Sign up for My Monthly Newsletter

Friday, September 29, 2017

Religion, British Reality TV, and my New Novel*

In a recent New Yorker magazine, Sam Knight writes about a British reality tv show that was produced last year while news of Brexit and the American presidential election dominated the headlines. In an article titled "Back to the Garden," Knight retraces the steps of a program that posed the question, "What if we could start again?" The show seemed to promise in its promotional material images of escape from what Knight calls "the pointlessness and the cruelty of late-capitalist existence." Perhaps not surprisingly, the show ended in cancellation, with the isolated show contestants left in their fenced off "Eden" still acting out their roles, unaware that no one was watching them, their re-boot society moving in a direction we've seen before in William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies.

"A nation's reality shows do not arise from nowhere," Knight writes. His litany of productions from Russia, Japan, and Norway, to the Greeks' focus on Survivor suggests a range of blatant attempts to act out otherwise subconscious aggressions and desires for escape from limiting economic. spiritual, and cultural boundaries. Perhaps in this light, the English attempt to bring religious images to the screen should be admired. They've attempted it before (more on that in a moment). But the collapse of British Channel 4'sEden production could have been predicted. No matter how unspoiled the land or skilled the human beings involved, we remain fallen creatures or, as might be said today, post-Edenic in our insecurities. The attempts to "get back to the Garden" have been made before in history, always with the same result. One wonders why we still might believe that TV could change any of this. But there we have it.

As noted above, Eden might remind us of an earlier British reality show that tried to bring religion to mass audiences. About ten years ago, a reality show aired in England in which Christians traveled around London and attempted to get random people on the street to attend church services. It was this old series, in fact, that got me thinking about the idea for the reailty show in my novel, in which a group of believers travel around America and try to reach others for God.

My idea is not typical of American TV. Our focus always seems to fall on talent, schemers, bachelorettes, winners, and survivors. Our dreams and visions move toward individual success and failure, not so much communal living and utopian desires. We seem to want to build things on our own rather than trust anything to others. We are Robinson Crusoe. Every man is an island.

Even so, it was that old British production that first got me onto the idea of writing about a religious reality show in which things go wrong. I should add that I don't really watch reality shows myself. But I remain interested in how what are billed as "games" can take on realities of their own. 

*This is a repost of a recent newsletter.

To order a copy of Apocalypse TV, my new novel, click here

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Thoughts While Waiting for the Book to Be Released

My book is about to be released by eLectio Publishers. This leaves me feeling both anxious and excited. I wonder what is going to happen just around the next corner. At the same time, life seems to be going on. My family still has needs, cars need repairing, and work beckons each of us every day. Wars haven’t ceased. The poor still need to be helped. And I am trying to do all that I can to get ready for my book's release, including letting people know about it—and what it is about.

I’ve been thinking about some of the things in it. I’ve regretted one or two scenes that are going to be there when the book is published. But by and large, I am happy with it.

One idea that might catch on with some readers is the idea of what TV does to people and to messages. One of the themes in a book titled Apocalypse TV is, obviously, TV. One of the characters in my novel has his life upset and unbalanced by appearing on a TV reality show. His marriage is imperiled. Of course, he gets some fame, but what is that? On TV, we objectify human beings. We turn them into symbols of our own instabilities. We make them tell our stories of our woes, our fears, our own insecurities. We don’t like people who are too successful. We like to have people to look down on. TV pretty much is just a magnifier. If you want to be known on a pretty superficial level by millions of people, go on TV.

It is perhaps pretty much the same with messages. We turn them into our top forty slogans and street signs. What happens when people with an important message go on TV? For example, the general claims Christians make (“The truth will set you free,” “Seek and you will find,” “He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet he shall live”) amazingly can miss the target. When people hear these, they stop listening because the statements are not tied to anything concrete. The same is not true where individual acts of charity are concerned, when people do things that can break in on awareness. 

This suggests to me that the messages on TV are pretty much flat ones. They cling to us like a form of neon lint, but they just sort of add to the noise and dust of our setting, clogging up some of our thinking. 

My main character, as he is interviewing for a position on a reality show, says something about the desires people have about going on TV, and about being famous. He notes that most people see it as their big chance. Of course, he ends up trying it himself.

