One of the greatest of American films generally, and certainly the most incisive and insightful one about the criminal life.
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.
Fitting that in 2020, when I sat down to watch Goodfellas 30 years after its release, we would have a president who amounted to a mobster. Here we have, still have, one of the greatest of American films generally, and certainly the most incisive and insightful one about the criminal life, because of how it tricks us emotionally into thinking the Mafia code actually amounted to something for those who lived inside it.
Most Hollywood mob movies are about kingpins who rise and then fall: Little Caesar, Scarface (both of them), The Godfather. Goodfellas is unabashedly about a low-level guy, someone who has just enough of a taste of the life to enjoy it, but who will never rise very far -- presumably because he's half-Irish and half-Italian, but really because of his urges to shirk the disciplines of the mob world. He never rises very high, but he he still has a long way to fall.
Sometimes I get ideas for a project by way of nothing but a potential piece of cover art.
This may sound cheesy, but I won't lie: Sometimes I get ideas for a project by way of nothing but a potential piece of cover art. Remember that post from the other day about the four projects that graduated to my incubator (in a matter of speaking) this year? At least two of them got booted to incubation because I whomped together cover art for them at random. Imagining something that looked like that on my shelf made it easier for me to imagine what the back cover blurb might be, or what might be inside.
Fantasy can be used as a distraction, but its job is to give us new ways to look at what's around us every day,
Lynda Barry, who is a treasure beyond compare and has never been given a tenth of what she deserves for it, once appeared on Letterman and said something to the effect that her favorite television was anything that had a cell dividing in it.
I'd known about Barry before, having stumbled across her strip Ernie Pook's Comeek and later on her album The Lynda Barry Experience. A line like that made me think of the likes of Laurie Anderson or even Virginia Woolf: someone with great and gentle attention to the wonderful things, when so much of the rest of the world has no such thing.
She also said this once, in her book What It Is:
There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.
I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.
They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.
Emphasis mine. Her notion complements my oft-quoted line from Václav Havel: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
Fantasy can be used as an anaesthetic or a distraction, but I don't think that's its real function. Its job is to give us new ways to look at what's around us every day, to shake that up a little, and to let us take something away from that shaking-up.
To kill them or not kill them?
My advice to Aaron, and to all other writers, is not to kill your darlings, but to nurture them. That scene that you think is really awesome, try to make it the best it can possibly be. Don’t forgive its flaws just because you like it—you’re the author; make it better. What better motivator could one have for wanting a thing to be good than caring about it deeply?
I think the whole reason the cult of "kill your darlings" came about is as pushback against the kind of senselessly "expressive" writing that made self-indulgence and obscurantism into the highest goals, instead of storytelling and narrative/artistic cohesion.
Discussing four future projects of mine that all took shape this year.
The more you hang around other creative people, the more your own creativity sparks off, even if you're already in the habit of banging rocks together. Case in point: This year I started a new project (Unmortal), and ended up firming up plans for something like FOUR other new future projects. Here's what they look like so far.
This year did leave its mark on me. I only now see this.
I didn't get a chance to do any blogging this week, as I was both tying off my final week of work and enmeshed in what amounted to writing a turning point scene sequence in Unmortal, one that took a lot more out of me than I expected. The old impulse took over: I'd rather just write than talk about writing, and so I just wrote. But now my work week is over, and so is my work year, and so is almost my entire year, period. Thank god, as I'm sure I'm far from alone in saying.
The single hardest thing I could try to write would be a children's book.
Not long ago a friend and I were tossing ideas at each other about future projects, and he asked, apropos of nothing, what I thought the single most difficult possible project to take on would be. I said, without hesitating, "A children's book."
With many of the stories I've taken up only to abandon, what was most interesting to me about them seemed impossible to communicate to others.
Of all the ideas I've whomped up that seemed worth a story, I've shelved many of them and never checked them back out again. The ones that got shelved hardest were stories where everything about them that was interesting to me seemed impossible to communicate to others -- and so, in the end, didn't actually turn out to be that interesting to begin with.
On a narrow, reductionist view of fiction (and not a very good one, for that reason).
I'm not familiar with Michael O. Church generally (apparently he has a bad rep in tech circles), and the essay he wrote containing this quote has apparently been taken down, but this bit from it got my attention:
I attended a talk in which Marvin Minsky said he only read science fiction because the entire rest of literature was “the seven deadly sins, over and over again”. Now, I’d be the last to trash science fiction; but I’m not a fan of his view of, you know, the entire rest of literature. Still, this is how techies think. Everything but robots and science is trash, to them. The Singularity is going to happen in 20 years (this was true 20 years ago, and 20 years before that) and after that, the computers are going to produce so much general wealth that we will all be post-scarcity, post-nationalist, post-mortality beings. Given that, all of our art and ethics and religion and politics are so petty, we don’t need them at all. They get in the way. The techie’s argument is: sure, I’ll screw you over today, but 20 years from now you’re going to be immortal because of me.
I think Church is indulging in an overgeneralization here (not all techies are this Philistine), but with a kernel of truth at its center about certain people and their tastes. If memory serves I think I remember hearing John McCarthy, of LISP fame, expressing a similar sentiment at some point: most literature just exists to superficially manipulate the reader's emotions, not to explore ideas. This presupposes the idea that manipulation of the emotions is ipso facto bad, even when we consent to it in a controlled way. Or that the exploration of emotion is inferior to the exploration of ideas, which is also a foolish conceit.
