The first of Paul Krugman's rules for how he works was "Listen to the Gentiles", meaning (as I applied it to creative work) get out of your bubble. The second is "Question the question". As he puts it:
... if people in a field have bogged down on questions that seem very hard, it is a good idea to ask whether they are really working on the right questions. Often some other question is not only easier to answer but actually more interesting!
The way I approach this for creative work is a little more obliquely than how Krugman has it. In creative work, few creators are preoccupied with theoretical questions of the kind that surface routinely in economics; they're too busy actually creating to worry about theorizing. Exceptions do exist — look at how François Truffaut successfully bridged the gap between critic and creator — but they're just that, exceptions.
The questions creators ask themselves tend to revolve more around how to achieve a particular goal. How do I get the audience to like my main character? How do I make sure everyone lives happily ever after? And so on. On closer examination, though, a lot of those questions may turn out to have a larger context. To wit: does your audience need to like your main character, or just be interested in them? (An interesting character does not have to be a likable one.) Is the assumption of a happy ending derived more from your attachment to your characters than it is a sense of what will best reflect the rest of the story? You'd be surprised at how your view of your own work changes when you put those questions to the test.
Another way to think about questioning the question is when it comes to the conceptual side of a story. When working on Flight of the Vajra I looked at the setting I'd created and said to myself, "Wait, if this happened in the real world, it would fall apart." That's when I realized the story was about the falling-apart of the idea, not about having it work by authorial fiat, and I ran with that instead. It didn't just make for a better story; it taught me how to think all the more constructively about how my stories could be put together in the first place.
The most important takeaway for this rule, then, seems to be that you should always reflexively examine all your own assumptions about how you create things. Why did I do this and not that? Why did I assume this story would be more interesting than that one? In short: Look at the questions you're asking. Find out where they come from. If you find complacency there, root it out.
A fascinating article, based on the premise that validity of canon isn't the only criterion for assessing a story:
... the Arthurian legends work so well and have survived the centuries because they eschew a strict canonical structure. The writers of each period adapted the character to the as necessary to fit the stories they wanted to tell. Often these myths were a means of sharing oral history or a way to celebrate a tribe, clan, or country.
This actually got me thinking about some of the notes I've put down here about the Buddhist "canon", which I put into quotes mostly as a way to showing that it too has a fluidity determined at least as much by the times and manners as by anything else. The Buddha that was brought to Korea and Japan was not the historical Buddha, but the historical Buddha might well not be the historical Buddha either.
In the same way, the Buddha brought to the West and the United States is unlike all of those as well. We don't tend to think of him as an idol to be worshipped or a god to be enshrined, but rather as a distant figure of saintly wisdom, and while I think that is no more accurate than any of the previous interpretations, the fact of those changes is plain.
My feeling is that the Buddha that best suits the West is still being worked out. We get the Buddha, or the god, or whatever variety of spiritual figure we deserve, and right now the Buddha we're getting mostly seems to be one that's a by-product of our fascination with the scientization of wisdom.
This is not to say that studying such things scientifically is bad — but rather that wisdom is not something you can reduce to a formula, and that studying Buddhism isn't something you do just to find it easier to cope with stress at work or learn how to deal with assholes at the grocery store. It's something you study because it's worth studying, and the idea of something having a non-utilitarian merit is still kinda alien to a lot of us. The idea of entering into something like that entirely for its own sake sets some peoples' teeth on edge. It reminds them too much of the sort of formal commitment others make to a Religion with a cap R.
My feeling is that there's a good middle ground — one where the Buddha's insights are directly implementable in a modern context, and where the modern context is used as just that, a context, instead of an adulteration. Gombrich and Warner and a few other folks seem to have a good sense of what this might be like: one where you don't really need the trappings and the ceremony (which the Buddha thought of as superfluous anyway), but where the insights themselves, and the implementations of those insights, are held in the highest esteem.
