So, I have this theory as to why there are as many aspiring writers as there are readers, and why it seems like there has been an explosion of writers in recent years. It has nothing to do with word processors. It has nothing to do with the rise of outlets for writing in the age of the internet.
I think it's simpler than that. People are unfulfilled working in this country. People grind their lives away pursuing the goals of shareholders and stockholders and upper management and do not have work that interests them, if they have work at all. For the approximately 25-30% of the country unemployed or underemployed, this purposelessness is exacerbated by the general economic woes involved. Ergo, writing books is a home-based business that solves certain problems that home-based businesses often have.
1) Cost of entry is low. A word processor and a web connection and access to mail is all that is required to start.
2) It can actually lead to huge success, if one is dedicated and talented enough, unlike plumbing or envelope stuffing. This is not actually a scam.
3) The work is enjoyable. It is not a grind, most of the time, to sit in one's cave and make stuff up.
With a down economic climate, and one in which real wages have not kept up with demand, we are going to see people get their hustle on, and try to work harder to make something more meaningful. That most work in this country is about as interesting as scraping your face against a cheese shredder only makes the interest in writing more so. Everyone who enjoys reading a book and wants to find a way to increase the annual income in a direction towards meaningful, soulful work will get the virus to scribble into the night.
It's the economy. For the last twenty years, the Reagenomicon has decimated the middle class, and everyone needs to find something to get that hustle on, and get that income up, and find work that doesn't involve layers of management and goals that make no sense most of the time and a culture of greed and efficiency that extricates surgically the soulfulness and joy of good, hard work.
I have no evidence for this. I have done no research. It's only a theory.
Because writing books is hard, and reading them is fun. If more people had fulfilling work, that met their goals and desires financially, there would be more people just reading books and less people writing them.
(I'd still be writing them. This is my megaphone to shout at the world. I would be screaming from my mountaintop even if no one cared to listen. I'm like that. I suspect most of the writers I like best would also keep at it, because none of us are in this for the money nor do we actually make very much money.)
Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
So, I have this theory as to why there are as many aspiring writers as there are readers, and why it seems like there has been an explosion of writers in recent years. It has nothing to do with word processors. It has nothing to do with the rise of outlets for writing in the age of the internet.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
At the end of every convention, I feel like the only adequate report that can be offered is this: I survived. I love conventions. I get to meet very cool people from all over the country and the world and we discuss important questions like "Could Red Sonja kick Conan's ass?" and "What are you doing in the ePublishing sphere and is it working?" You know, the highs and lows of pure geekery.
I could namecheck lots of people, but I would like to give a shout out to my workshop participants who all seemed very upbeat and positive at the end of the workshop, despite all of the efforts of the instructors to turn them into the cynical shells of men that Matt Bey and I have become after years of working in the field of SF/F. Thanks for signing up and I hope you encourage other aspiring writers you know to sign up in the future! Also, thanks to Stina Leicht for running the show, and organizing everything down to the point of a much better vegetarian sandwich than I would have otherwise gotten for lunch! Go Stina!
(You know who Stina Leicht is, right? She wrote this:)
I attended some awesome things, including panels with people, all very cool. I also attended some readings by Martha Wells, Matt Bey, Patrice Sarath, Michelle Muenzler, and Rob Rogers. In particular, I'd like to point out Rob Rogers because I discovered that has written what sounds like an excellent and timely sequel to Devil's Cape, and he has just released that fine first novel full of superheros and circus freaks out into the world as an eBook you could go pick up right now!
Let's see, who did I meet...
I'm missing people. I know I'm forgetting people. If I forgot you, I'm sorry, but this is devolving into such a pimp-thread, I may have to get a gold cane and a cape just to get to the end...
One topic of constant conversation among the con-goers was how low attendance was at cons all over the country, how people just weren't showing up. There were people I expected to meet that weren't there, at all. I know times are hard, but it's hard to see it happening right there in front of me among one of the best conventions in all of the south.
FenCon is coming. I won't be there, but I wish I could. If you're in Texas, go. It's a great Con. Lots of cool people, awesome panels, and good times will be had.
The journey was long. Texas is in a serious drought. When I drove in, it was raining so hard in Louisiana that I had to pull over and rest along the side of the road. I crossed the border into Texas and there was an instant shift from green to brown. There's this big Catfish shack on the border between Texas and Louisiana, and the rear of it is green, out by the dumpsters, but the front of it is brown where people are parking their pickup trucks. Drive down into Austin and see how desolate it's become there. Everyone's zeroscaping their yards. Everyone's talking about the politics of water and the death of the aquifer that's been open for business too long, too long, and too widely. There's a reason people weren't building up so much before, you know. It wasn't because they didn't want to push into the hill country. It's because there isn't enough water for everybody. Once upon a time, a farmer would stand up in the courtroom and say that, and people would respect him. These days, they just laugh him down. 100 years is a long time until everything runs out. Lots of money to be made between then and now. Who cares that it is an eyeblink of a protozoa clinging to a grain of the sand of time? They don't. They don't care what world will be left for the people after them whom they will never meet. By then, they'll be long gone. Pull the water up from the ground. Keep building above the aquifers. Retail malls and outlet malls and housing complexes as far as the eye can see, because 100 years from now, when these empty concrete shells collapse upon their imperfect construction, designed for less than 100 years life, there won't be a person left on this ground that has a choice about it, and by then all the money accumulated will help drive the family ever east, ever east, ever east, back where there is an ocean and some mountains that will stay up above the rising waters of the great, big melt.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
The problem with integrated collections about Greek Mythology is that there is quite a lot of mythology to play with, and no shortage of ideas bouncing around my head.
I think I'm done. This is the third time I thought I was done.
Time will tell.
I'm at my father's house, passing through on my way to austin. the dogs are anxious. they want to go around the block. they want to play and eat and play some more.
I think they might be right.
so, in the mean time, it's going to be all steampunk all the time, then.
I don't actually believe in Steampunk as a literary movement. I believe in it as a fashion movement that was such a powerful and timely aesthetic idea that it tumbled out into other forms of art. It's like how there are really strange poems and plays from Marcel DeChamp's hobby-horsery, but it was always, really, about the paintings and sculptures and breakdown of form and imagery and definitions of the visual, tactile arts.
Still, I'm writing me some. It's going all right. Time will tell.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
I am in Texas, at my mother's house, surrounded by brown, drought-ravaged yards and plants, sitting in an air conditioned house with a glass of water beside me and the constant distraction of dogs.
I have decided to reveal the future of everything.
The future of business, every business, is the death of every business, because they will all collapse under the weight of changing business models and bad investments and better competitors.
The future of reading is the end of reading, because literacy was invented and is more precarious than we could possibly imagine in a world where reading is not as valuable a skill as programming, and it is only a matter of time until programming is the preferred language in text form.
The future of programming are programs that design other programs, because people couldn't be bothered to learn all the intricacies of whatever language of programming iterates while machinery produce tool after tool after tool.
The future of machinery is to get smaller. There are only so many power plants that can run on this earth without killing us all, and we are already over our limit.
Get smaller. Think local. Think illiterately.
We will walk away from all these futile devices, and return to agriculture.
We will tumble away from agriculture as crops fail and new insects learn to eat old plants. We will have to forage.
We will all be foraging, with no businesses to hire us, and no books to teach us, and no programs to bother reaching out a robot hand to ours and no power plants to send the bill collectors after us.
We will all be foraging.
There will be tribes.
They will want to leave messages for each other that will look like heiroglyphics on stone walls.
This is what will happen to us, and to everything with us.
Also, the sun is a finite resource, and even if it is a slow burn, it is the only burn we have.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Read backwards as I just cut-and-pasted it.
In the current climate, it is still better to pursue major magazines first, but unless a semi-pro carries some cachet, it's better to DiY.
29 seconds ago Favorite Reply Delete
The experience has changed my perspective on short fiction, in general, and I expect I will be doing more original short stories via eBook.
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The bits are always distributed, exactly where people can find them, and I just have to keep producing more data bits...
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Though I still think it is not fully "here" as a writing business. In two years? Three? Five? The accounting and distribution is too good.
