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Here’s the rub about comics and storytelling:
Say you start with this panel. What comes next?
I’ve got it in my head that I want the next panel to be a husband watching his wife mow the lawn.
What if he’s sitting on the porch drinking a beer?
What if he’s getting out of his BMW in a suit and tie?
What if he’s sitting in a wheelchair?
Line by line, panel by panel, everything hinges on these tiny decisions.
Thinking about giant aunt and uncle sculptures made out of mashed potatoes and chicken gravy. Nouns, verbs, articles…teaching myself English. Wasted words. Rhythm. Studio 360. Kurt Anderson reading my journals. Electronic ink. Nicholson Baker, getting a character’s inner thoughts:
How clumsy, how broad, how expensive these cinematographic sign-systems seem, when compared to the dental trays full of pryers and pickers and angled mirrors that are the fiction writer’s rightful inheritance. Any mind Tolstoy wants to enter, he enters. It costs him nothing but a drop of ink….All the camera angles in the world couldn’t help you there.
Stories structured by an event. Ordinary passage of time. Repetition. Smoking into a wood-burning stove.
* title by Nicholson Baker
no explanation for this.
For a while now, I’ve been interested in bringing a mathematical method to storytelling: charting stories as graphs, using patterns, symmetry, proportion, and number sequences to build and analyze structure, etc. I want to make writing fun for me again: I want to think of writing as building or shaping–something you do with your hands, something concrete.
Brian Kitely’s THE 3 A.M. EPIPHANY, a book of fiction exercises, has been helping me along this week. Kitely’s approach to teaching (here is the complete introduction to his book) is to make the creative writing workshop a workshop in the sense of an artist or carpenter: “a light, airy room full of tools and raw materials where most of the work is hands-on.”
The standard American workshop is a lazy construction. The teacher asks students to bring in stories or poems to class, sometimes copied and handed out ahead of time, sometimes not. The class and its final arbiter (usually the teacher) judge the merits of the story or poem. Few ask the question, “Where does a story come from?” The standard American workshop presumes that you cannot teach creativity or instincts or beginnings. It takes what it can once the process has already been started. Most writing teachers say, “Okay, bring in a story and we’ll take it apart and put it back together again.” I say, “Let’s see what we can do to find some stories.” The average workshop is often a profoundly conservative force in fiction writers’ lives, encouraging the simplifying and routinizing of stories….I use exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, to find new possibilities, to foster strangeness and irregularity, as much as to encourage revision and cleaning up after yourself, and I don’t worry much about success or failure.
Many of the exercises are constrained in the sense that you have to fit your writing into a pre-determined form or structure, and many of these come from OuLiPo: a group of mathematicians and storytellers founded in 1960 (Italo Calvino was a member) who seek to create fiction with constrained techniques (writing without the letter “e” for instance, or only using anagrams). Here’s the site for The OuLiPo Compendium, and here’s a blog dedicated to constrained writing and OuLiPo. I became a fan of using constrained methods after taking a playwriting class focused intensely on structure, where we used many OuLiPo-like methods.
Structure is everything!
I don’t care much for opera. And I don’t know much about Richard Wagner, either. But I do know that back in 1849, Wagner was thinking a lot about opera and about art, and how to convey the human experience.
The Ancient Greeks got it all right with tragedy, he thought. A thousand years ago, all the art forms were fused together. Now, we’ve screwed it all up, and music, art, and theater are separated from each other! But Opera…Opera has the potential to fuse them all back together again…
So Dick started scribbling in his notebook, and came up with the essay, “The Art-work of the Future.” In it, he came up with a word, and the word was “gesamtkunstwerk.” (Like most German language, it sounds to me like a sneeze.) The word means something like “Total Artwork” or, “a synthesis of the arts.” Wagner was certain that the future of the arts was the integration of all forms, into something like a Mega-Opera.
Some people think that what Wagner was on to is what we now call multimedia. It’s safe to say that the dude was a little ahead of his time.
Matthew Barney might’ve gotten along with Wagner. I saw his CREMASTER CYCLE exhibit at the Guggenheim museum back when I was a sophomore in college. What Barney had done was make up a bunch of worlds out of sketches and sculpture and film. Some people called it a “gesamtkunstwerk.”
I like Barney because I think the greatest thing that an artist can do is create his own world: a place or geography that resembles the interior of his imagination, and all you have to do is drop in through one of his books or films or photos to get to it.
Yesterday I bought a DVD burner. Today I made a DVD of some home movies I’ve shot over the past couple years. With a DVD, and also with the internet, it’s so easy to fuse all kinds of art: film, literature, comics, music. I thought that maybe my goal shouldn’t be to put out a book at all, where I could only put words or a few drawings, but to put out a DVD or a website. Then you could drop in and see everything.
Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer who lives in Tel Aviv. I stumbled onto his work while ordering graphic novels for the library: he writes funky short stories (comparisons to everyone from Ray Carver to Gogol to Kelly Link), but also dabbles in comics and screenwriting. Here’s a few words from an article about him:
In his homeland of only five million Hebrew readers, Keret’s four collections of stories have sold more than 200,000 copies in all….His books are the most stolen volumes from Israeli bookstores, and he’s the most widely read writer in prisons. “A lot is to do with their attention spans,” Keret says of his fans behind bars. “They like my stories because they’re short.” His pithy sentences and blunt prose rarely propel his cameo tales beyond a few pages—a feature of his writing Keret traces to his asthma. “When you are having an attack and say to somebody, ‘I love you very much,’ you could, instead of ‘very much,’ say, ‘Call an ambulance.’ You don’t have time to bullshit.”
I picked up his book THE BUS DRIVER WHO WANTED TO BE GOD. Keret writes a weekly column called “Citizen K” over at nextbook.org. The site also has a reading and interview with Ira Glass. A new film called Wristcutters is based on one of his novellas.
Seems like a cool dude.
…nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts….[N]onviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
He also said:
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaimed the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.?? I still believe that We Shall overcome!
Hint: it’s not about black and white, it’s about the haves and have-nots. And along the same lines, a press release from PRKA written by George Saunders.
“For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny…Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication -theorists sometimes call “exformation,” which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve. It’s not for nothing that Kafka spoke of literature as “a hatchet with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.” Nor is it an accident that the technical achievement of great short stories is often called “compression” — for both the pressure and the release are already inside the reader. What Kafka seems able to do better than just about anyone else is to orchestrate the pressure’s increase in such a way that it becomes intolerable at the precise instant it is released.”
– David Foster Wallace, “Laughing With Kafka,” HARPER’S July 1998