Time for a look back and a look forward: what I did and what I'm doing.
Horridtacular as this year's been, two good things came out of it creatively. I finished Fall Of The Hammer, was damn proud of it, and got it out into your hot little hands (all six of you), and I got the wheel grinding on Unmortal. That wheel continues to grind, such that if I keep things up I should have a rough first draft by [counts on fingers] uh, February? March? Of 2021, that is. Let's say March just to be on the safe side.
What comes after that breaks down like so:
A thunderous fusion of jazz and industrial rock, way out of print but absolutely worth seeking out.
Among the many downsides of entertainment conglomerate mergers is the way hordes of indie labels snapped up by the majors in the '90s and '00s have had their catalogues vanish into the ether. Case in point: Big Cat, a UK label currently owned by who the heck knows, the vast majority of whose releases exist only as pricy out-of-print CDs or YouTubed bootlegs. Among them, and richly deserving a reissue, is God's Anatomy Of Addiction, a thunderous fusion of jazz and industrial rock that has none of the pretentiousness of the former or the inflexibility of the latter.
I don't care if SF is possible, I care if it's plausible.
I refuse to label my work as either “hard SF” or “soft SF.” The term “soft” is used by certain individuals in a derogatory sense, no matter how much others may try to redeem it. What I began to notice about so-called “hard SF enthusiasts” was that they didn’t so much care about “science” in and of itself, but rather, they had a very particular ideas about what scientific developments would occur at what intervals in the future, and anyone who suggested that technology was taking us on a different path (e.g. complete ecological destruction) was deemed “not intelligent enough” to have comprehended the “actual” way technology would develop in the future.
This kind of snobbery always struck me as being exactly that: snobbery, with a side order of gatekeeping. Labels like "hard" and "soft" SF are useful if you're a taxonomist, but when used to beat people over the head, they're pointless.
On creativity: The opposite of inhibition is disinhibition, not uninhibition; an act, rather than a state.
My friend 'n colleague Matt Buscemi, on giving writerly advice to someone stuck for somewhere, anywhere to start:
I advised my friend to start writing using simple prompts, or to develop detailed character outlines and use them as the setting for a scene involving that character with no plot at all. The goal was to reduce the perceived difficulty of the task down to the level where he could simply start writing.
What I realized, after giving this advice, is the dark path it could lead down if taken to the opposite extreme. It is one thing to abandon inhibition when feeling particularly inhibited. It is another to abandon it when faced with stark feedback that passes of tests of logical coherence and empathy on the part of the giver. It is all too easy to meander from, “I am going to set my worry aside and just write whatever comes to mind for a while and see what that teaches me,” to, “Whatever words I slop out onto the page are wonderful and amazing, and I’m not beholden to anyone else’s sensibilities of plot, character believability, idea, theme, or narrative structure.” The former is a writer overcoming an inhibition. The latter is writer who should perhaps be a bit more inhibited.
My comment was: "The opposite of inhibition is disinhibition, not uninhibition; an act, rather than a state." One always wants to look at an inhibition and interrogate it. Sometimes what's holding you back is a guardrail to keep you from going over the edge; sometimes it's a straitjacket. There's no way to know unless you take a close look, not just once but again and again.
I'm all in favor of writers who want to Break Rules, because that can be fun and it can also lead to truly new kinds of work. I'm not in favor of using rule-breaking work as a teaching guide, though. Singular works are hard to learn the right lessons from, because the lesson too often gets interpreted as uninhibition rather than disinhibition. Not all of what is most precious and powerful is that way because it is disinhibited. Disinhibition gives you certain kinds of powers, but at the expense of others.
Most of My Favorite Things are disinhibited in some way, but not all of them. I cherish the filmmaking of Stan Brakhage, painting straight on the cels and showing us only the things he could show us. But I also cherish François Truffaut, whose visual language was almost never extraordinary, just used with empathy and wit. Those things by themselves are hard enough to realize.
What's sad about Ready Player One (and Two): the commanding power cultural nostalgia holds over people in bad times is worth exploring. Just not in a story like that.
With Ready Player Two getting savaged by reviewers, since it appears to be arguably even worse than its predecessor, that reminded me of something I'd written down a while back and all but forgotten about.
2020 just about killed my enthusiasm for reading, which was finicky to begin with.
Looking back at all the bad things that happened to me in 2020, I'm loathe to try and rank them, although one of the absolute worst was not being able to see my parents or my friends out of state at all. Further down the scale, but still pretty bad, was how I spent most of the second half of the year not reading much of anything. I got a lot of writing done, but I couldn't read for the life of me. Living in terrible times does a number on one's ability to enjoy immersive pleasures. But I also have to be honest: this was only partly a new thing. Bad times only exacerbated my existing pickiness in reading.
"The album that killed Skinny Puppy", an only partly realized concept record about a cult movement, has much to recommend it after 25 years.
My theory of the cultural history of the past twenty-five years is that not only has there been almost no progress, but that we have regressed in so many ways -- and so silently that when we're confronted with evidence of the regression, it manifests not simply as psychic shock but actual violence. If an album that is more than two and a half decades old sounded ahead of its time both then and now, that's two signs in one: 1) the work was one of genius, and 2) the rest of us have not applied any of its lessons at scale. Or, where we have, those lessons remain off in the margins, not informing popular culture in a way that moves it forward. For a long time, though, I didn't think about The Process in this light at all. It was mainly "the album that killed Skinny Puppy".
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of December 2020.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind