Thoughts


3
Mar 14

Phantoms of the OSCARS

I only saw part of the Academy Awards and lost interest, but I liked Ellen Degeneres’s comic hosting, especially her line about Liza Minnelli who was in the audience. ‘”I have to say that is one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” she said, pointing out Minnelli sitting in the audience. “Good job, sir.”‘ Good drag queen joke. Not sure Liza got it, judging from her expression. But if you missed the show, it was a kind of combination of self-adulation, and self-loathing –the latter in the comedy, as if to make up for the narcissism. Here’s a translation of what most people besides Ellen Degeneres said, if they were introducing people or accepting: “I gratefully KISS YOUR ASS. I kiss YOUR ass, Warner Brothers, and I kiss YOUR ass, Paramount, and I kiss YOUR ass, producer, and I kiss YOUR ass, director, and I kiss YOUR ass everybody else.” So just imagine that over and over again and you have the show, except for that hideous backdrop during the “Happiness” song where they actually had a giant non-ironic happy face. Speaking of movies, during that bit I kept thinking, “The horror…the horror…”

Kim Novak is probable getting acidic tweets about her appearance on the Oscars. The poor thing–she’s 81, trying to look 18. Girl, that surgery and that botox is not working. You’re a poster child for “the older you get the less cosmetic surgery works” or possibly “the more cosmetic surgery you get, the less it works.” A little neck tuck, that I can see. But apart from that most of these people look worse with the surgery than if they just let themselves age. It’s as if they have no respect for old people, which is ironic. But also it’s about the fact that they can’t really see themselves as they are *even in a mirror*. They get this extreme and grotesque unworkable surgery and then they *see* something else in the mirror. They mentally edit it. So long as there are no wrinkles they can seemingly see what they want. It’s living satire. Poor kid. i felt bad for her. She was so good in Vertigo. Her cosmetic surgery is now nauseatingly vertiginous. One feels, looking at it, one is falling into another and terrible world, to paraphrase PG Wodehouse.

The last time I remember seeing cosmetic surgery that hideous was on the Academy Awards was when Liberace accepted a special Oscar…That surgery was hideous, looked very new…and he looked terrified. I felt for him too.

I am saying that women in Hollywood should NOT HAVE TO have that kind of surgery–they shouldn’t be bullied into that kind of delusional extreme self modification. I’m saying it does not work and it only opens the poor thing up to ridicule. I feel my post was entirely sympathetic. This is not an ordinary situation. This is not “her dress is awful” or “she’s overweight.” I don’t care about that. this is not about minor cosmetic surgery. This is about self disfiguring due to delusion.

Basically I felt the 2014 Academy Awards lived up to its standard dismalness.


6
Oct 13

…a lovely drive in the country…

Ah a lovely day for a drive in the country. First thing I saw, just as I was pulling the out from the house, was a dead squirrel–then a shadow swept over it. A very distinct shadow–we have a good many turkey vultures around here. The vulture landed, not seeing me at first, settled on the squirrel and began to peck its eyes out. Not kidding, right for the eyes. It blocked my car, pecking eyes the while, and then it noticed some dead squirrel entrails lying separately, and hopped over to peck them. I had never observed a vulture at work up close so I put on my car’s “blinkers” in case any drivers came up behind me and the blinkers went TICK…TICK…TICK in exact time with the pecking of the vulture at the entrails…Then the vulture seemed to notice me. It cocked its head and, looking put upon, flew away…I drove around the squirrel…In the country someone had dumped a full sized hot tub by the side of the road, an octagonal thing of fiberglass, dumped with other items by another sort of vulture…There were many bicyclists on the country road and one of them, a young lady wearing the sort of teardrop shaped helmet that points backwards, was crouched by the side of the road with her pants off, apparently peeing, just on the other side of a metal barrier. She was not in the least concealed. Her helmet seemed to point at her out-thrust buttocks. It was disconcerting…I drove home–and the squirrel was gone. But then I saw wasps buzzing about the sidewalk, where its remains had been moved. The vulture flapped into view, and went back to work on the squirrel…PECK…PECK…PECK. When the vulture noticed me, it flapped irritably, and dragged the squirrel corpse–into my yard. . .A lovely day for a drive. . .


14
Sep 13

Writing Is Seeing: Ideas and Exercises for Writers

[i wrote this piece for a book of essays on writing by various writers, book published by Penguin]

When I was a very young man at the Clarion Workshop, I was a fan of Rimbaud and of later artistic radicals, like the Surrealists. I liked their brashness and their florid manifestos. One day, when I was exactly that young at the Clarion Writer’s workshop, Harlan Ellison was being encouraging (if that’s the word), and asked me what my writing method was. Aglow with self importance, I arched an eyebrow and looked into the infinite distance with a visionary air and said, “I eat with my eyes; I taste with my ears.” Well, this was pretentious as all Hell, and sounded silly, no doubt, especially as I didn’t know much about writing at the time. However, it turns out that when I think back to the ludicrous behavior of my youth, when I wincingly consider my jejune fancies and mile-a-minute images and insights, I sometimes see, besides boyish foolishness, that I was, after all, quite right–at least about some of it. Being a bit of a misfit, I had nothing to lose, so I just tore open my frontal lobes and let the impressions pour in and the corresponding ideas pour out, with very little preconception. The results were highly uneven — but sometimes, because I didn’t know I could not do a thing, I could do it. And I did. And, in fact, I was right to try to “eat with my eyes” — that is, to look around me without expurgation, with the maximum intake and honesty, with the assumption that the normal way of looking at life is muddied — and that it’s possible to see more, always more if one looks hard enough; if one gets out of the way of perception.