I wonder if we think we will have the greatest influence with a big Twitter feed, with a TV or radio show, or with a big church. The truth may be simply the effect I have as a person on others.

At the end of the day, it may not be ratings or reviews but relationships that matter the most and that have the greatest influence on others around us. St. Paul said as much when he referred to the believers he was writing to as letters. You are letters from God, he said. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Invention, Drafting, Revision, or Draftingrevisioninventiondrafting?

Several years ago, I was coming back from a writer’s conference with a friend who was one of the teachers at the conference. Once we got on the straight freeway and had miles to go before another exit or bathroom break, my friend, who is a published novelist and a great writing teacher, said, “Let’s brainstorm about your book.” I had written two drafts of it already and had pitched it to a few editors at the conference. But my friend proceeded to come up, on the spot, with several new possible directions my main character could take.

Though at first I was resistant, his suggestions were great and showed that he understood my main character. I later incorporated several of his ideas. But most important was the way my friend’s comments got me re-energized about my book. I started to see it, not as a finished product, but as a story with fresh possibilities. Though I'd written two drafts, I would go on to write two more.

This anecdote illustrates several things—how writing resembles play, how our work is never really finished, how our work benefits from collaboration. (On that last point, see Diana Glyer’s book Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings). What I am most reminded of, though, is that writing does not progress in stages and really shouldn’t be taught that way. 

Most textbooks still represent writing as happening in five stages: prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. This sounds very orderly, and it's probably fine for "school writing." But it doesn’t represent what anyone really does. 

 The “brainstorming” we did coming home from the writers conference is associated with prewriting, the first stage of the writing process. Those lists of ideas and fragments we don’t think of doing after having written two full drafts--which I had done. Where I was, most people think of editing. 

In contrast to many of the textbooks, composition scholars have long talked about writing as recursive. They observe that writing doesn’t happen in neat stages. Instead, writers return again and again throughout their processes to different “stages” even as they try to press forward with their work. This is why I have trouble defining the word “revision.” I can say that it is different from editing. But it also includes all the earlier stages. Revision can lead to reframing, rethinking, sometimes even a new book. 

On the road home from our conference, my friend and I were engaged in some serious recursiveness.

To be honest, my "process" is messy and depends on the specifics of what I'm writing. Sometimes I really do just start writing, going on a scene or an idea. Maybe the “prewriting” or inventing happened in my head for a while. As I write, I make discoveries. When I go back and revise, I often go back to prewriting and new planning. I’ll notice a misspelling and correct it, or remove a pesky intrusive comma between noun phrase and verb. Here's what I call it: draftingrevisinginventingwriting.

I’ve just finished doing that. My first novel is coming out this September. And I have a new idea for a follow up novel, so I am starting this "process" all over again. The new idea came as a scene that I thought was a work of flash fiction—a story of less than 1,000 words in length. But my writing group thought that it didn’t work as flash. They thought I had a much longer work in mind. I wrote down their ideas and realized when I got home that they were right. So my "finished" flash fiction piece is now the first scene in a novel, one that I started writing notes on. This morning, a three act structure and central conflict emerged. 

The ideas happen both as I work and as I am away from it.

“Let’s brainstorm,” my friend said as we drove home from the conference. We had hundreds of miles to drive. I may have thought I was beyond that stage at first, but within another 40 miles, I was thinking differently. I was getting ready to go home and work on my story again.

Again, that story, five years later, is scheduled for release this coming 12th of September.

I’m glad I was willing to go back to the beginning. Writing is messy. Revision, invention, drafting—on that open road, where, exactly, was I? 

Draftinginventingrevisiondrafting. I could use this messy compound to represent the mess I'm talking about and believe I'm inventing a new word. Or, I could just use the old term, writing, and leave it at that. 

Writing, as a cartoon one of my writing teachers had on his office door puts it, is nature's way of telling you that your thinking is sloppy. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Some Thoughts on Politics and TV

For the last month or so, I’ve been trying very hard not to say something that would offend anyone politically. I got back my student evaluations, and some of my students didn’t like a few of the jokes I made about politics and politicians. So though I didn’t think I was that bad, I’ve been more quiet lately. I've kept quiet about what I've been observing. I don't want friends to get the wrong idea. Because of this, I’ve hesitated to talk about a program that had a profound affect on me recently. I don’t want to give the impression that I am “one of them,” whoever “them” is. 