Now, briefly, back to the original conceit of the article: "Writers should be free to tell the most interesting stories possible with those characters, not be encumbered by decades of canon and our modern, often artificial, expectations." The thing is, aren't we already doing that? Frank Miller's Batman, Superman: Year One, the endless What If?s ... there's already a strain of this sort of thing in comics (and in places beyond that) that is quite alive and well. The core canon remains mostly as a way to keep a regular succession of readers roped in, and I agree that it becomes too limiting at times: just keeping track of everything that's happened is a headache unto itself. But we get this sort of thing more often than it might seem; do we just need to drum up more attention to it?
I come back often to how useful it is to get out of your bubble, to read things that kick you into a different circle than the one you're accustomed to playing in. For me, one of those outer circles was economics, a subject I normally associated with nodding off in class.
Then along came Paul Krugman, whose books, columns, and blogging changed all that. He wasn't coming down from the mount to give a sermon; he was a bright, engaging, curious fellow who just happened to know his field thoroughly and also knew how to communicate it with great wit and style. It's hard not to learn from a guy like that.Read more
A moment of truth, it would seem.
In another forum, an argument or whether or not a 20+-year veteran of some trade had the right — the use of that word is crucial here — to chew out someone else, using the saltiest language this side of the docks, for a perceived incompetence. The justification for this was what you'd expect: if someone is several orders of magnitude in skill above another, he's earned the right (again, the word is crucial) to not suffer fools gladly.
In a word: NO.Read more
Every now and then I get caught up with the stuff that passed me by in theaters, if only to see what everyone else is watching. To wit: Furious 6 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They're the kinds of movies people (okay: me) describe as "well-made", meaning they do their job and send you home. They're not worth a full review, but Apes deserves some mention.Read more
I imagine everyone's getting a little sick of the Buddhism-themed posts this week, so I'll tie everything off with a look at the last of the big-T truths Buddhism espouses: the way you get out of suffering is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. No, dummy, not via the Columbus Circle A train stop; practice.Read more
For not-so-constant readers of this blog, parts one and two of this discussion were all about Buddhism's four "noble truths". No, no, don't run off on me now; I'm not here to sell you flowers or pamphlets. This is more about looking at some common-sense advice that sounds like a greeting card, but finding the harder and wormier truth inside it.Read more
We won’t end tragedies like the Malaysian Airlines disaster just by meditating until we all have our own glimpses of God. ... Accepting things as they are does not mean you need to be complacent about them. The ability to accept things as they [are] allows you to become better able to make changes when change needs to happen.
The above is in the context of a larger discussion about how what I guess could be called "spiritual materialism" (I wish that term could be separated from its creator, sigh) is often misinterpreted as being spirituality itself. Meaning that the trappings — the ritual, the language, the behaviors, even the insights themselves — are not the same thing as actually being an enlightened person who tries to do the right thing and keep his mind in mind. Nice talk isn't the same thing as enlightened action, but since you're the easiest person in the world to fool, you can always fool yourself into believing it's your nice talk that's really enlightened action.Read more
Some months back I noted how discussions of Buddhism by people not familiar with it outside of its pop-culture incarnation often end with them misconstruing it or dismissing it entirely. "Life is suffering" sounds terrible, but the way I put it, a better way to think about the first of Buddhism's four "noble truths" would be "Life and suffering are inextricable". The same goes for the second line item, often described as "The source of suffering is attachment".Read more
Would J. K. Rowling have written seven Harry Potters if the first hadn’t sold so well? Would Knausgaard have written six volumes of My Struggle, if the first had not been infinitely more successful (in Norway) than his previous novels? Sales influence both reader and writer — certainly far more than the critics do. In general I see nothing “wrong” with this blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction. In the end it’s rather exciting to have to figure out what is really on offer when a novel wins the Pulitzer, rather than taking it for granted that we are talking about literary achievement. But it does alert us to the fact that as any consensus on aesthetics breaks down, bestsellerdom is rapidly becoming the only measure of achievement that is undeniable.