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The other neat thing is patience: I'm not racing against the death spiral to move units of product. I've got no PR, no hurry, and just write
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And, that this amount is small is a temporary thing, I think, as more and more readers turn to eBooks on their various devices and many small amounts add up over time.
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It's simply breathtaking to open up a browser window, and know what I'm owed and exactly when it will arrive to the day. Even if it's small.
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My eBook experiments indicate to me that this will be the future of books, if only because of the way accounting and payments work. #ontime
My short story, "Dedalus and the Labyrinth" is the very first story in this collection, from Apex Publications, among what appears to be an excellent bunch of stories.
This particular work of fantasy was the first glimmer in the brain of what was going to become a science fiction/interstitial novel called MAZE that's coming out when it comes out from Apex.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
My agent is a very smart and talented man, and I agree with him almost all the time, and sometimes I have doubts. Nagging doubts. I am mortal, you see, and no matter what when you are a writer you are plagued with doubts. Is this the right project to pursue? Is this good enough? What if the market shifts and this sort of thing becomes cliche? Am I going to get paid on time this time, or do I get to wait for months again before the unnamed group that owes me money pays me the money I need to live...
Lots of doubts and confusion in the career of a writer, you see. And, we have most of the day to sit around and think about things, and it takes a strong force of will to quiet ones' doubts.
I have doubts. I agree with my agent, in theory, but I have doubts.
My literary agent has advised me to put this particular project on hold for a while, and even then thinks only the smallest of the small publishers would be after it. I agree with him, in part, because I can only think of a handful of places to submit this particular integrated collection of stories, none of them offering the sort of advances I could muster with the literary steampunk cinderella story I'm pulling out of my head with sharp tines at the moment.
Then, I second-guess my agent because I also think that maybe this is a powerful thing that the world would love, if it knew it existed, and maybe some of it is the best writing I've done to date. My imagination will not let this go. My gut will not let this go. I think maybe my agent knows epic fantasy really well, and literary fiction really well, and the in-between stuff maybe he doesn't know so well because there isn't the sort of money involved that one would get with the stuff that has a clear category, but defining a category is the way to build a career and my gut says this is the right thing to pursue and publish. I think that the writers that have seen pieces of this project, the good writers like Liz Hand and Scott Wolven and Jim Kelly, have completely flipped out for it.
Pieces of this thing have been selling to magazines. One was in The Raleigh Review. Another was in the Journal of Unlikely Entomology. Another will be in Paul Jessup's Coffin Mouth. When it comes to Greek Mythology, the women and the monsters never get to tell their own stories. Always they are the tossed-away baggage and victims and ruins left in the wake of the gods, goddesses and mighty heroes, who all mostly acted like selfish asshats and were praised for it. We all think of Orpheus, and never wonder what Eurydice wanted when she did not answer to her name, or what the Nemean Lion thought about becoming such an icon of a monstrous man, or what happened to Ariadne after she was abandoned on an island and had to just live her own life after the labyrinth and after Theseus. (Gosh, Theseus was such an ass...) Circe was a mighty sorceress with her own goddamn island but all anyone remembers is that a man committed adultery there, abandoning her wondrous immortality for a woman that he wouldn't see for nineteen years. Nausicaa became a woman without Odysseus around, and maybe she had her own odyssey. The muse never gets to tell her own version of things. Sing, muse, for yourself.
Anyway, it's a book. It's very strange. It's shifty, too, with some things in the past and some things in the now, and many things in between places, with magic and whimsy and surrealism as casual as breathing. I'm trying hard to clean up the last three of the fictions that I think that I want: Io and Cerynitis and Aphrodite/Athena. Maybe there's more stories to tell, because there are so many women and monsters of mythology that didn't get to speak their own stories.
I want this book to be in the world somewhere. My instinct is telling me once it is picked up it will be loved by the sort of people you want to love your books, the sort who read lots of them and share them with others and really care about them. My agent says no one will want it but the smallest of the small presses, and we should sit on it a while because maybe I'm going to keep writing more of them and maybe the market isn't ripe for this sort of thing. Maybe it won't be for a long while. I don't know if I agree with him or not, the more I think about it, because if the writing is good - if it is really, really good - maybe. Just maybe.
What do you think, world? Anyone out there have any ideas or insight?
Do you, my fans, become excited at the thought of a Literary Steampunk Cinderella story, or would you prefer more surrealism and fabulism?
When I wake up tomorrow, I will work on what you tell me to work on, either/or. It is unfair not to say too much about the steampunk project when I go on about the other one, but the very words "Literary Steampunk Cinderella" are about enough when you consider the sort of books I have already written, and sort of what that might look like in my capable hands.
What should I work on today?
I'll be volunteering on this farm until late afternoon. When I get home, we'll make dinner with what they give us on the farm, and then I will work. My time working will be dictated by you.
(Also, if you happen to be a publisher and your interest is piqued by this collection idea, no harm in dropping me a line, is there? I mean, it's not anyone's fault you read this on my blog. No harm telling me why it would never work, either.)
Monday, August 15, 2011
I'm writing new stories, frantically, some under deadline, some not. I'm writing and writing.
I speak bee. No one believes it, but I learned the language. My mother taught it to me, when I was very young. What you do is you place honey on your finger, your nose, and then a splash of floral perfume upon the back of your jeans. Then, you go into a field to speak to the bees, who find you because of the smell, and then they watch you to see what you have to say. You shiver, and move forward, then shiver again. Shivering looks like shaking your butt, like shimmying, but it’s not. It’s shivering. It’s a complex language. It took years of practice.
My mother was an expert. She could guide the flocks of bees over the highway, into safe harbors all over the city. Someone had to keep them safe from the killing men, that came in fancy trucks to spray the streets. Someone had to protect the bees from the changing places, where the old buildings that should have been a refuge were doomed to be rebuilt.
In this world, no one cares about the bees. Father doesn’t care about them. He doesn’t believe in my mother. He says the powerlines have changed everything. Everything will be connected together that’s human, and anything that can’t ride along the lines might as well be forgotten.
My mother agrees with him when he says that, but she still taught me to speak bee....
There's a giveaway next door, at the Night Bazaar, where I was asked to speak a little about world-building, and I did, late at night, when I was awake far too late, because I was afraid of something terrible.
Often, I am bored by world-building in the books I read. I’m not really into “cool” worlds. I read for characters and to find the questions of my life that I did not know I was supposed to be asking. I mean, really, what matter whether a river is purple or a mountain is made of glass if the people of that world are not changed by it in some fashion, and not just in that they need special shoes to walk on the purple water and climb the glass mountains? I mean imagine that the glass of the mountain is a metaphor for a bright, shining, religious lie, and it is so massive that all the stained glass windows in the world have been thrown up together into one, huge monument to the lies. I mean that the character who climbs this mountain discovers a truth upon it that makes the monument a lie, because the thing that inspired it all was wrong to begin with. Things are different for a reason, and it has to do with art. Otherwise, we’re just messing with reality for the sake of making reality cooler than it is, and it feels lazy to me because reality is actually very cool, already.
Go there, and leave a comment there, and be entered in a giveaway to receive both LAST DRAGON and NEVER KNEW ANOTHER.
Comment here, and I will offer you nothing but a nod, which is invisible to you as far away as you are from me in this world
I noticed a story in the New York Times about something Angie and I did yesterday, by the way. We have so many foraged figs from a friend's backyard. She's out of town, and told us to sneak into her backyard and take figs. She has so many, and they're just sitting there, ripe and delicious and about to rot. So, we pulled in yesterday morning, slipped into a strange backyard, and went nuts to gather about six pounds of figs right from the tree at a house that's abandoned for most of the summer. I call them our "ninja figs" because I felt like a ninja sneaking into a yard to get them. (We were invited to do it, and not trespassing, but her neighbors didn't know that!)
The people in this article are friends of friends, on the local farmer's market scene where my fiance works every day. They're right to do what they're doing, too. At the EAV markets, every dollar of food stamp is worth two dollars in produce. The people who need it most get what they need at a better price.
