Christopher Columbus and the manufacture of identity

You can’t believe everything you’ve been taught.

“Story … continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction ‘is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

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Listening to the podcast “Serial”: comprehensive research, or boring and gossipy?

Today, I’ve been listening to the podcast Serial, that now-famous online audio series that’s garnered record numbers of listeners. It has been both praised and reviled in the press.

In recent years, I think that podcasts have taken a back seat to other online media, particularly social media and especially online video. Some reviewers have claimed that Serial has raised the profile of podcasts, attracting loads of new listeners to what was considered an old medium. You know, like from ten years ago, when people still thought iPods were revolutionary.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Serial, but I’ve also found it to be a bit less than formal. It feels unstructured, running along like a continuous conversation that we’re overhearing or listening to from the sidelines. Maybe it’s too conversational in format?

It feels like an editorial piece where the author’s points of view, questions or self-doubts become a major aspect in the story, competing with whatever objectiveness there may be in the story. Despite my concerns,  find myself still listening to it.

The thing is, I’ve loved listening to old-time radio programmes, especially comedies, and detective dramas. The dramas especially tend to put you in the head of the main character, where their thoughts and speech as rendered as equally important. It was first-person, in the “Raymond Chandler” sense.

After listening to the first few episodes of Serial, I found it difficult to stay engaged with the story. There were so many players, people who were involved, or who knew people who were involved, or who might have seen something. I found myself feeling a bit bored at times, drifting off mentally. I began playing episodes while I did other things, picking up the important points, and hoping the rest would just sink in. Maybe all my years of surfing the web for quick answers have destroyed my ability to absorb and enjoy long-form narrative. I’m ready to accept that possibility.

It’s not presented in a sensationalized style at all, but from episode to episode, it’s compelling enough to keep me listening, and like the chapters in a good detective novel, ending with a dangling question – a challenge to the audience – which sets up new mysteries and proposes new possible answers.

I think that many people like to play detective, to listen in on lurid details, gossip-style, and to speculate on all the pieces of a vast puzzle. This format is not unlike the lurid “true crime” detective magazines that you can still see on some magazine racks, and all over the web.

Serial also has a few other marketing and publishing characteristics that have greatly accelerated its popularity: it’s freely available at serialpodcast.org, and being online, it’s easily republished via social media.

Anyway, check it out for yourself, and listen to the first of the 12 episodes:


Related Links:

 

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Creating a Character Profile for Mike Coffey: #StoryMOOC Week 3

To finish Week 3 of the MOOC, “The Future of Storytelling”, my creative task is to publish a detailed profile of an original character. I must also provide a bit of “evidence” – some artifacts – of my character’s online presence.

This is an exercise in Transmedia – creating fiction across multiple media simultaneously – so that a character has resonance and persistence in social media and elsewhere, outside of his/her fictional universe. This, I believe, gives the character some extra depth, and can also assist online marketing efforts as well.

I have chosen to profile “Mike Coffey”, a significant character from my first novel, “Owe Nothing”.

Here’s Mike Coffey’s Character Profile:

StoryMOOC_Chap3_Character_Profile (PDF)

Here is Mike Coffey’s blog, where he describes some of the events in his life:

Mike Coffey’s Blog

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Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.

My hopes for an amazing, uplifting Superman movie have been sucker-punched by “Man of Steel”.

It’s really disappointing to say that too, because I’ve considered myself a Superman fan ever since the 1978 Christopher Reeves movie. I think I was hoping for a kind of mythical, spiritual reboot from this new movie franchise. (Is that too emo of me?)

[Spoiler alert: I give up a few key points from the movie’s plot. STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to be disappointed.]

Continue reading “Dear Warner Bros: You got Superman so wrong.”

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Amazon Studios & Bootstrapping Original Content

What does it mean when the major online retailer of books and movies is getting into the content production business? It’s more industry convergence that proves that “content is king”, even when it’s crowdsourced…

I think that Amazon is doing a kind of Zeroes2Heroes approach to getting original content, but on a bigger, Amazon scale: promises of “options”, coupled with free (but strings attached, I think) tools like their Storyteller storyboarding app and online network.

 

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On Creativity: Carnivalé and the Hero’s Journey

The HBO series Carnivale has been inspiring me.

We recently picked up Carnivalé on DVD, and are enjoying season one. This series was broadcast on HBO in 2004 and only lasted two seasons before being cancelled, but not before attracting attention and kudos for its haunting stories, great cast, and movie-quality production values.