So I will get to the show, eventually, in another paragraph, but first, I need to say something about the main concern of this blog.

I’ve been thinking about grace. It's simple, and it often preoccupies me. What happens to the word in our midst says something about our culture. Given the prevailing doxa, it too quickly breaks apart into paradox. Some people get a hold of one part of it—the unearned, freely given part of grace—what is said of God. Others can’t quite grasp this and move toward the other doxa, the work idea. Hence the very notion gets pulled apart into the usual fare, which is not much of either. So grace becomes little more than a wet rag, or it becomes a two-by-four we have to saw into thirds.

This is the usual fare, where we live. 

The other night, I watched the last episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. I will just say this up front, in this paragraph. I remember when Margaret Atwood’s novel appeared in the 1980s, and I thought then what I still think now, that the story is a work of literature and as such it is really about something more deeply felt than any passing presidential administration, right or left. The new show has been pretty compelling as a thoroughly American story (though Atwood herself is a Canadian writer). Its harsh, stripped narrative reminds me a great deal of the near allegorical writing of Hawthorne and Scarlett letters, though as I've said, I know that many people want to point to a more contemporary referent for its current relevance.

But this production runs deeper than that. It doesn't lead me to think about current events, though the show captures two concerns of immediate and compelling worry: female identity and sexuality in a repressive patriarchy; and the deadness of repressive, religious practice. Both of these concerns came together in the final episode the other night in such a powerful, New Testament way, that it has helped my understanding a little.

First, the repressive patriarchy. Most compelling and chilling is that the patriarchy in Atwood's tale uses women to enslave and entrap other women, who are not individuals and are only valued and only treated with the slightest kindness when they are apparently with child. 

So the moment comes in this setting when the handmaids are lined up by the women lording over them and ordered to stone one of their own.

What happens instead is an act of emotional empathy right out of the New Testament. Stones are dropped. The handmaid who first refuses to throw a stone leads the moment in which grace breaks out into this religiously barren winter world and changes it--for herself and perhaps for others, permanently.

Just let me say that this is one of the reasons I continue to read literature, of all kinds, not just the sanctioned kinds, not just the party lines. I love to read a story written honestly by someone who has no interest in writing about religion, and then be around when that story is broken open by God's grace. It tells me something about the world we are living in and how everyone is trying to see.

What I think the word grace should mean now, what I think it does mean now, outside of our frail cultural doxa, is this. Grace is that power that can break into a situation, not always through speech, but through some action that has the power to change everyone and everything. It changes people, it changes situations, it changes our relationship to power. 

This is what grace is. 

Nothing is ever the same afterword. Some people are freed. Christ got sent to the cross. Offred, the handmaid who dropped the stone, was last seen being led away in a wagon with armed guards. But even here, when grace came, everything stopped being what it was.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Grace is something very different from anything else, alcohol, drugs, where we stay the same.

And we don’t manufacture it. It comes from beyond us. 

I hope you will not write on my evaluation that I've been too political. Stay in touch.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

On Memory: A Memorial Day Reflection

It is interesting, on Memorial Day, to contrast the many famous writers who write from personal experience with the way we do not allow high school and college students to draw on that same source for their own writing most of the time.

Hemingway, to note one famous example, wrote of the importance of remembering places, streets, and names of regiments rather than slogans* when thinking about the loss of people in the first Great War. All of his writing life, he worked quickly from personal experiences, as his critics noted. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, he wrote after coming back from a Fiesta in Spain.

Some have argued that the electro-shock therapy he received late in life to treat his depression robbed him of his main source for writing—his short term memory of his experiences.

Except for creative writing classes, we don’t generally have assignments for students to practice writing from experiences and to practice short or long term memory. They are taught to write from sources and to avoid personal opinion. It would seem that a full, vibrant writing program would draw on all forms of writing, not just research.

Of course, to write from experience is to draw on memory, which we understand is not reliable. It is important to provide support. 

A Series of Gaps
Recently, I was writing about a road trip I took with friends after college in 1979. As I remembered it, three of us traveled together. But then, after finishing a second draft, I found picture from that trip in a drawer. In the picture I had taken when we stopped at a rest area in North Dakota, there on the hood of my friend’s car was her German Shepard.