I've talked before about how we tend to get our cues for enjoyment from our peers and our surroundings. If we know everyone is watching a given show, we watch it too, because that gives us all something to talk about, instead of everyone else talking about Orange is the New Black and then me (unsuccessfully) trying to explain the appeal of Berserk.
Sales works the same way. Fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong, and neither can millions of people throwing down bundles of cash to read 50 Shades of Gray or the latest bale from the James Patterson hay factory. Even if the books themselves are forgettable tripe, people still feel as if they've had some kind of experience worth talking about, and so they're not wasted. But that means the book itself is no longer the important thing; it's just a poker chip being passed between hands. The real subject there is how we feel like we belong to something and how we fit ourselves into a given group.
This isn't confined to best-sellers, either. Elsewhere in the article, there's this note: "... while in the past one might have grumbled that some novels were successful only because they had been extravagantly hyped by the press, now one discovers the opposite phenomenon. Books are being spoken of as extraordinarily successful in denial of the fact that they are not." (Emphasis mine.) Meaning that people talking with their peers about a given literary darling will use the word "success" as a signal between them: This book validates our tastes, and by the same token, us.
I think we need to examine closely the way social validation works, especially in environments where it centers around something that only looks like it's benefiting from such a boost. It's great that you can have something zoom out of complete obscurity and get into millions of hands, but if it comes at the cost of having almost no one see the thing for what it really is — and to make it all the more difficult for present or future folks to do the same — was it worth it?
Busy week at work (one which culminated in me getting a company award, my second so far from them!), so not much time for blogging. But the most striking thing of the week so far is me finally getting a handle on how to use Twitter effectively. Here's the short version: use it like a chatroom.Read more
This may not be an especially profound insight, but the thing I notice most about artists who are most successful in terms of putting a personal stamp on their work is that they are that much more in touch with what they are. That person may be of one given political bent or another; they may be meek or bold; they may be tough or sensitive. But whatever it is, they are entirely cognizant of it and in tune with it. They know how to look inside themselves to get whatever it is they need to speak their mind. They don't need anyone else's work to serve as a model. Inspiration or perspective, maybe, but nothing more than that.
As my friend Steven put it, "Their writing is being them, and at least they're them." I agreed: it's self-expression — not in the sense of "look at me", but rather "look at how I see this; see this through my eyes as only I know how". But so many people — writers, and readers alike — are willing to settle for borrowed vision.
Most people are willing to settle because we're not in the habit of thinking about our entertainments as anything but. We didn't think twice about the lousy food we ate until obesity and diabetes started skyrocketing, and then allasudden we realized we'd aided and abetted a system that made it more expensive to buy (or prepare) a salad than grab a hamburger.
Likewise, we've done the same things with our entertainments. We've given precedence and preferential treatment to things that are not good for us, not even on the level of mindless fun, and then we wonder why everything is a vague (or not-so-vague) echo of everything else. It isn't just that we've starved audiences, but that we've starved the current and future generations of creators as well, and given them no incentive to think about what else might be possible. The eyes we give creators to look through aren't even their own anymore — they're a composite of everyone else's.
Something else came to mind after my discussion of how not every book can and should be filmed: the economics of it.
One of the advantages of the written word is that it's cheap. It's far less expensive to put words on a page, and that much less expensive to get them back off a page, than it is to put images on a screen. This despite the fact that our words and our movies are being delivered that much more from the same screens — believe me, the irony isn't lost on me.
The problem lies in how much easier it is to be the recipient of a movie than a book. Earlier I made the analogy that there's far less effort involved in lying back and having a movie ladle its images and speech into your eyes and ears, than there is in trying to feed yourself the same things as offered up by a book. Complaints of that stripe have been made ever since movies or TV began to offend the sensibilities of English teachers, so I don't think for a moment I'm breaking ground with this revelation.