Carnivalé presents us with two unlikely protagonists: an abandoned farm boy who has recently lost his mother and his home, and a tortured preacher who struggles to save the down-trodden “Oakies”, outcasts from society in the midst of the American dustbowl-era depression.

Ben, the farm boy, is beset with dreams and visions of his late father. Ben possesses a healing ability, which his devoutly religious mother condemned him for moments before she died.

Brother Justin, the Preacher, also possess a power – the power to make others see visions. He uses this power to convince the weak and the evil to follow his path of righteousness, specifically to help the downtrodden and especially, poor abandoned and orphaned children.

Each of these men lives in a different world from the other: Ben with the “Carnivalé” circus, and Brother Justin in a small, conservative town that would never accept him as their pastor if they knew of his special abilities.

Ben undergoes what I see as the classic Hero’s Journey, or trial, where he becomes trapped and lost in an abandoned mine, and sees visions involving his late father and a man from the Canivalé, whom he knows as Ludz.

In the Hero’s Journey (a la Joseph Campbell), the hero becomes trapped in a maze or some kind of labyrinth, but eventually escapes after having a vision or dream.

This maze experience is a test. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker went to Dagobah to learn from Master Yoda, and one of his tasks was to enter an underground cave, where he confronted Darth Vader in a dreamlike battle. We knew it wasn’t the real Darth Vader – it was a test visited upon Luke by his Master, to help him see his own soul and potential future.

 

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On Research and Creativity: Archetypes and Inspiration…

I’ve been revisiting and researching famous stories and hero myths, starting from the most recent, pop cultural stories and their influences, and then digging down deeper into personal territory, furrowing paths that lead me to my mother and father, and to my images and beliefs of myself.

I’m a fan of pop culture, comic books, and sci-fi – not all of it – and during the years when I grew from a kid into a teenager, I absorbed a lot of pop culture stories and artwork. Here are the particular works that affected or influenced my outlook as I was plodding through my angst-fueled tweens through teen-hood:

Star Wars:
I had just turned eleven, and this movie was a religious event for me. I read magazines about the movie’s plot and its production, collected every bubble gum card in the series, and collected some of the action figures. It had aspects of the Wizard of Oz, along with a somewhat gritty “used” aesthetic that made it feel worn and lived in. I wanted to live in it. It was the last movie I ever saw with my mother, and the last movie that she ever saw outside of a hospital television. For Mum, Dorothy left the farm in Kansas to see the world. For me, Luke left the farm on Tatooine to find his destiny.

Superman, the Motion Picture:
A year after Star Wars landed, another big cinematic event for me. Christopher Reeve inspired me that a man can be an honest, virtuous hero, impervious to negative influences and corruption. He gave the most convincing, wonderful performance, and the movie’s physical and optical effects had reached an amazing level that convinced me that a man could fly.

Famous Monsters of Filmland:
This was a science fiction/fantasy/horror movie magazine that showed me that movie monsters were brought to life by actors, designers and writers, and that movie monsters could be funny as well as shocking. The magazine’s editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, was lovingly referred to as “Uncle Forry” by me and a whole generation of young fans and future movie makers. Real life provided me with enough real scares and true monsters, but Uncle Forry made his world fun and safe.

Archetypes – Parents and Other Important Grown-ups:

My parents, only one generation younger than their wise elders, seemed to contain all the chaos the world had to offer, and served it up around me far too often. Mother and Father were the seat of drama and hot emotions in my life. My father could be gentle, but when challenged or threatened would become authoritarian and rigid – someone to fear and obey. My mother could sometimes be fun or spontaneous, but was most often depressed, uncommunicative or just unavailable.

My grandparents were all dead by the time I was twelve. I only got to know one of them really well (my maternal grandfather). I’m also grateful for the careful attention of my father’s aunt, who gave me and my sister quiet, safe times to learn, draw or just hang out. I had learned from watching how each of them lived that life could be uncomplicated, rational and peaceful, with simple joys like a brisk walk while sucking on a fresh peppermint.

Later on, a couple of years into adulthood, I’d encounter a teacher who provided me the educational and professional mentorship I had craved. He began as a kind of “Obi-wan Kenobi” to my eager young “Luke Skywalker”, showing me new ways to look at the world around me, and in the years to follow as I matured and accumulated more of my own wisdom, I saw him more clearly as a man, idolized him less,  and liked and respected him even more.