I had forgotten we had traveled with the dog. I had forgotten about the unwashed fur and dog breath as it panted and licked my hand and leaned against my knee when I had my turn in the back seat.

Hemingway, in writing his first novel, of course, left his wife out of the story. Hadley, his first wife, had been with him to the Fiesta and bull fights. He was, of course, writing fiction.

An even more recent example of the unreliability of my own memory concerns a TV show. Recently, my wife and I were trying to remember if we had watched the second season of a series on Netflix. I thought we had and were waiting for the third season to be posted. But she went ahead and started watching the second season, and it turned out I was wrong. I had somehow forgotten that we had only seen the first season.

I don’t remember phone numbers either. I remember my best friend's phone number from 1967, but I only remember my own cell phone number because I have written it down so much. Writing seems to be one way to remember things. Sometimes I will, like Hemingway, try to write things down soon after they happen. I do this in my journal. 
Aids to Memory
Communities, cultures, nations, of course, seek to honor and retain events they feel important for the collective memory. Holocaust memorials exist to help us remember. We argue over whether or not Confederate monuments should be kept up, while there are no monuments in Tianamen Square to mark the 1989 student demonstrations for democracy. According to an Atlantic Monthly article, government cameras keep a constant vigil over the square to prevent any outbreaks of commemoration, though candlelight vigils are held in Hong Kong to honor the pro-democracy event.

The ancient Greeks compared memory to impressions made in wax. Sigmund Freud wrote that writing was one way to support and “guarantee” memory. I marvel at this when I page through journal entries I wrote thirty-five years ago and realize that I have written the names of people and our conversations, but I no longer remember who “Sally” was.

Freud also praised a technology he called the ‘mystic writing pad,” which I recognize as a toy I played with in elementary school. Freud’s mystic pad consisted of a black, wax-like board, over which were layered a white-gray plastic sheet, and then a transparent plastic sheet. I remember writing—etching into—the sheets over the black board and creating words or pictures. When I grew bored with this, I would pull the sheets away from the board, and doing this would clear the sheets—presto, like erasing a board.

The thing I noticed when I did that, though, was what interested Freud. There, on the black board, were the marks of my etchings, layered over other etchings from other times of writing. The etchings over this black board was what Freud saw as consciousness—the traces left on the surface as memories, crossed over with newer memories etched in later.

Technologies of Memory
Memory has been compared to many technologies. I remember during the 1970s, when we would talk about memory tapes. It was as though somewhere deep in our brains there was a tape recorder technology recording everything. Hypnotize us, and the unvarnished, uncorrupted true tape of our lives could be revealed. This is a little too much like the ancient idea of memory and wax. 

More recently, we refer to downloading files of memory. Computers provide fine metaphors. 

But that “mystic writing pad” Freud liked, I think, best captures the precious, fragile, and fragmented nature of human memory.

And to support that humanity, having a public day to remember those we've lost to war is a fitting way to keep those we've lost near us and in mind. 

*This is a bad paraphrase from his novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Post-Birthday Reflection: Why I can Never Think about Gardening Again.

The older I get, the more it seems true: Some hobbies I used to imagine doing once I had the time for them now begin to look suspiciously like resignation.

Once, I thought I might like to garden, later on in life, when I had the time. In a time of rush and stress, pulling weeds and running a sprinkler seemed almost sane. We always think that way in the present moment. Some other, very different moment will be better than this one. Long ago, in a moment now far, far away, one I can no longer recreate or even understand, gardening seemed an image of relaxation.

Now, I don’t see it this way. Now, just a few years from turning 64, gardening has started to look too much like I’ve given up.

There are pictures we hold, perhaps collectively, perhaps individually, of life’s seasons. These un-verbalized images guide us in terms of what we envision to be appropriate for us for each stage—childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. Each season, as I see them, has a tree caught in a certain season—childhood shows the tree budding, for example—while the figures in the picture are those we don’t quite recognize as individuals, though they appear vaguely like relatives or neighbors. Old age shows the barren tree in winter, with golden light and blankets. 

The path to that picture, in my mind, starts with those late middle age, early retirement hobbies.

