned, as she was reading it, how information like "human activity causes background noise that disturbs animals" can be delivered almost indetectably by describing the silence of Watership Down, where our heroes establish their new home. Points like "domestication takes something vital away from species that are meant to be wild" are illustrated rather than stated, by the strange, semi-domesticated Cowslip and his warren and the hutch rabbits Hazel frees, who are so inept.

And there's the subthread about storytelling. Alongside Hazel and his group's adventures, there's a counterpoint series of folktales about El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster hero. To Adams's rabbits, storytelling is a central social glue. Rabbits love a good story, well told, and while it's being told, they live it. They spread news by telling stories - when Captain Holly arrives at Watership Down, having narrowly escaped the destruction of their old warren, they wait until they can all gather and he can tell the story as a story before anyone asks him for details about what happened to him. Then, when  he does, all of the rabbits suffer through the same feelings and experiences as he did, and by doing that, they get their grief out and over with. The idea, I think, is that for a species with "a thousand enemies," the best way to learn survival skills is to tell these stories: you can learn from a story without running the risk of being killed by a fox or something. 

Tellingly, in the warrens in the book where the rabbits are not living natural lives - in what I call "the Stepford warren" where the rabbits are actually being semidomesticated so they can be trapped for fur and meat, and in totalitarian Efrafa - the rabbits no longer tell stories. Instead, they recite poetry. Instead of sharing an external social narrative, they share an internal, psychological narrative. They turn inward. (But, to be fair to the poets, in both of those warrens, poetry is also an act of subversion, of saying things that are forbidden.)

Adams' rabbits lead an immediate kind of life, where real threats and dangers force them to be clever and fast and strong: he may be hinting that we, as humans, lead a life much more like that of the creatures we domesticate, where our stories don't teach, our art is internal and reflective, and our instincts are dulled. He certainly uses the two dystopian warrens to show us two different outcomes of surrendering your self-determination. In one, luxury stultifies a whole culture: in the other, a dictatorship takes over and imposes a rigid, unnatural way of life.

And yes, the characters are simple. I think of them as the classic adventuring party from a fantasy. You've got your born leader, your staunch and loyal lieutenant, the clever one, the mystic, the storyteller and charmer, a couple of rank and file types, and the one that needs protecting. 

I think the characters being simple is a strength, rather than a weakness, in the book. They're already talking rabbits, after all. We're already dealing with a metaphor, or a myth, or an allegory, or something. The subthread about storytelling underpins that. So there's never really much question that Hazel, the leader, is going to be the leader. He's a perfect leader - not particularly strong or clever himself but able to see the skill sets at his disposal and put them together, and also able to read a mood and know how much he can ask of his people. In the same way that you know who Hazel is because you know the "leader" archetype, you also know what to expect of the rest, and it's satisfying when they fill those roles well: Bigwig being tough and loyal and self-sacrificing, Blackberry thinking up the clever plan, Fiver never, ever, once having a bad feeling that turned out just to be a badly digested carrot or something.

By halfway through the book, you can't help seeing that these rabbits we're reading about are living out an El-ahrairah story. They even start reflecting on it themselves. Which brings the whole subtheme of storytelling back around, rather neatly. And in the final pages, when El-ahrairah comes to take Hazel away to join the pantheon of stories. . . well, that's the bit where I had to stop and blink and wipe away the tears. Maybe I'm sentimental, but "our children's children will hear a good story" (as Hazel said to Bigwig), resonates with me. "It matters not if you live one day, so long as your deeds live on after you," is the ancient Irish saying.

I'm looking forward to the conversation when the Most Awesome Book Club Ever gets together to talk about this one. Because I know that alongside talking about the different dystopias and false utopias the rabbits encounter, and the ecological points that are made, and the characterization, and the plot arc, there will be the times when one of us will say, "And there was the bit where Bigwig was standing in the tunnel, saying, 'My Chief Rabbit told me to defend this tunnel, and I will,' and Woundwort's thinking, 'Shit, if he's not the Chief Rabbit, then how big must his Chief Rabbit be?!?'" or something like that. We'll share our favorite bits of the story with each other. We'll tell them again to each other. Because that's what stories do, it's what they're for.

And it had never occurred to me before, but I think that's a big part of what Watership Down is all about.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Not being at all nice in a review, which is possibly a first for me.

I suppose it was inevitable.

I got bored this afternoon. And I've just discovered, where you can read a bunch of books online if you're not picky about format. And because I was bored I read the first page of the first book presented to me, which happened to be Twilight. Hey, I had to look. And I thought, okay. Maybe I should see what all the fuss was about. Expectations not high, but if I'm going to denounce a thing, I suppose I should at least have read it.