Don't let the food rot on the tree or the vine, I say. Atlanta has so many empty houses, empty yards, empty lots. If we don't do something about this place, we'll end up like Detroit, all hollowed out and polluted with drugs and crime in all these empty houses. I hope it works out for us.
I'm going back to work, now. Input/output... Io.... Mourn with the bees..
Friday, August 12, 2011
[With the malware-splosion of the Apex Blog, I'm digging around in my backup files to repost all the things I did there, here. This first appeared at the Apex Book Blog, about a year ago.]
You know that game with the wise-cracking hero, and how he is all clever and athletic and a he has a sassy, flirtatious relationship with the female lead, and he is smart and tough and funny and... Yeah, it's an archetype you've seen a lot of if you have been playing games. Whether you are a Prince of Persia, Nathan Drake, Spider Man, Serious Sam, Master Chief, Gabriel Knight, Dante, Ezio Auditore, etc., etc., etc., you know you are both a brilliant, competent dude, and always ready with a quip about how brilliant and competent you are. These characters could all probably be voice-acted by a young Harrison Ford to great success.
I'm sick of him. When I was playing Prince of Persia - the newest one, written by Andy Walsh - I was so sick of this guy that I kept imagining how great it would be to jump off a cliff and watch him actually land with a splat of blood and death. I don't blame the writer. I blame the company that chooses to ask the writer to make their character sound like Indiana Jones.
As I was thinking about how much I hate this archetype - because I'm sick of his self-confident smirk in the face of danger - I got to thinking why this has persisted. It seems the only alternative is the brutal, angst-ridden guilty characters of GTA:IV and God of War. Think about it: either one is a total smirking man-muppet, or one is a total, raging pain monkey. There is little nuance, for the most part. in between these two macho extremes.
Because, for the most part, you're playing characters that are supposed to be facing great peril, and deadly consequences, these two types have persisted. Most likely, your character is a mass murderer who leaps heights and distances that would make normal men break limbs against odds epically awful.
That wink at the crowd, or that comedically gruesome emotional angst, is the way designers have to try to deal with the reality that their characters are inhuman, and operating with inhuman expectations. They don't have human emotions. When they kill someone, it's nothing. When they jump from a burning building, a hundred yards, to grab a rope and swing over an exploding bridge, the characters' emotional "stance" sets a tone that alienates them from the moment they're in. A wise-cracking character always has their verbal defenses up, smirking to reveal the unreality and lack of actual consequences in the moment. An angst-riddled character is so inward-looking they never see what they're doing beyond their emotional blinders, a pocket of pain like gravity weighing down an unfelt, shallow-to-everyone world.
Main characters in games - especially male ones - have an emotional distance from the moment they experience. They are always above the people around them, slightly better, slightly faster, or blessed with slightly better aim. They are special and the world treats them as such.
If I were to draw a graph of immersion, then, I'd have the player who is holding the controller, separated over, then the character that is above the world, then the game world, like so: PLAYER ->MAIN CHARACTER -> WORLD. As a cipher, the main character tends not to be part of the world in which they inhabit. As sick as I am of the wisecracking main character, it is the way that many games choose to keep their main character a little separated from the world around them, to allow them to be the cipher of the player in the living room with the controller.
I was thinking about this, as well, because I just saw the excellent film, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, and it played like a game. Scott was the emotionally distant main character, a cipher for the audience, a little aside and above the world in which he inhabited. If one really thinks about it, were he truly engaged with the world he lived in, fully, he would never be able to separate from the persona in which he inhabited to grow as a person. Around him, all those quirky, funny, character-types are locked in their idiom, but none of them are capable of changing who they are without the action of the emotionally distant Scott, who seems to define everything around him.
At once, walking away from the film, I felt like I had lost something because I did not have, truly, that same clique of quirky, exciting, interesting people around me. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it is because I am emotionally engaged with the people around me as people. I am not distant from my friends and close relations. There is no player using me as a cipher for this world. I am totally immersed.
Indiana Jones archetypes are really a part of a larger problem, that the player cannot truly immerse in the virtual worlds. They need someone to stand aside of that world, and above it, carrying the loa of the player like a voodoo god.
That same perspective of emotional distance is all over books, too. But, as our characters do not have to be mass murderers to be interesting, in books, we are able to have a more mature immersion with the world of the book. We can approach characters as equals, for the most part. We do not need a wise-cracking, good-looking, super hero to carry us safely through the perils of the book. This may be what people are thinking about when they don't consider video games an art form on par with great works of literature, that can carry the reader a while in someone else's true skin.
But, I really thought Scott Pilgrim's movie was fantastic. I thought it spoke to the truth of the human condition, despite the unrealities built into the design and application. The veil of the unreal placed over Scott and Ramona's relationship enhanced the story, I thought, into the realm of art that spoke to the human condition.
The reason I thought this probably had something to do with how Scott Pilgrim did not sound like Indiana Jones. Unlike Nathan Drake, one could imagine Scott failing, hurting, or giving up, because Scott isn't just an archetype. He may be our cipher in that shiny world, but he is also ridiculously, painfully human. He's just as confused, stupid, weak, and petty as we are; and when he rises out of himself into true heroism and self-esteem it feels like it means something about how relationships and our desire to connect meaningfully with the people - to immerse ourselves in our world truly and completely - mean giving up that emotional distance. In the end, that's what he does. He leaves his shiny, brilliant, cool world behind to be with the woman he loves, in a real, grown-up relationship.
And now I'm going to Amazon to buy the graphic novels...
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
All you Texas-area, particularly Austin-area peoples best be getting prepped for the awesome ArmadilloCon Convention going down in a couple weeks. I'm taking my suits to the drycleaners tomorrow morning to get ready, clearing the car out for the drive, and wondering what I should read Friday night, when I'll be exhausted from a full day of teaching with Matt Bey of Space Squid in the writer's workshop.
Even right now, I'm reading the stories over, thinking hard about them, and getting my act together to figure out what must needs be said about the stories for the workshop.
When I'm not doing that, I'm getting ready for a guest coming in from out of town, passing through on a crazy roadtrip.
When I'm not doing that, I'm poking around for some kind of new employment. I'm getting sick of hanging around the house. I'm too social to want to spend this much time by myself. I'm not shaving enough. I find myself unshaven, wearing clothes that don't match, and it's horrible. I find myself wasting time because it is there to be wasted instead of maintaining a rigid schedule. I work better when I have to schedule. I feel more urgency with my writing time.
Also, and related to yesterday, with the update to the Kindle, one should be able to discover my latest experiment in ePublishing of projects that have no future in any other form, in this case a thing full of my bizarre poetry.
I hope not to mention this again, because I was reading some Ann Sexton earlier today, and I suspect I will not be going down in Norton Anthologies. I think it's good for a laugh, though, if only because I write poetry about robots, zombies, and whatever bizarre things bounce into my head when I'm stuck somewhere with nothing to do but think and scribble things.
But, enough about that. The next time I'll talk at all about poetry will be at a round robin reading in ArmadilloCon, where I will regale you with some of my not-remotely-immortal work!
ArmadilloCon, people, focus on that. It's coming soon, and it should be a wild time. Howard Waldrop, Paulo Bacigalupi, Stina Leicht, Patrice Sarath, Lou Anders, Scott Lynch, Martha Wells... I'm telling you, it's going to be great. I'm driving in from Georgia.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
I was encouraged to do this by someone who shall remain nameless, and I think it might be a terrible idea, even if I had great fun doing it.
It is done, however, going to be appearing for Nook and Kindle in a matter of hours, and is already up at Smashwords:
Much of this has already appeared on my blog, so hardcore readers need not bother purchasing this unless you have money burning through your pocket.
It's your fault. You know who you are.
If you're reading my blog, you've probably already seen all of this, so this is basically like saying: "Look, you could be paying for this crap!"
I feel like I just spit in the Mississippi. No one would notice, and it's all so blackened and muddy in there, among the poetry collections that are put up by the poets themselves, that what little I contribute is sullied the moment it touches the water.
I feel dirty.
I'm going to bed. Good night.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
I have learned about myself that I enjoy making things. It brings me pleasure to know that I created something, and it is a good thing.