There at the start, the path begins with gardening.

Better Advertising Campaigns
This is not to say that I won’t relax or do relaxing things.

It’s the representation that I object to now. It is the image of fussing around on a plot of land and having no connection with the larger world that I find not just unappealing, but unsettling.

Representation is the issue here, the, if you will, the advertising. It may be behind why others refuse to take up other occupations. For me, gardening advertises old age and retirement as mere piddle-paddle.

That’s the way we see the elderly, I suppose. We see them like we see salad. After a great steak dinner, I might think about balance and having a salad later in the week. 

But that is really going to all depend on how that salad is presented. And tofu is out.

Talk of salads returns us to gardening, about which I am not completely in the dark. Once, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I started a garden in our back yard. I grew tomatoes and some corn. I wanted to see what it had felt like for my father to work on a farm.

But that was a long time ago. I was experimenting with being in the world.

Four Seasons
I think that all of us want to stay in contact with the larger world. The one thing I can promise on that score, however, is this: I promise I will not run for president. We have now had our latest senior moments with an elderly president. There is no reason to do that again. 

At any rate, the representation on that one is not going to work very well by the time I get there. I will say no more about this, other than to note that there are increasing numbers of voters who, if they don't already, will probably start to wish that gardening had been represented better to our current resident of the White House. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nodding at the Oscars

Lots of people I talked to this year weren’t going to watch the Oscars. Most of them cited objections to the political leanings of the celebrities as their reasons for not tuning in. 

I admit that I’ve seen more of the Academy Awards in recent years than I’ve seen minutes of recent Super Bowls—another February event. This is not because I think them brilliant or I agree with everything that they stand for. I've seen more of the Oscars because my wife and I get invited to my sister-in-law’s Oscar party every year--always a lot of fun because of the people we meet there who are witty and engaging. We don’t have to only focus on the Oscar production itself, which, if everyone were honest, doesn’t show our celebrity/entertainment class at their best. Sure, they're well-dressed and beautiful. But then--and I don't mean for this to sound snarky--they have to talk. 

Let’s be honest
Lots of people complain about how political—left wing—these celebrities have become, but really, is that the worst that happens?

In the LA Times in the days that follow the show, there are always plenty of “post-mortums,” rundowns on what was done right and what was done wrong on the show. There is always speculation about the host and how a different one might have performed. This year, there may be more to say about how the Best Picture, the last category, was handled. But really, what do we expect from an awards show?

More to the point, what do we expect from a parade of actors talking without scripts? Sure, there are always the few planned skits—which are first takes, of course. Last night's running joke between the host and Matt Damon held up pretty well—again, as a series of first takes. But otherwise, the ceremony was the usual parade of well-dressed celebrities saying something general about life or art, or life and art, or art or life, and then announcing the finalists. And then announcing the winners. And then the winners would generate excitement and ramble until the music plays. 

No matter how well dressed these movie stars are, the Academy Awards do not show them at their best. They were at their best, we should know by now, in their twentieth take of a shot they’d rehearsed of a line someone more clever called a writer fed them.

Being Natural
This is what we should understand by now. And we should stop thinking otherwise. Complain as we might about Meryl Streep; at least she's been to so many of these productions at this point in her career that she is a professional about it. She knows better than to show up without something planned out on a small piece of paper. 

She knows that, at the Oscars, the actors are left to their own resources. Those who come with planned political statements have at least planned their comments. We might not like them. We might rightly think, “Well I don’t need the cast and crew of Zootopia to tell me how to think about the economy,” or anything else, for that matter. But at least they’ve prepared. They aren’t just rambling. They aren’t faking a meltdown to cover for the fact that, like my first-year students who think that just writing their first thoughts on paper is going to be authentic and profound, they didn’t prepare.

Nine times out of ten, that is all that is going on with the winners. The brilliance, the flash of inspiration, just doesn’t happen. We may think that looking great or at least cute is going to be enough. But talk and unplanned writing are pretty much the same.

We shouldn’t expect much of them either way.

If Hollywood really wanted to improve the show that is the annual Academy Awards, they could start here. They could do worse that require that the finalists for all of the major categories—I’m talking about actors now—hire writers to give them the brilliance they are used to having on set.

That’s just  entertainment.