I have a love-hate relationship with radio. I love when a song comes on that I enjoy, whether it’s one I’m already familiar with or something new. I hate everything else, including songs in heavy rotation, announcers using compression mics, commercials commercials, commercials, and incessant announcements about many songs in a row a station will play before brutalizing me with commercials, commercials, commercials.
I have various writing moods, and not all of them are music compatible. When I’m in the mood for a backing track, however, having a steady stream of songs I don’t have to manage, and that won’t be interrupted by histrionics, feels good. I can’t say I’m more productive while I’m listening to music, but there’s something about music that makes it easier to find a writing groove, and particularly a rewriting groove.
I have a lot of music on my computer, ripped from old CD’s, but even choosing which tracks I want to hear can be a pain. I either have to invest time in creating playlists that go quickly stale or I have to choose something new when each CD ends. I know there are a lot of music options available to me over the internet but until recently I didn’t know somebody had solved all my music problems in a way that would leave me utterly satisfied. And all for free.
If you haven’t tried Pandora yet I urge you to give it a look and a listen. Not only is it a free streaming music service with no commercials, you can program your own stations by adding artists that define the music that station will play. The algorithms behind the selections are not obvious, which I like, but with a little trial and error you can easily create a station that serve up a good mix of artists you included as well as songs from similar artists.
My main list has about twenty artists on it — mostly late 90′s alternative rock. I’ve added a few new artists based on songs that were played outside my playlist, and I’ve removed two artists to keep the station from wandering too far afield. On the whole, however, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result.
Which leads me to the only caution I have about this service. It’s been a constant in my life that anything I really enjoy disappears soon afterward. If I find a favorite restaurant it either closes or burns to the ground. If I find a favorite food item in the local grocery it is soon discontinued for lack of purchases by anyone other than me. So it stands to reason that by enjoying (let alone recommending) Pandora I am ensuring it will either quickly die or go to a monthly subscription price, at which point I’ll think long and hard about paying for it before deciding not to.
Until then, however, enjoy.
– Mark Barrett
The final section of Hill’s book is also the most personal. Departing from the twin subjects of fiction and craft that bound the rest of the work, Hills writes of his own experience with nonfiction and of the eternal self-abuse that is any kind of authorship.
If you are serious about making writing an ongoing part of you life, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself sitting in a dusty corner, staring across the room at your desk, wondering if you’ve lost your mind. You’re going to experience a crisis of faith that has no bottom. You’re going to think that you’re doing it all wrong while every other writer is doing it with ease.
When you do, this chapter will remind you how wrong you are:
If the way my mind works when I’m trying to write has any resemblance to the way real writers’ minds work, then I pity them all. When I have time to write the ideas aren’t there — or if the ideas, then not the words. Forcing myself to put the words on paper helps not at all: insights become platitudes as phrased when under self-imposed duress. You see?!
I’ve long been thankful that someone had the guts to admit that writing is a nightmare. Not a sexy, drunken-binge nightmare or a death-tempting, drug-addled nightmare or an artistically obsessed, relationship-killing nightmare, but a self-imposed, lost-at-sea nightmare. Because the romantic, angst-ridden writing process portrayed in the movies, and often by authors themselves, is a fraud. Writing is hard even when it’s going well, and most of the time it’s not going well.
Hills ends the chapter in a two-page-long, single-paragraph monologue that I reread whenever I feel like banging my head on my desk or taking an axe to my computer. And every time I read it I laugh and am reminded that I am not alone.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction your success will be determined by your ability to merge multiple, fragmented lines of thought into a coherent and focused whole. Whether writing about the actions of imaginary characters or addressing a real-world subject you’re going to lean heavily on reason and logic to find your way, and sooner or later you will get lost. At that moment the best thing you can do for your sanity is remind yourself that what you’re trying to do is really, really hard, and all the more so if you’re trying to do it well.
As a fiction writer I find Rust Hills’ book to be an invaluable aid. As a writer I find this chapter to be soul-sustaining.
Writing is a solitary pursuit that routinely destroys good people. I want you to have your dreams but I don’t want them to break you. Whenever you run aground, this chapter will make you laugh and remind you that you are not alone.