When I am not making books and stories, I also like to make things. For instance, we made a basic clover honey mead a few months back, our first effort at making our own home brew, that was ready for bottling this weekend. I used to do this a lot with my parents, and was very pleased to give the super-fun activity a go, recently. It's still too young to drink, and tastes young, but it is definitely on the right path to tasty mead-y meadness. By Christmas, our bottles of mead should be fabulous and delicious.
Time will tell.
This is what I do, when I am not reading or writing: I'm making things, baking things, and occasionally, accidentally breaking things!
Friday, August 5, 2011
Again, with the malware-splosion of the Apex Book Blog, I'll be reposting things I did over there over here, for posterity's sake! Here's one I did about how small strike teams in video games...
A Small Strike Team Can Succeed Where An Entire Army Would Fail
I was playing Mass Effect last night to get myself prepared to finally - finally - tear into Mass Effect 2, and I was reminded of a pet peeve of mine in most RPGs. As a hero in an RPG game, I generally attract the help of other heroic people. They have big weapons, powerful special abilities, and would be very handy if the proverbial shit hit the fan against our mutual enemies. I think it's great to have party members with me, to provide cover, and extra ass-kicking powers when I'm defeating the forces of evil. I love my party members. Literally. I fall in love with one of them, and usually get some awkwardly done sex scene wherein still-partially-clothed avatars with wooden facial expressions commence foreplay until a black screen cuts me out of the good stuff. Anyway, the point is I really like having them around. All of them.
So, when a game designer hands me a party member, I am always fascinated by the next screen, wherein I choose who gets to come with me. In Mass Effect, I never get to take more than two people with me. Everyone else stays in the comfort and safety of the ship, somewhere far off-screen, where they are of no use to me.
This annoys me. RPGs do this all the time. I never quite understood the notion that a small strike team could succeed in - for instance - charging directly into a massive army of Darkspawn at the heart of the capitol city to kill a dragon, in Dragon Age: Origins. You know what? Fighting a dragon in the end boss battle through wave after wave of enemy darkspawn is, to me, quintessentially the moment I want to have every one of my allies with me to help me kick dragon tail. Why would a small strike team do a better job charging through the war-torn streets past wave after wave of Darkspawn until the climactic battle at the highest peak in the city? Because the design team decided that you don't get to have an army. It would - I presume - throw the balance off, create difficulties with processing power, and otherwise confuse the micro-managing sort of player that wants to give each member of the team a specific command each moment in combat.
Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights 2, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Fallout 2, and uncounted others all are guilty of this same strange trait. Player choice is limited to forcing players to take their favorite party members along. Player choice is not extended to taking as many or as few party members along as one wants.
This could be a new way of looking at difficulty settings. Using a small strike team is "hard", a medium one is "normal", and every single ally who can hold a gun and walk is "easy". This could also be a new way of looking at death. Another strange thing in these RPGs is what happens when someone dies. Someone can get knocked out in combat by losing all their health points, but they aren't actually dead. There's another way of handling that mechanic. At the end of combat they hop right back up again. Giving us a lot of NPCs and encouraging us to try to keep them alive is something that happens in first-person shooters. An emotional connection to our squad mates in an RPG-style dialogue system could really make the natural death of party members in a wartime scenario meaningful. Imagine having to decide between reloading to keep party members alive against an insurmountable boss battle that you finally, after hours of trying, won, or deciding that you don't want to face that enemy for the twelfth time regardless of who bought the farm.
Another approach - which I like the best - is one of the reasons why a dusty, old RPG from way back in 1990 is still one of the best RPGs ever made. "Planescape: Torment" didn't just throw a bunch of party members at you and let you pick and choose between them for your small strike team against crazy odds. No, instead, you begin the game with Morte. For the first few hours of gameplay, that floating skull is the only friend in the world. After a while, you earn people like Annah, Nordom, Dak'kon, Ignus, Fall-From-Grace, or Vhaillor. Honestly, you could play the whole game through twice and never even meet Vhaillor or Nordom, and Ignus might turn on you just before the last battle. The beauty of the game was that the individual characters were so well-written and so well-acted, you didn't feel like you wanted to choose other party members. You accumulated them slowly, making you feel like you earned them instead of just being handed these party members. And, I played through that brilliant game more times than I can count, and I never recall being asked to choose which party member to let go so I could keep the one I have. And, nobody ever said the words "...a small strike team" just before a giant pitched battle with wave after wave of bloodthirsty creature.
I began this post talking about Mass Effect. It's a great game, sure. I expect Mass Effect 2 will also be great. Dragon Age: Origins is great, too. But, are they great in the sense that Planescape: Torment was great? Limitations of game balancing and game technology are the things that mark the artistry of Planescape: Torment. There was an elegance to the game, perhaps the first RPG I know of where the ultimate goal of becoming a powerful, unkillable, behemoth of death and influence in the world around you existed solely so you could finally die. I still have those CDs floating around here. I still pull it up when the mood strikes and read through all the dialogue, meet all the characters. There will never be another game like Planescape: Torment. For a game to be a work of lasting art, I hope part of the definition is that no one will ever throw the concept of a "...a small strike team" around just to explain away the seems of the design. Because that's fucking lame. And, Obisidian figured out how to solve that design problem ages ago.
(With the malware-caused implosion of Apex Publications' Website, many of my blog posts were lost in the crash. I'm going to pull them up here for the sake of archivalism.
I've played approximately two days worth of EVE On-line. I had played it a little of it in the past, but it has been a while, and I wanted to get it back under my fingers before writing about it here.
Have you ever killed someone over a dull, gray rock? Ever smash your car into someone's car just to get at the bags of groceries in their trunk? That's Eve, in a nutshell.
More importantly, Eve is collection turned into a narrative experience.
EVE and MMORPGs in general suffer from a similar story quirk. The story is not where you think the story is. The quest texts one receives are unread, if they are even attempted. Players are here to be in the game, not reading flavor text. In fact, I think the real flavor text of EVE is the combination of intelligent, helpful people who exchange quips with the stoned-out potheads on the chat channel. Space is dreamy, gauzy, and mining is probably best done under the influence of something fun. (My drug of choice was chocolate milk.)
As these quest boxes, like every MMORPG I've ever seen, are silly at best, or absurdly poorly written at worst, I have to wonder what the narrative experience of this type of game must be.("Apparently they do not realize how dangerous capsuleers are, so head out there and teach them a lesson. A very painful one"! *yawn*) It certainly isn't the "plot", either, where all these nations have scripted feelings about each other. There doesn't seem to be a traditional narrative resent in the game, at all, as it is experienced, despite the efforts of the game designers to make it so. Without a narrative experience,I don't think people would play the game as long as they do. Story arcs hold your imagination hostage, and make you feel like you are part of something greater. Pushing the button to get a pellet is not enough to keep people coming back month after month. There has to be some narrative that even a casual player can experience.
I offer two possibilities, that I think are both present.
One, as has often been said and written, this game allows a community of like-minded people to blow up another community of people who aren't quite so like-minded. That's awesome. It's paintball teams for people that don't actually want to get their clothes dirty or feel the sting of a point blank machine paint gunner. Much has been written and said about this, of course. The players can form fleets and conquer territory. Awesome. They can betray their Band of Brothers, causing a breakdown in the universal economy. Awesome.
Two, the player goes on a quest for the biggest, baddest spaceships of the universe. Collecting, then, becomes the narrative experience for players that don't necessarily fall deep into the human dynamics. Even players who do fall into the human dynamics - I suspect - do so out of their desire to show off their cool shit. I suspect this is the most important part of the narrative of MMORPGs.
Even after two days, I feel this chocolate milk-withdrawal-like urge to get a bigger, more powerful space ship, for no apparent reason. I have no difficulty completing the quests, or joining other players for shared goals against our nemesii with my current fleet of practical, effective frigates. Yet, I want a bigger space ship, with more slots, and more lasers and rockets. I want it to look pretty. I want people who see my space ship to go Ooh and Aah...
Can keeping up with the Jones' become a narrative? Do collectors of things live out a kind of story, where they see something they desire, and go through troll flame and hellfire to achieve it?