And this has served me. So, I advise writers to do the same: to start with the assumption that they’re not really so conscious as they think they are; not so perceptive as they think they are. To make a conscious, deliberate effort to look at things they are used to and see them in ways they are not used to. Try to see the extraodinary in the mundane — not necessarily the fantastic, but the deeper reality. It is there if you look for it. Don’t use drugs to open your perceptions–just open them.

Look around anywhere, really look, and you can see new characters, possible stories. Be a Sherlock Holmes of characterization. What does that stranger’s distinct choice of clothing mean? Does that man’s reddened knuckles and the bruise on his sad wife’s cheek mean what I think it does? Look closely at her and make an educated guess. How about that man, in the subway—his hand keeps reflexively moving toward his shirt pocket, and drawing back. Is he reaching for cigarettes? Or something else?

My feeling is, a great deal of good writing originates in good observation. It’s people-watching, sure, but it’s also watching nature, it’s absorbing urban, pastoral and suburban settings. It’s trying to see familiar things as you never saw them before.

One key to increasing one’s observation is being aware of the degree of one’s awareness in the first place. When I’m out interacting with the world, how much am I lost in some gray study, in a daydream, or in my smartphone. To what extent am I really inhabiting myself, really seeing…and feeling, smelling, hearing…what’s there? If I turn my attention toward my own level of awareness, I’ll discover that typically I’m not very aware, as I move about the world. I’m dreaming that time away; I’m brooding, or caught in haste, in anxiety, in petty fears. Which means I’m not seeing what’s around me—I haven’t got enough attention left, after all that distraction, to really look at the world I’m in. If I don’t really see, I don’t have material for convincing writing.
Verisimilitude, believability—that’s a key to persuading a reader that what you’re describing is real. Where do you get it? From observation—from observing yourself, people around you, the world around you. To get there, work on being in the moment. Step out of the usual half-aware state we’re too often in. Being “in the moment” helps you see things as they are—and it may bring you insight into the human condition…

Everyone is a character in a novel, in a way. A good writer can find the human dilemma, the human condition, in any situation, because it’s always there if you’re really looking close. Drama is always all around us but usually we don’t see it because we’re not paying attention.

EXERCISES:
1. Go to a place that’s tediously familiar to you, the supermarket, or the post office, a place, perhaps, where you have to stand in line and normally can’t wait to get away. Deliberately use the time there to practice observing. Turn your attention to people and things around you, as if you’d never seen anything like them before. Pretend you’re from Mars, if you like. “So this is what creatures look like on this planet; so this is how they behave.” The main thing is to see them freshly—and telling details, truths about them, will likely jump out at you. Look freshly at the place as well as the people. As a writer, any environment is a potential setting. Look closely, more closely than your default setting, wherever you are.

2. Are there people in your life who drone on, and you say, “Uh huh…uh huh…” –as you only half listen, at best? Find one! Let them drone on…but this time really listen, no matter how genuinely tiresome it is. Think of it as a sort of homely telepathy—in a sense, you’re actually hearing their free associations, their unconscious concerns, their fears. An example: “I told Bill I didn’t want to go to that doctor again, he always makes me wait, I don’t think his assistant likes me…” What does that boring, self pitying complaint actually say? It says they’re going to the doctor, so they’re worried about their health; it says that it may be that the choice of doctors is in Bill’s hands, whoever he may be; it says they’re a little afraid of the doctor’s assistant, generally worried about being disliked, perhaps even a tad paranoid. It’s an indirect, unconscious statement of fear, of anxiety, and considering the implications might open up your compassion for that person, which might in turn give you insight into them—they, or someone incorporating their attributes, might become a strong character in a story.

3. Go to some place you like going to, perhaps a beach, a trail, the opera, whatever you enjoy—and try to see aspects of it you’d normally filter out, or not notice. Forget about “good” or “bad” –just look for what is. Linger in one spot and look at it more closely than normal. Again, try to see it as if you’d never seen it before. . .You’ll be surprised at how the familiar is also the unfamiliar, and how much a deeper perception of it can enrich your writerly description.

also be sure to copyright your work:

this essay copyright 2013 by John Shirley, all rights reserved


31
Aug 11

“Firearms for Formulators of Fiction” – and I’m Guilty of 2 errors!