– Mark Barrett
In commenting on the previous section I noted that I’m personally not interested in belonging to any literary movement or critical school. I have my own literary perspective, certainly, but if I belong to any literary tradition it’s the one that puts human experience and truth ahead of everything else.
My complaint about literary movements and schools is that they are inevitably temporary and almost always fad-driven. This section of Hills’ book unintentionally proves the merit of that perspective in that it replaces two sections that appeared in the original 1977 printing. Those sections were, in order, Fiction and the New Journalism and Real Fiction, as against the New Fiction.
In the late 1970′s New Journalism and New Fiction were hot literary topics. Like all hot literary topics they faded soon afterward, rendering Hills’ own commentary effectively meaningless except for historical value. In reading those sections again I think the current narrative non-fiction movement owes a debt to New Journalism, while flash fiction and other current experimental forms owe a debt to New Fiction. But it also seems, at least to me, that these movements are part of a never-ending effort to make fiction be somehow more than fiction. Whether the hot literary topic is meta-fiction or anti-fiction or hyper-fiction, the aim is always to make plain-old fiction do more, when plain-old fiction does what it does better than any trendy variant ever will.
As Hills wrote in the section on New Journalism:
Imagination is anyway implicit in the very definition of “fiction,” as distinguished from its opposite in the absurd term “nonfiction.” And fiction and nonfiction are, again anyway, both perfectly good things in themselves — there doesn’t seem to be any point in mixing them. The resultant hybrids aren’t a new strain of literary art at all. They’re just intermittently useful, futureless one-timers, as unaesthetic and recalcitrant as mules.
In removing those two sections and replacing them Hills demonstrates the merit of his own words and the futility of embracing fad as craft. If you really feel the need to write from the crest of every literary wave I support you in that pursuit. Not only is it not for me, however, I don’t think it’s a particularly good way to become one with the ocean.
Before you get excited, two things to keep in mind. First, Tim Schafer is an interactive entertainment legend. He is his own brand and his own reputation for quality in a way that few people ever are. If you’ve never heard of him that only means you have a giant, gaping hole in your database of important cultural knowledge. (And you’ve missed out on a lot of fun.)
Here’s Kickstarter on Kickstarter:
Kickstarter is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. Every week, tens of thousands of amazing people pledge millions of dollars to projects from the worlds of music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields.
You know you’re reading marketing hype when you read the word amazing (or excited). You know a web site is super-serious about its marketing hype when it uses all the colors of the rainbow to format its text. (Click here, then on the link at the top to “learn more”.)
Tim Schafer likes making very smart and very comic adventure games. The greater gaming industry likes making routinely dumb and routinely disappointing crap. Because of this mismatch in interests, Schafer and others like him have had a very hard time getting funding for projects they want to pursue. At least until a few days ago, when Schafer put a proposal up on Kickstarter seeking to raise $400,000 over the course of a month.
He achieved his goal in eight hours. He raised One Million Dollars in a day. Currently the total is $1.37 million and rising.
Now remember: this guy is a legend. And whatever Kickstarter is all about, nothing helps sell a project like celebrity, which Schafter has in spades even if you’ve never heard of him. And while plenty of people have used Kickstarter to get their own projects off the ground, it’s not at all clear that all of the potential legalities — including frivolous or hostile lawsuits — have been beaten out of this or any other crowdfunding system. This is cutting edge stuff, which means it’s both cool and risky. (And I’m willing to bet Tim Schafer has a lawyer making sure he’s protected six ways.)
Still, it’s pretty impressive, and all the more so because it directly connects a creator with the audience that person would clearly like to reach. If Tim Schafer can get advance sales of a game sufficient to enable completion of that game, then he’s in business for the rest of his life. No more funding hassles, no more percentages off the top, no more publisher beating him to snot and running off with his IP, no more time spent raising money like a bottom-feeding politician trading a tattered soul for one more term. Just a straight-up trade: we give you some cash and you make us laugh.
Since most of you reading this post are writers, I know you’ve already gotten bored with Schafer and are wondering if you can fund you own, smaller projects in the same way. This list of smaller projects would suggest the answer is yes. But remember: if it blows up in your face for some reason it’s not my fault. Do your homework, protect your copyrights at all cost, and don’t promise something you can’t deliver. Your credibility is more important than whatever you think is more important than your credibility.
Very good comments here on a related thread. Covers many of the concerns I have while underscoring how this model allows creative people to avoid the gatekeeping inherent in third-party funding. My biggest concern is simply that a weasel could raise money then pocket some or all of the cash by saying the project failed for any number of reasons. Kickstarter disavows any responsibility to vet projects, and leaves the risk squarely with investors — which again underscores how important your personal credibility is in this weasel-infested marketplace we call the world wide web.
– Mark Barrett
The full title of this chapter is The Short Story and the New Criticism. In this section Hills provides a historical basis for many of the artistic freedoms authors enjoy today, as well as an explanation of why the short story as a literary form is uniquely positioned to take maximum advantage of those freedoms.
By separating questions of intent and effect from the question of merit, the New Criticism introduced:
….an aesthetic that considered a work of literary art as more or less an independent object, and denied the relevance of its effectiveness as either an expression of the author or as a communication to the reader.
The core argument in support of this perspective is compelling. If a work of art can only be understood by considering its historical context, or the mindset and intent of the author, or the effect on people who experience the work, then what is the value of the work itself? In a literary context this question is a bit difficult to grapple with because artists and critics use the same medium: language. It is easier to see the point in the visual arts, and particularly in abstract works. If a free-form sculpture means nothing without context, how can any work of art actually be a work of art? If an abstract painting requires historical relevance or biographical importance in order to be understood as a painting, then who is the author of that work — the artist that creates it or the critic who provides that context?
To insist that art is context may seem almost absurd today, but that was the dominant critical view at one time across a variety of schools, and it still remains a popular way of responding to art. By treating art as object the New Criticism put the question of merit squarely on the work itself, denying even the role of the artist. At first blush this might sound equally absurd, but note: it’s not credit being denied but the relevance of context. New Criticism simply asserts that each work stands on its own apart from who the author is, and I don’t think that’s a particularly radical notion even among the general public. Whatever criteria you use to judge any artist, you probably perceive qualitative differences in their individual works regardless of your feelings for that artist, even if you make no claim to critical objectivity. In focusing on art as object New Criticism takes this idea to its logical conclusion by denying the influence of everything from commercial and popular success to an author’s persona or biography. What’s good is good because of qualities inherent in the work. Read more
As regular readers know, I don’t have a lot of patience for the subject of theme. To see theme drawn, quartered, burned at the stake, tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail, click here. To see previous posts on the subject of theme, click here.
Fortunately, Rust Hills isn’t party to the kind of high-flying rhetoric about theme that so deservedly demands the subject be shot down. Rather, as suggested by a quote in the previous post on Style, Hills primarily sees theme through a critical lens, as another way of understanding an author’s work over time:
This coherence in the world he creates is constituted of two concepts he holds, which may be in conflict: one is his world view, his sense of the way the world is; and the other is his sense of morality, his sense of the way the world ought to be.
Hills spends the bulk of the section on theme talking about where different writers plot on this matrix, but nowhere does he suggest that the authors he cites made a specific choice to approach their fiction in that way. More important than the theme of any particular story is how those authors integrated their world view into the craft of their fiction.
As to the utility of theme as a technique, Hills is thankfully explicit:
“Theme” and “word view” as an aspect of fiction seem to come very much after the fact. A beginning short story writer will have very little sense of any overall coherence in his efforts so far, and it’s better that he doesn’t.
If you feel you have something important to say about the world, fiction can be a great medium of expression. But front-loading theme into a badly crafted work is an eternal recipe for failure. The best way to integrate theme or anything else into your storytelling is to concentrate on craft. I know it’s fun to strike an authorial pose, I know it’s fun to agonize about the state of the world or literature or the contents of your refrigerator over leisurely cups of coffee at the local cafe, but it’s not enough. At some point the rubber has to meet the road.
If the only rubber you have is theme, you’re going to write a lot of flat tires. If you haven’t read Thomas McCormack’s piece yet, do so now.
Next up: The Short Story and the New Criticism.
– Mark Barrett