Two days ago, I'd be suspicious that this was not a narrative experience, but an expression of vanity. At work, I am surrounded by folks who religiously play another well-known MMORPG you might have heard of,World of Warcraft. They load their character pages on their web browsers and compare gear, achievements, badges. They talk about what they had to do to get these little blips of colored electronic blorps in their character's electronic box to finally drop. It seems silly from the outside, like they are jus tbeing vain and showing off.
From the inside, even after only two days, I know what they are also showing is a shared experience. One knows that the fellow with the wicked awesome battleship had to go through a series of occasionally thrilling but often tedious "work" in this space economy. They had to endure the sort of anti-social mining team that rams a cheap frigate into an expensive freighter, just so a buddy can harvest the minerals from the wreckage. They had to endure the slow search for anomalies that led to wreckage that led to blueprints that led to bad-ass battleships. When you speak with other players of your preferred MMORPG, you have the subtext of that experience, expressed by your ability to back up your claim with wicked awesome new gear. You can talk, together, through this framework about the silliness of those potheads on local chat, and about what you were doing all those hours in the basement, huddled against the glowing box that lifted you up out of the suburbs, and into the stars.
When I, in my little frigate, fly past that bad-ass Amarrian Carrier in a Caldari pilot's skilled control, to his/her player-run corporation's space station, that's what I'm seeing all around me. Someone went through the experience to get that cool shit. Even if that experience involves grinding through asteroid after asteroid and enduring silly pirate attack after silly pirate attack - seriously, I just blew up your other three buddies without breaking a sweat, and you're still attacking me? - and the tedious probing and probing and probing of deep space, the result of that effort comes in the form with a collection of things that are really, really cool: mother f***ing space ships. Big, large, beautiful, graceful, elegant, powerful mother f***ing space ships.
When book collectors meet, they tell stories about how they came about their greatest prizes. When WoW-addicts meet, they compare gear and badges and talk about how close they came to wiping in "Nax". Just like these two, seemingly unrelated activities, in EVE Online, there is no actual narrative, per se, if only because what is presented by scripted quest-givers is so absurdly thin. There is a story, though, behind every Caldari Phoenix, and every beat-up frigate limping back to a station for repairs. It may be a story obtuse to people who are not engaged in the universe, but it is there.
As a writer of fictions, I'm always looking for new ways to tell stories. Eve is the narrative of collecting things, and showing it off to your friends, and helping your friends collect things while they help you collect things. I picture another story set in space, Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War series, where the main character, the reader's ally and wish-fulfillment cipher, accumulates a collection of more and cooler people and larger and cooler ships and more people and larger ships in a tale that seems determined to continue until the author can take no more. It's kind of the same thing, isn't it? That urge to get bigger and stronger and more epic in the genre fictions? In reading these series books, I am often hesitant to follow authors down the long, long path. To me, I am always terrified that the very things that make the series successful, also mean that the ending will be shit. I read four Vatta's War books, liked them fine, but hesitated to read the fifth. The very reason the early ones were good was shifting into a collector's game. The Vatta will collect a fleet. They will collect pirate heads. They will collect power. Any setbacks will be temporary hitches on the warp drive to glory.
That brings me to this final thought on EVE, as I shut down my frigates, and sell off the cargo and turn the lights off on this, the third day...
Ah, EVE, a paradise of night sky, where my capsuleer's journeys may never cease. I wonder what will happen when the starlights dim, and the ISK dwindle, and the capsuleers fade into the long dark night of other games. Will the stars burn out, one by one, like a universe disintegrating into old age? Will abandoned corporate space stations become the ruins of the salvager kings, who laugh and dance and set off fireworks while the universe dies all around them with that promise of immortality that all pilots got upon their creation a joke of the past?
For me, I am not drawn to these MMORPGs any more than I am drawn to long series books. I see them spinning forward like mad ships,refusing to come back to shore, promising the drunken revelers that life will go on like this forever. There will always be The Forge. There will always be Orgrimmar. Do not fret. Have fun! The rudder will never falter. The ship will never sink.
But ships always, always sink. Pour your life into these drifting pleasure cruises at your own peril, sailor. There may come a day when your saved games will no longer load, and adventures fade into obscure self-mockery, and all the coup that's been counted will disintegrate into a memory of paper or electrons, as if nothing was ever there but a strange space anomaly that's imploded into itself.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Work is a Horror, or The Humor/Horror Of Social Interactions: “The Office” and Cannibalistic Wendingo Dinner Parties
For a few very long months, I was a perma-temp for a music licensing company. The horror of doing data entry of usage reports for a commercial music licensing company was this: to behave for hours at a time in a manner contrary to my desired manner of living. I burned out after only a few weeks, fell into a depression, and began using web-based e-mail to send early drafts of a novel back and forth from different web-based e-mail clients, invisible to the corporate overlords at the time, at their level of technology, while spending only an hour or two actually performing the miserable tasks to which I was assigned. I was a cog, which is not who I am. I prefer to solve problems, create new expressions and ideas, and in other respects act in a manner that involves being innovative, not being rote or mechanical. I have never been able to successfully watch more than an episode or two of the popular TV Show, “The Office”, at a time because it is too close to the horror of what I felt at that one point in my career, in an office, where the social constraints of the “Big Other” in that situation dictated a constant string of behaviors that were directly contrary to who I actually was as a person, and as a worker. In this horror, I tell stories of my time there – funny stories! Without this medication of laughter shared, I don’t feel like I can re-appropriate control of that portion of my life I mostly consider lost time and suffering. But, this is not to be a discussion of therapy, rather a discussion of horror and comedy as they relate to some basic teachings of Lacan…
Despite being the embodiment of the “Big Other” as the boss and therefore the central crux of all social interactions in the building, Michael (Steve Carrell), the boss of the US-version of “The Office” for the first seven seasons, was completely immune to the notion of behaving in a manner consistent with his role in the social group. He was supposed to be driven by profit to motivate his employees to succeed as workers. Instead, he was entirely driven by the personal need for everyone to love one another. In this, the true horror of “The Office” is not that the structures of authority demanding behavior contrary to individual group members’ personal identity beneath their veneer of proscribed behaviors. The horror was that their code of symbols and behaviors socially proscribed by years of behavioral training in the workplace was constantly undermined by someone incapable of actually perceiving the appropriate coded behaviors. His acts to “lead” were all just symbolic grasps for interpersonal relationships that he, himself, desired as part of his personal identity as a “cool, approachable, popular” or otherwise happening “guy.” The fact that he behaved in this manner also kept him from experiencing those human connections. He was not operating consistent to the social situation in which he was operating. He cared more about being liked than he did about being an effective business leader. No matter how bumbling his attempts at validating his desire for love, the situation would be more comfortable for everyone around him if his bumbling attempts at validating an ideology were rooted in his accepted social role as a corporate leader instead of a social sponge. We have plenty of cultural symbols and codes developed to deal with churlish bosses that do not care if they are liked, and these are often said to be respected even if they are not liked. We have few social rules and codes to deal with churlish bosses that only care about being liked. That MBA programs seem to care about such social lubrication, inventing whole pseudo-languages to disguise the unpleasant messages they have to deliver, and inspire their workers to operate counter to their best interests through harder work, only serves as a foil by which the audience appreciates the character of Michael, who has been duped by the very books and seminars he has supposedly spent too much time devouring. Michael embraces the mask at the surface this pseudo-language, of people getting along and becoming a team, at the expense of what this language is actually designed to disguise.
In this, then, the horror – and the laughter – comes from the misreading of the relationship between the self, the others in the office, and the Big Other of expected social norms. Play this same relationship without the laughs, then, and achieve a sense of the “Other” that horror writers aspire to achieve. I am thinking, here, about “Wendingo” by Michaela Morissette. In this short story, first published in Weird Tales Magazine, a character falls in with a group of strange gourmands who seem to be preparing their own bodies for the perfect feast at the apex of their bodies’ flavor potential and social station. In this, the social codes and symbols of preparing food for others is taken to an extreme. Ultimately, the host of the dinner party is offering up himself to his guests as a memorable feast. The social codes and symbols of the “Big Other” of expected actions are altered. However, the people who participate in these feasts still obey all the rules and expectations of a “normal” dinner party. They are gracious guests, eager to participate. Like any dinner party, there are the catty gossips that eventually peel away the veneer of love to reveal their sharp teeth. Still, in this case, the horror comes from the excessive misinterpretation of a “Big Other” idea of self-sacrifice for the enjoyment of guests at the expense of what that is actually intended.