The blog of mystery writer R. Doug Wicker offers some tips to writers describing characters use of handguns. I find that, as a novelist often writing about characters using guns, I’ve been guilty, in my time, of making two of the three basic mistakes he lists below:

First, don’t have your character carry a revolver with the hammer cocked. It’s dangerous, dumb, and may very well result in your character accidentally blowing a hole in his foot or, worse, some other part of his body. If your male character carries his “cocked” revolver tucked into the front of his pants, you’d better be doing a story involving sex change, because if that hammer trips, the gun won’t be the only thing that is suddenly decocked, if you catch my drift.

Second, don’t have your character disengaging the “safety” on the revolver after drawing it, or engaging the “safety” prior to holstering it. This gives readers in the know one of those rolling-of-the-eyes moments that every author should strive to avoid. Yes, there are revolvers that were made with safeties (some Webley revolvers come to mind), but again, these are the exception.

And, finally, do not have your character put a suppressor (silencer for the uninformed—suppressors don’t “silence” anything; they merely suppress the noise but do not eliminate it) on his revolver. The barrel is not where most of the sound comes from on a revolver; it comes from the gap between the cylinder and the frame/barrel. As such, a suppressor just won’t do much more than look stupid. How many times have you seen Hollywood make this mistake? And it’s really aggravating when they do. Again, there are exceptions, but revolvers designed to take suppressors are a very rare and specialized breed.

I’ve had one character, once, screwing on a suppressor. That particularly writerly sin was committed many years ago. More than once I’ve had characters flicking safeties off on pistols. I’m a bit shocked to hear that most pistols don’t have safeties. I didn’t know that. I do think they should all have safeties. But, unlike the guy who sent me this link, I’m not in the NRA.

I do know the odds between single and double action pistols, yes…and why double action can sometimes be problematic in terms of aiming. I’ve noticed it at the range.

Anyway if you’re a writer with gunplay in his or her book I recommend Mr Wicker’s useful blog posting…Just follow the link.


24
Sep 10

ECSTASY and “Being Congruent”

by JS

I went through a period of taking the drug ecstasy, aka X, aka MDMA, years ago. It did me far more harm than good, but I won’t argue with people who claim that studies showing it causes brain damage are flawed. Maybe, maybe not. Before going on to my main point I’ll just note, briefly, that most of what’s sold as X now isn’t X, and even if it is it may well be a tainted batch as it comes from a bunch of European criminals who don’t make it right (not that the “right” stuff is not dangerous).

Let’s put issues of toxicity and addiction aside. There’s another danger with drugs that induce powerful, ecstatic feelings, like ecstasy and, for example, crack cocaine (or smokable meth, or freebase or speedballs). I’m going to speak about this as plainly as I can. What happens is that your body and the wiring in your brain “learn” that high, and since the brain and body are designed to move toward good feelings, you’re left with a feeling that ordinary life doesn’t offer anything half so satisfying. Everything afterwards is in the shadow of the ecstatic high. Sex may seem dull without it; other ordinary good feelings sometimes seem truncated in comparison.

Does this mean that we are supposed to be always angling for those ecstasy highs, once we’ve discovered them? If we do, we’ll burn out. Also, I’ve by degrees learned that drug-induced ecstasies are sort of “one note”, monotonal. They have a “mere masturbation” quality, a “self titillating” emptiness about them, especially cocaine highs. But the exquisite, intricate feelings that come from what I think of as “being congruent” (and I use the word being, here, with multiple meanings) are ultimately more satisfying. My youngest son skateboards; when he does a complex skateboard move, orienting his hard-learned skill with the physics of the environment, he seems to get a deeply satisfying sweetness out of the whole experience. I’ve felt that sort of thing dancing at times, especially when young; and playing in bands, when I’ve hit the note where I want to hit it, been congruent with the band and my hunger for expression, the inner in perfect relationship with the outer, another, profounder kind of good feeling arises. There are deeper sexual/sensual communings possible, too, superior to ecstasy highs, which come from a kind of mutual “congruence of being”.

A special, highly rewarding congruence may arise partly from just an agreeable confluence of events. Once some years back I was driving on a sunny day with all three of my sons, on a country road. We were listening to music we all liked, and we were happy to be together, going somewhere together. The car’s motion was agreeable, the world seemed to sing to us along with the radio — and I’ve never felt happier. I know — it sounds as if I’m saying, “Just enjoy life! Get high on life, kids!” But I’m not. This “special congruence” only comes at times — and often has to be earned. It’s not just the good feelings of ordinary life. It’s a coming together of things that have a powerful, poignant effect, and it’s something to be looked for, over time. You have to be open to it, reach for it, with real mindfulness — it’s way deeper, way more complex than just getting high on ordinary life.

People stuck in the pursuit of artificially induced ecstatic states are, in my opinion, less likely — and ultimately perhaps less capable — of finding their way to these other highs, these complex satisfactions that arise from a right congruence with the world…