May 27, 2012

Don't Lose Your Crunchy: Start Something New


My regular series, What can they teach you about writing, is brought to you by a human being, not a robot.

I’m like a clumsy potter slapping clay on the turntable and working it into something vaguely useful and maybe even nice.

For the past couple of weeks, this potter has been a lot busier than usual. He can’t simply plug into a wall socket and recharge his battery like the androids in the Swedish SF show Äkta Människor (“Real Humans”) – which you can’t miss if you enjoy intelligent science fiction that deals with difficult ideas. Find a way to watch it somehow. Beg, lie, cheat or steal, I don’t care. Just watch it.[1]

Two androids from the show. Oh, and did I mention AM was produced by SVT,
a state-run TV channel? Your tax kronor at work.

So I didn’t pick a remarkable person or character to write about this week. Like you, I have my limitations. But I am going to share some valuable things with you. Because I find them valuable, there’s a 50% chance you will.


Anne-Marie Clark drew my attention to the list of 36 dramatic situations drawn up by Georges Polti. It’s a good resource for your mental toolkit – a tinderbox to light narrative fires. Most importantly, the list is a great place if you’re looking for a beginning.

One thing that’s always helped me write is to change my frame of reference. I am also a photographer, and visual thinking has changed the way I write. We human beings are very visual animals – though what we see is a matter of interpretation.[2]
So my shtick is Write like a photographer, photograph like a writer. Everyone should have an artistic hobby. Outside of writing, that is.

Your art can be anything. Hannah Brencher writes love letters. Sydney T. Cat is a literary agent and also a cat. (Sydney herself is the work of art, in case you were wondering.) You can take up papercraft. Making things with your hands is good for your brain.

You can even drink like an artist.

Speaking of artists, I was going to write about Mark Rothko. So here are a few tidbits:
Rothko’s remarkable family fled from Daugavpils in the Russian Empire (they were Latvian Jews) and ended up in Portland.

Rothko dropped out of Yale after a year or so. Not before he’d started the Yale Saturday Evening Pest to lampoon the good old wasps’-nest. After 46 years, Yale gave him an honorary degree.

Here’s one of Rothko's paintings, White over Red.

Doesn’t look like much on the Internet. That’s why it’s important to look away from the screen from time to time.

On that note, John Magnet Bell signs off. What can they teach you about writing? resumes its regular weekend schedule next week – my brain/energy levels/midichlorian count[3] will be back to normal by then.

[1] If it weren’t a Swedish show, Äkta Människor would vie with Game of Thrones for… For the TV throne. Both shows work under the premise that “winter is coming,” but where GoT is about acknowledging the brutality of the past, AM looks at the brutality of the future. At any rate, there’s a glacier headed this way. What I find better about AM is that it asks more profound questions and, whether you like it or not, those questions are more relevant to the here and now.
[2] Not to mention the fact that we don’t perceive the world in real-time; your brain does a lot of on-the-fly editing for you. There’s a measurable delay between stimulus and response. Consider this: What you remember as real is partly fiction.
[3] The notion that the Force is sustained by a microscopic life-form is still mystical – I don’t think it really pushes Star Wars toward the hard-sf end of the continuum. 

Much like Brainiac is a "living computer";
he's still a fantasy.

P.S.: The only constructive answer to a slump is to begin something. Here's Ze Frank with a bunch of words you need to hear.

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