Both of these narratives serve as a form of critique of a social structure that is often endured and rarely enjoyed. Dinner parties are social commitments oft-spoofed for their “fakery” by an impersonator of British artist Banksy in the film “Banksy’s Coming to Dinner” featuring a very fake-feeling dinner party that is also, at the same time, believable as a real dinner party because of the fake-feeling nature of everyone’s interactions full of facades and innuendo that are all seemingly power plays, built upon a fake actor portraying one of the art world’s sharpest social critics. If it felt like a “real” dinner party, it would not be believable! Why a dinner party? Senators and politicians and workers who would align their interests closer to their employer meet over dinner all the time to bond and build power relationships that can be exploited for personal gain. In this, upwardly-mobile society is no different, except when they are Wendingoes. In that case, the greatest height one can achieve becomes an almost sexual destruction, where the parts of the host are prepared for the feast, and passed around to the guests. A fake Banksy, like fake crab meat, is handed around for consumption, and praised as if it were the real thing for the social codes demand it. What’s worse than the fact that this whole event is a sham with a fake Banksy is that it is a terrifically dull film. The only interesting piece in the whole thing is the question of whether Banksy is real or not. As soon as the viewer concludes that this is a sham, it becomes moot to wait until the end where no climax worthy of the name awaits them. Please, don’t feel compelled to investigate this film. It’s fake. It’s painful. I shouldn’t even bring it up.
I try to imagine, then, Michael from the Office attending one of these voracious gatherings in Morisette’s story, expecting Joan Collin’s sumptuous country estate and social heights. Michael, ever the bumbling rube, has no idea what he’s eating, which is probably Joan Collins herself, but he is compelled by his comically-impossible pathological need to fit in to any social setting, to try and make the best of the feast of his host’s own flesh, over-praising it and declaring loudly how much he enjoys it even as he is vomiting into the nearest vase and out every open window. By the end of the night, he would be willing to sacrifice his own body to the Wendingos, to satiate his own hunger for love. The Wendingoes, of course, would graciously accept out of their social code, but in private would demarcate who is and who is not really a Wendingo by gossiping about the failure of Michael to understand that he is not really ripe.
In this, I am not far off when I think of the rest of the cast of the Office as flesh-devouring Wendingos. One of the great mysteries of The Office is that the characters seem trapped there, with no other economic options, working until they die, at the peak of their professional development, leaving behind only a memorial brunch. The corporation devours their years, even as they, in turn, devour the money from the company. To what purpose? Are they professionally fulfilled? No. Are they performing some important service to mankind? No. Are they even recycling? Maybe some of their paper is recycled, but I assume such paper comes at a premium and is often not purchased. Do they even like each other? Mostly not. Despite a couple love interests that develop, many of these characters would prefer not to hang out with each other if they met in a social setting. Even the love relationships that develop feel more like prison sex than actual, plausible love. The characters live in their fishbowl, and must find love where it is found, not where it is desired.
Michael’s moment of escape finds the total acceptance of love with a fiancé which “saves” the character of Michael from this continued purgatory where his behavior is primarily marked by his constant quest for love from all around him. In the Morisette story, the narrator is saved by a realization that the love is false, and the ones who would devour her do not love her.
Consumption, of course, is a major theme of the story of the Morisette’s Wendingoes and a major term for corporations selling their goods. In this, I wonder if the creepiness of the Wendingoes is also similar to the creepiness of management’s attempts at altering the language of death into something friendly and palatable. By wrapping inherently painful, harmful, terrifying things in a language designed to be innocuous and bloodless… Well, is that so different from the Wendingoes at their dreadful, sacrificial dinner parties? I think not. The thing that is supposed to be painful and horrible is wrapped in a veneer of social codes that speak of love and joy and peace…
In comedy, in our office water coolers, we are allowed the relief of laughter to medicate the things that make us miserable. Laughter is a social action, mostly, where we share things that make us laugh with others to spread the laughter. Horror is often not treated in such a manner. Generally, gruesome horror is contained alone, in a personal manner. This, too, is encoded in the language of modern employment. “NSFW” means things that acknowledge the reality of the body, in all its scatological, sexual, grotesque glory. Comedic things, however, are passed among office mates as a form of social bonding. In this, laughter medicates what is actually the horrifying boredom, dislocation, and disassociation of the human entering into a situation where their sense of self, their relationship to the other notions of self around them, and their sense of the “Big Other” of the shared situation have fallen into disalignment with each other. This is, perhaps, the source of both comedy and horror. If not all of it, than at least much of it. Perhaps only some of it. Still, it seems to be the essence of it, to me.
Working in my own version of The Office, I woke one day to discover I was nothing but a dung beetle: a chittering, mechanical creature of pure instinct who rolls feces into a ball for food. Is it horrible to say that about working? Perhaps. At another job, in another office, I woke one day to discover that I was nothing but a gargoyle, funneling the rain through my own mouth, ingesting all the poisons, and unable to lick the water clean.
Work is a horror. Why would anyone wish to do anything that didn’t make the world a better place?
At least, for most of us, it is a horror that we can laugh about. The starving orphans of the world, and the enslaved ones, are not even given that peace.
“Lacan started his “return to Freud” with the linguistic reading of the entire psychoanalytic edifice, encapsulated by what is perhaps his single best known formula: “the unconscious is structured as a language.” The predominant perception of the unconscious is that it is the domain of irrational drives, something opposed to the rational conscious self. For Lacan, this notion of the unconscious belongs to the Romantic Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) and has nothing to do with Freud. The Freudian unconscious caused such a scandal not because of the claim that the rational self is subordinated to the much vaster domain of blind irrational instincts, but because it demonstrated how the unconscious itself obeys its own grammar and logic – the unconscious talks and thinks. The unconscious is not the reservoir of wild drives that has to be conquered by the ego, but the site where a traumatic truth speaks. Therein resides Lacan’s version of Freud’s motto wo es war, soll ich werden (where it was, I shall become): not “the ego should conquer the id”, the site of the unconscious drives, but “I should dare to approach the site of my truth”. What awaits me “there” is not a deep Truth I have to identify with, but an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with.”
My recent MFA has come up in conversation a couple times, and I thought I'd post this thing I did a few months ago for the fine folks over at SFSignal for the sake of being thorough.
Honestly, with the recent crash of Apex Books' Blog, I'll probably start reprinting all that I wrote for them here, too, just to put a record of it somewhere, now that it's all mostly lost to malware.
This whole thing first appeared at SFSignal
1. Be a Fungus or a Vulture, or Else You Starve
I've been suspicious of the academic system most of my adult life. You see, some of the dumbest people I ever met in life had Ph. D's, and some of the smartest people I ever met in life never seemed to need much in the way of education. I don't think I'm alone in this, either. Stupid comes in all shapes and sizes, as does brilliant. I've met janitors who could debate complex philosophical concepts, who lived quiet lives assertively saving and investing for retirement with their library card in hand. I've met security guards who could enter easily into rigorous debate with art historians about the nuances of different brush strokes and biographic details gleaned from obscure letters. I've met professors of humanities that could barely string together three sentences coherently, in three languages, and wealthy business-leaders who made their fortune not on skill but on narcissism and talking loudly. Naturally, I've also met dumb janitors, brilliant professors, and everything in between. Especially in our current economy these last ten years, education beyond high school is almost completely decoupled from our actual employment in all but a few select fields. Most of our advanced degrees exist for the sole economic sake of producing professors to teach advanced degrees in that field. It seems amazing to me, sometimes, that anyone would pursue an advanced degree in anything useful, let alone something relatively useless in the current economy, like a master's degree in the fine art of writing fiction. Better to just find work that suits your social and mental preferences to keep the lights on with a little money left over, invest your savings, raise a family, and try not to make too much noise until retirement. Lots of folks figured the whole system out, and it's working great for them.