I tried, I really did, because goddamn it there has to be some reason so many people were so crazy about this book . . . but about a third of the way through it I just couldn't take any more.

It really is as godawful as people say. It is unspeakable. How in the name of all that is holy was this a bestseller?

Not only that, it really is poisonous in terms of what it says to young women about what's desirable in a man. Every single thing about Edward and how he treats and reacts to Bella should be sending off a million alarm bells screaming this guy is a psycho stalker, potential abuser, control freak with anger issues, big woop woop woop alarm klaxons going off avoid avoid avoid. Anyone - "perfect," "alabaster," "flawless," or not - who behaved like this around any rational female would instantly get filed under "keep-911-on-speed-dial." Even in high school. But no. She's irrevocably in love with him, pretty much immediately, because... he's perfect. A fact of which we're reminded about three times a page (note the above references to "perfect alabaster flawlessness").

So, in fact, every single thing about Bella also sends off huge alarm bells for me. She's a painful Mary Sue. She has no internal life outside of Edward, and even that is unconvincing. She doesn't act like a teenager, or like an actual human being for that matter. And apparently thinking it's hot to be terrified of someone (who's a perfect alabaster sparkly god who wants to kill you but that's totally okay because, you know, he's perfect) isn't a sign of any deepseated personality disorders at all.

On top of all that the writing is tooth-achingly dull and plodding.

Augh. AUGH. I have to go bleach my brain now.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Getting the band back together!

I'm pretty excited. the Kymeras got invited, a while back, to perform at CanCon in October. We've really, for real, started putting the show together and I can't wait to see the final product. It'll be the first Kymeras show in... frankly, in donkey's years. I'm really happy we're performing together again.

This being us, of course, we weren't content to go the easy route and just put together a show where Sean and I do poetry, Ruthanne and Marie do some stories, and they all have the same general theme. No. This being us, we started spitballing some ideas, and now we've got ourselves embroiled in a multiple-voiced, multiple-faceted, single-arc story that will take us an hour or so to tell: a story spun out of a beautiful poem Sean performed at our steampunk show a couple of years ago; a story about love and time travel.

It's actually been a long time since I wrote much of anything, other than blog posts and news articles, and it was hard and effortful and eventually encouraging to go back to it. To sit down in front of the computer and get through that horrible first fifteen minutes or so where you really just want to go open the Facebook window and look at your friends' posts and get frustrated that no one has posted anything fascinating in the twenty minutes since the last time you checked and . . . well, you know. It's not pretty. I sit there staring at the screen, write a sentence or two, then delete them again, then lose focus. Then remember I should probably check that the cats' water bowl's been topped up. 

But, in writing for this show, I got to break through that phase and actually start creating again. The other night, I actually wound up staying up late writing (haven't done that in so long). And then I went to our first real show-structure meeting today, where we took the stories and poems we've been working on and read them to each other and started figuring out exactly what would go where, and I admit I walked in thinking, as I usually do, "well, I've brought a load of crap." But I knew I was going to have to read them out loud. It was hard to work up to.

Funny how reluctant I can be to perform in front of three friends, rather than a room of a hundred strangers. And before I read, Sean was talking about what he imagined my part being - I'm basically playing the role of a character in his original poem - and it didn't seem to match up at all. Which made me feel a bit insecure - here I'd written my couple of crappy poems and they didn't do what they needed to do and . . . ah hell. But then the others made me read them. And when I was finished, Sean said, "You need to get over this insecurity thing, that was perfect, that was exactly what I was talking about, it was beautiful," and a bunch of other nice things, and I felt a lot better. 

And besides. . . Man, it's fun to collaborate with these folks. For some reason, Sean and Ruthanne and Marie and I collaborate really well. And we're at our best when we're putting together a show like this one - one that's a cohesive tale or an arc, one where there's a certain amount of theatricality and staging involved (in this show, Marie and Ruthanne will act as narrators: Sean and I will be in first person, inhabiting the characters of John and Evelyn, and there's some staging to enhance that idea). As we started to talk through the show structure and the stories Marie and Ruthanne were crafting, I caught myself thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did X?" only to have someone suggest it a moment later, or have that facet appear in the story they were planning. It was almost uncanny.

So yeah - it is great to have the band back together. We're planning this show, for October 5, and a reprise of our winter solstice show for a house concert in December, and already talking about touring Evelyn in 2014. It's pretty exciting.