What's worrisome is how this might be further affected by the idea that a book is just a preface for some piece of visual material. If we think the movie or the TV series has become more revelatory, more immediate, the costs involved will always ensure that only the most broadly salable material will be sponsored and distributed.
The fact that words are cheap means we can and should put things into words that don't stand a chance of ever manifesting any other way.
I finally watched the "short" version of Kenneth Lonergan's much-debated Margaret earlier this week, and I can't remember the last time I saw a film that I simultaneously liked so little and admired so much. I admired its ambition and scope, but I disliked how all that ultimately translated into a story that was too baggy, too sporadically volcanic, too fundamentally undisciplined to really work. It's more interesting for the story behind it and for the ideas it touches on than for what it actually pulls off. (No, I haven't seen the longer cut yet, but I have the feeling the movie's problems started at the screenplay level, not in the editing room; more on that in a bit. I may do a full review if I see both cuts, but it's honestly not a high priority right now.)Read more
My concern about the trend toward a winner-take-all dynamic is that it enables defense of the status quo over disruptive innovations.
The buzzword disruptive makes me giggle into my Ovaltine just as much as the next person whose eyes have gone a-glazed at too much Silicon Valley / TED talks horse manure.Read more
There's an article that's made the rounds about how adults should feel foolish for preferring young adult fiction over the "real thing". The article has been roundly criticized — me, I only just stumbled across it the other week — and I can see why, as it aspires to make no friends. It has the nerve to tell people that maybe they're cheating themselves out of the pleasures of growing up.
You heard me say it: pleasures. And no, I didn't say growing old, I said growing up. For so long, we've conditioned ourselves as a culture to believe that adulthood is a time of stifling boredom and childhood/adolescence is where the party really is, that all of the really grown-up things to do start at waiting in line at the DMV and go downhill from there through prostate exams and tax forms. If that isn't a misunderstanding of adulthood, I don't know what is.
Anyway, I don't think it's that adults should be embarrassed to be reading YA fiction. I think it's that fiction creators should be worried that YA fiction is more appealing to an adult audience than their own work — that they're losing ground to a more undemanding, more rewarding (if rewarding in a banal way) product.Read more
This past week I had a conversation with a fellow writer dealing with two classes of advice he receives. I don't have a name yet for the second class of advice, but the first class earned a label immediately: Sell It Or Shelve It.Read more
... if Edge of Tomorrow had been a smash hit the lesson Hollywood execs would get from it wouldn’t be “Let’s make more smart, funny, character-driven blockbusters!” but rather “More mech suits! More time loops! People like infantry battles, so more of those!”
Right. It's not that we don't learn from success, it's that we learn all the wrong things.Read more
One of the more depressing pieces of advice I've seen come out of a successful author's mouth while they were wearing a straight face was something along the lines of, "Don't put anything on the page that can't be easily filmed, because you don't want to scotch any potential movie deals for your work."
From outbursts come truth, it seems. Not in the sense that the highest aspiration for any written work is to become a Hollywood meal ticket for its author, but that the things people say with straight faces tell you a hell of a lot about where their hearts really lie.Read more
... this commercial is in the same vein as the Volkswagon Darth Vader commercial, where you don't even realize you're being sold a car. It's all about positive brand identification; they want you to finish the commercial feeling good about their brand so that when you are car shopping Peugot or Volkswagon are your first choice. This is how advertising truly works, not by making you want a Coke right now but by making it so that the next time you're thirsty Coke is the obvious, unconscious choice. They don't want you to feel like you're being sold something, they want you to feel happy. And maybe, just a little bit, subconsciously associate that happiness with their brand. It's absolutely brainwashing, on a small and hard-to-notice scale.
This, I think, is one of the most dangerous things about geekdom. It becomes easy to assume that anyone who can speak the geek language — and speak it that fluently, eloquently, idiomatically, and with such gusto and humor — can't be anything but their friend.Read more