But, about the decoupling of school from work: Walk into your average Starbucks and notice the intellectual diversity behind the counter. It isn't just college kids slinging drinks behind the counter, these days. There's folks behind that line, making your coffee, that have resumes that would impress you, with advanced degrees in complex things. This is true everywhere. In my last office job, the gentleman who emptied the trash and cleaned the bathroom was in school for a degree in biology, with limited career prospects in his field outside of going into debt for medical school, which he did not desire to pursue, so he figured he'd keep the job he had emptying the trash. His boss on the cleaning crew seemed to be doing quite well with his fancy sports car, designer clothes, and upbeat attitude, and he had only a high school education.
I was looking at an article about the best jobs for graduates, this year, and it seems like the industries that are booming are symptomatic of the global decline of Western society: accounting is hiring lots of folks, to tighten the clamps on business; medical fields at all levels will be caring for a degenerating population of retirees and business is booming; high finance firms and corporate salesmen are grinding through their latest fish in the shark tanks to scheme upon the bubbles of bacterial growth in an economy that is as degenerating as the average age of the population.
Basically, the great and glorious American empire is in decline. Any education - especially an artistic one, like an MFA - is a poor investment if it doesn't help the graduate profit from the breakdown of our society. More than any other, careers in the arts go where the patrons go. The novel, being historically a middle-class art form, will suffer without a middle class to support the writers, and fictionists will stumble when there just aren't enough people around with money enough to buy books instead of buying branded food-esque AgraSoyCanola. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that an MFA in fiction and/or poetry may be the single worst investment you can make in your economic future. The money you spend pursuing it is far better off, economically, being thrown into interest-bearing accounts, ready to be ripped out at a moment's notice as soon as everyone is convinced that the economy might not suck (because that just means the next bubble is upon us!) Debt for an MFA is worse than a credit card, because you actually can keep what you buy with your credit card debt and you can sell it on e-bay later when it becomes nostalgic and collectible. A paper with your name and the letters "M...F...A" upon it might only be useful as a something to burn in your cave when you are homeless.
There is no economic value in an MFA in Fiction, popular or otherwise.
2. Like I Said in the Title...
I am in my last semester of graduate school, for an MFA in Popular Fiction, from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine, and I don't regret it for a moment. Not only that, I have come to this relatively late in my writing career, after dropping out of one lesser graduate school program chosen for location and cost instead of quality, and then even after making a name for myself as an author. I was, on my first day of this program, well-published, and pulling upon life experiences of all sorts of zany things people go to graduate school to be able to do, like have a "real job" or work in video games, or travel the world. I chose to go to the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine, where I am currently in my final semester. If all goes according to plan, I'll be graduating in July with an MFA in Popular Fiction.
Be proud of me. Be proud of my economic waste. The greatest tragedy of our culture is that we have allowed the financiers to take over our young imaginations. Our brightest minds from our greatest universities flock to high paying jobs, where they try to make as much money as they can before they die. The best and brightest children our nation has to offer have all been seduced into believing that ownership of large houses is more important than the environmental footprint that our McMansions smear all over our fragile ecology. The systems of wealth culture have brainwashed our youth into believing that upward mobility is something everyone should aspire to, and that being a leader is something glorious and respectable and sexy, and everyone else is a slacker or failure, and that it is a shameful thing to be a janitor or a waiter or a truck driver or a stay-at-home mom.
We, all of us, need to stop that shit right now. The best and the brightest of our world should neither be measured by how much money they earn, nor by whether they own big houses, fancy clothes, or all the consumerist bullshit things like that. The only measure of a person that matters is how they affect other people, and how we all can find a way as individuals, communities, and continents, to contribute in a meaningful, positive fashion to the very tiny world we all share. The best and the brightest should, in fact, in a fair world, see high-paying jobs as corrupting influences on the pursuit of true value in the world. (Are any of you listening to me, best and brightest graduates? Anyone? Bah... go drive your Porsches to your mansions all you greedy children...)
Art, in any form or fashion, is one of the most important things anyone, anywhere can pursue. Art is a gift given to the world, even if it is sold for money. No amount of money walls off the ideas from spreading and infiltrating other people's ideas. A good idea repeated enough times, whispered into enough minds in enough ways has the power to make the world a better place, in a dramatic way. Good ideas repeated enough times tore down the walls of segregation, the Berlin Wall, the miserable treatment of GLBT human beings in America, and the power of fear to control society.
Want to be rich? Want to be a doctor? Medicine is a losing battle against human mortality. Death always wins, eventually.
Want to get one of those hot yuppie jobs right out of college? Accounting is a losing battle against human greed. The more rules we invent to measure a company, to try and hold back the greed at the heart of the corporate system no matter how altruistic the people and the CEO, the harder it gets to hold back the tide of the wicked pigmen, wallowing in the blood of the workers whose communities, pensions, and ecologies are turned into pigsties. Sales is the training ground of pigs. Insurance industries are constructed in such a manner that they actually don't qualify as insurance, as the dictionary defines them, because risk is minimized, but never shared.
Engineering? Technology? Computers? When I was in high school, one of our bus drivers was an experienced engineer who kept getting promoted until two new grads could do his work for less pay, and he gave up on the rat race to drive a bus. His story was not uncommon among the tech-heads that were either promoted into management or released into the wild at the convenience of the shareholders.
What is left for you, graduate? Do you do what your parents tell you and aspire to that golden beach house, those golden retirement years, golden plastic surgeries to stay forever young? No? Then, sneak off into the bookshops and punk rock clubs of the disaffected youth and slack until the drugs break you? Not for you? Then hide out in some job, hoping that all the things you don't understand just don't hurt you - pray that things you can't control don't hurt you. They still will. Maybe you'd rather hide in academia forever, training a new generation of soldiers in the global economic war to make the rich more rich?
All of these paths are false. None of these goals have value or meaning as economic goals. There's a very simple solution.
Pursue what interests you.
3. An Important Message For All Graduating Seniors
If you are in school right now, and looking at future career prospects, future degree-majors, ignore the bollocks. Pursue what interests you. Even the dire examples above, if they are of interest to you, suddenly are no longer dire. When medicine is interesting, or the architecture of corporate management structures, or the fascinating way accounting can make life better in such small ways, then that is what you should pursue. A smart parent may try to convince you that something lucrative intersects with something that interests you, and maybe their advice will be good for your pocketbook if it is honest and true. Remember, you only get one life. At the end of your life, when you are on your deathbed, you will not measure your life in dollar bills, excepting only where those bills can be used to help the people you have left behind. This has been my method and my madness since I graduated from high school.
I pursued degrees in Creative Writing. I started as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. I dabbled in straight literature at an inexpensive, convenient graduate school before the educators who should have inspired me drove me away in disgust. I came back to graduate school later on, at a new school with better teachers, wiser and calmer and looking to learn from people that were actually good. To me, even after all the turmoil in my education and my life, art is still a meaningful career choice, even if it is not economically viable most of the time. I saw this first hand in the years since my undergraduate degree. I spent ten years among creative graduates, this army of art school and writing and literature and philosophy graduates all over the cities of the world, all of us gently using what we learned in strange and unexpected ways to make the world a better place, drawing over signs and talking sense where otherwise corporate media talking points would rule uncontested. I recall an art school graduate and myself convincing a hardcore Fox News Republican about the truth of global warming with simple methods familiar to anyone who ever attended a workshop. I brought my education into the bars and coffee houses where I communicated effectively among people who didn't study the arts to explain how certain films suck and they are not to be celebrated because a marketing department is pissing on your eyes and insisting that you love every minute of it. I have been in corporate meetings and understood what was being said between the lines because I was reading people as characters instead of allowing them to lie to me with the face value of their words. An education is something that carries with you a long time. An education in the Arts means you're part of this army of people who don't suck, and can tell good idea from bad, inoculate people against marketing campaigns, and call out the false drama, false image, false fools wherever we see such things in ways that can be polite and elegant or damning and indomitable as situations merit.
It's like how before kids take piano lessons, they don't understand really good music. It's like how it's hard to appreciate Beethoven until you've numbed your fingers trying to walk behind him on the keyboard and you get a sense of how complex it all is, and how beautiful in its complexity. Then, you get a sense of that in all the music around you. Then, you realize that Milli Vanilli really shouldn't be lip synching, and certainly not to anything that sucks that much. (I mean, at least Lady GaGa rips off Madonna's good stuff, not the B-Sides...)
4. You Don't Stop Learning Because a Critic Liked One Book, One Time, People
Even for writers who are "making it", like me, the degree is worth pursuing. Like many of the good writers I know, I find myself always looking for ways to improve my work, looking for insights into fiction craft everywhere I go, and I seek out people who share that passion to learn what they learned. Whilst looking around one day, I noticed that the teachers in this particular program were all top notch writers. (Not the esoteric numeric rankings in some magazine or website! The people who would actually be in the classroom with you are all that matter to you as a writer!) I was familiar with their work, and thought it would be useful to me as a writer to expose my stuff to the eyes of people who had come from different artistic backgrounds than me, who had different aesthetics and different influences. (link: http://usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa/)
I've noticed that every time I write a novel, I have to learn how to write again, because I have to learn how to write that, particular novel. I've noticed that every time I take time to expand my artistic horizons, I find a direct benefit in my work within the week, if not sooner.
Learning is a good thing. In a field dedicated to constant ideation, learning is just about the best thing.
Who were these people? Well, James Patrick Kelly is up for another Nebula. Elizabeth Hand teaches there, too. So does David Anthony Durham, David Mura, Nancy Holder, and Scott Wolven. Writers I've heard of, and read, and from whom I'd like to gain new perspectives on my own work. Even when I don't agree with them or their approach, I like to learn about it. I like to see how they think a little when they see my stuff, and maybe learn new things about myself.
Maybe I did learn new things about myself.
5. Go Forth, Be Mighty, All Ye MFA Graduates
With my MFA complete this coming July, a couple career options will open up to me that were previously closed. I could teach college, for instance. It would be nice to do that, I think, compared to what I'm doing now. But, I'm not holding my breath. Many graduates are thinking the same thing I am about teaching writing. It may be a more desirable way to earn a living than scrubbing floors or working a cash register, but it is no more or less honorable. There is no shame in honest work, and one does not need to have a respectable job to be respectable.
Every time I sit down at the computer, often in my own free time, away from the sort of boring work most of us must do to keep the pantry stocked and the lights on, I try to make the fiction I produce better, stronger, closer to the idealized vision inside of my head of what emotional impact it should have on readers. If I make a living as a writer, so be it. If I teach college, so be it. If I scrub floors somewhere, bus tables, or wash dishes so I can sneak off to the library to continue my pursuit of the arts, so be it. None of this is important in consideration of the worth of the degree, itself. In the end, I do not pursue an MFA to be anything other than what I already am: a writer of fiction. I need no validation. I need no certification. No one needs those things, really, even if these things are listed as things gotten from the degree. I came to the program wanting to improve myself on the path I was already on, and I think I have gotten that. I learned about whole fields of art I didn't know about. I met with luminaries of the fields of writing. I read new poetry. I read books I would not otherwise have read, and learned from them. I borrowed the eyes of strangers, and the eyes of new friends. I gave as good as I got, I think.
As this experience winds down, I like to think of all these supposedly economically useless degrees, especially degrees in the creation of artistic things like poems or pottery, like getting a degree in being super heroes. By day, people with useless degrees are, most of us, working hard to keep our pantries stocked with food and our lights on. If we are lucky, our daylight work is engaging and interesting. If we are not, it is a minor inconvenience as long as there is food and light. Then, we leave our day jobs and our lives open up. We read, and analyze, and create. We engage in debate on the internet and in the magazines of our fields--for instance, at SFSignal. We continue pursuing our interests, beyond graduation, and maybe we make things or ideas that whisper out into the world, rippling chaos theory's caribou sneezes to rend the walls of Jericho. We go out to buy groceries afterwards, and nobody knows us. We go to work, and maybe we tell one person there over lunch what happened in our esoteric pursuits. We work hard, raise families and/or pets, and most people don't even know what we really are in the wee hours and the corners of our lives, when we pursue what interests us.
But, at night, in the corners of our lives, when no one is looking, we are superheroes.
6. One Final Whisper Before I Go
Personally, I think if we stop thinking about degrees as career-training, at all levels of business and culture, and start thinking about them as life-training, we'll make huge headway as a civilized society. Imagine a world where philosophers and engineers are recruited by Wall Street, and Mathematicians are political interns, and literature majors are welcomed with open arms into accounting work because of their studies in multi-cultural poetry. MBA schools no longer exist, because management of a person is too personal a thing to be turned into a system, and management of matter can be taught better in Quantum Mechanics. None of my hypotheticals are so far-fetched that they can't exist in some fashion already in the world as is.
I guess what I'm trying to say is wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where everyone was an outlier, an oddball, a curious individual with esoteric interests that diversify every community?
Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could pursue the things that interested them, including through economically-useless degrees? Wouldn't it be great if economies valued things that have cultural value but no direct economic value? Wouldn't it be wonderful if the world actually valued studying things that are interesting in the same way we value the work of accountants and middle-managers and corporate sales and marketing departments and plastic surgeons and cosmetic dentists and CEOs?
We could live in that world, you know. It starts with you, right now. Here's how: Whisper this idea out into the world.
We'll all do it together.
(this first appeared at SFSignal. Link:http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/02/guest-post-jm-mcdermott-a-candidate-for-a-masters-of-fine-arts-in-popular-fiction-would-like-to-whisper-with-you/#comments)
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Lots of things were lost in our fridge. I made biscuits with what was left of the half & half. Some things have no second use. Many veggies lost.
It's depressing to watch so much food wasted.
In these dark economic times, when life is uncertain, and the arrival of the next contract payment is up in the air, always, for writer-types like me, I wonder if I will ever, truly "make it" as a writer. It's so disconcerting to work incredibly hard and see no reward for that work for months at a time. It's perfectly normal for a company to get around to paying you after three or six months have already passed. Even short fiction runs slow with their payments. Even SEO articles and craptastic business-to-business gigs run slow.
It's like working in a vat of molasses, burning all this energy at the keyboard, while the payment sort of floats towards you in the hazy distance.
Freelancing actually kind of sucks, quite a lot, in this manner.
In the mean time, I've got books for sale -- even an inexpensive eBook or two. Remember, without your support, all of your favorite creators will sink into the molasses, and never have a chance to write again.
The other day, I was flipping through some old "Year's Best Fantasy and Horror" anthologies. For every Ursula LeGuin and Jeffrey Ford there were three people I'd never heard of with a couple books out and some great stories that haven't really done anything, since. I certainly didn't recognize them. Their books were out of print, when I looked them up.
There but for the grace of God...
Monday, August 1, 2011
I'm sure many folks have noticed this book, MAZE, is not out, yet. With Apex Publication's very, very exciting new distribution, all of their schedules and releases have yet to be newly hammered out, and we don't know when MAZE is coming, but we know it will be part of this super-awesome re-launch of Apex Books all over the country with Diamond Distribution. So...
So, because it is late, and people have been expecting a book from me, Jason and I will be putting out a short story collection this fall. There will be a short story collection. It will be very interesting, with stories published and not, and it will involve things, societies, people, familes and reality falling all apart around us.
Some of the stories may be familiar (like "The End of Her World" or "Death's Shed") and some may not be familiar (like "Lights, Bugs" and "The Jamcoi"), but take heart weary fan, for there will be a book, even if it is not MAZE, and it will be available to you with things old and things new, and it will be put together when it is ready and it will be out in the world probably in the fall, because you were promised a book called MAZE, and schedules were made and announcements were made, and then plans changed. But, you were promised a book. You will have one, then. It will be a good book, promise. And it will not be too expensive, I hope, and it will look dandy on a shelf next to my other books.
So, MAZE is late. But, there will still be another book.