Wise elder figures in fantasy (Obi-wan Kenobi, Gandalf) or familiar celebrities (like Uncle Forry), represented safe and reassuring proof that there was fun, reassuring elder wisdom to be had for uncertain youths.

Each of These Figures Goes into the Mix…

For me, I suppose that the symbolism of my family and life sums up something like this:

  • Parents teach more by the example of their lives, than by anything they tell you about them. Do as they say, but watch out for what they do. In my life, I learned what not to do and how not to live, by watching their living examples.
    • Father: Strong, fearless except when his fearlessness is in question, and moral, except when his morality is in dispute. When he’s good, he’s Superman. When he’s bad, he’s Darth Vader, or Dracula.
    • Mother: Beautiful to look at, a songbird to hear, but unstable and unreliable. Tragic and flawed. Someone to love en absentia, and then posthumously. Referred to in the past tense, even during her life; zombie-fied and burnt out, like a poor, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster
  • Grandparents tend to be wiser than their children, and tend to mourn and regret their antics, even into their adulthood. Because of their roles, they can provide comfort, but are often ineffective at being parents to their adult kids. The old wizards and warriors have had their day, and must yield the field to their younger counterparts – for better or worse.
  • Teachers tend to be the most objective and reliable source of information and inspiration. They also represent the emotional oasis that is school and higher learning in general. They don’t get involved directly with any of the above.
  • The Hero/Heroine of your life is you (in my case, me). You take everything you can get, learn all the lessons, suffer all the trials, and watch all the examples of each of the above people in your life.

This is the raw material that has gone into the characters and events in my own fiction, such as Owe Nothing, and its sequel, The Two Sisters.

In looking back at my life, and what I’ve made of it, I acknowledge the roles and influences of my parents, grandparents, teachers, idols, and fantasies. They all represent parts of a tapestry (if you’ll indulge me in a weaving metaphor), the threads of which I’ve extracted to knit into something new. The individual threads (snippets of a personality, an action-reaction, a core value, feeling or sense-memory) don’t reveal much of their source, but careful composition allows me to create figures, worlds and events that can resonate for a reader, without devaluing the original threads and those who spun them for me.

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On Connecting to those worlds out there…

In a recreation centre basement, a middle-aged man feels that old anxiety – the anxiety of having to speak in front of a group of strangers. The address he must make now is especially poignant. He clears his throat and swallows the fat dry lump that had formed there.

He pictures a room filled with men and women, some older than him, many younger. He closes his eyes and sees row after row of folding metal chairs, each physically supporting a soul not unlike his. It’s just like an Al-Anon meeting, except that he really can’t see his audience very well until individuals make themselves known by responding. He feels like he’s standing in a dimly-lit room full of cardboard cutouts.

“My name is John, and I’m addicted to the Internet.”

Instead of a verbal welcome from his audience, he receives a chorus of invisible mouse clicks from unseen hands. Supportive audience members register “likes” and RTs, or vote their approval by forwarding his statement onward to their own circles of friends.

The reaction of the group is organic and almost immediate, but it’s far from natural. But this is the way many of us share our personalities with each other nowadays.


Recently, we suffered a power outage in my part of East Vancouver. It affected almost 8000 citizens for kilometres all around us. There was that funny buzz or “thump” and everything suddenly went pitch black. After a few moments of disorientation and cursing, we got some candles lit and phoned the local power utility to get an ETA for when they’ve have power restored. Once we had an idea of a timeframe established, we sat down at the kitchen table and ate a few cookies by candlelight.

What struck me was how very quiet it was without the constant background hum of our building’s ventilation system, electrical power supplies, elevator motors, or the buzz of fluorescent lighting. All those little mechanical noises become the background noise of one’s life. We get used to never hearing the absolute silence of a powerless town.

I also noticed that the sky outside was a lot brighter than I’d realized. With all the streetlights off, my eyes quickly adjusted to the relatively light early evening sky. The electric lamps that we power on to help us see at night seem to make the night sky look much darker than it is, so we become dependent upon them.

Even though I live in a condominium surrounded by a couple hundred other occupants, I would only recognize a handful of them by sight, and only a few of them in the dark. We live in physical proximity, but also in relatively anonymity. By comparison, I can identify most of the personalities who associate with me online, and I know how and why we are connected.

It was only a few moments before I began to feel bored, “jonesing” for information. With no AC, there could be no radio, but I found immense satisfaction and relief in the fact that I could tether my laptop to my smartphone to get Internet access. This allowed me to go to the power utility’s web site and see a Google map of the areas affected by the blackout, and a revised estimate of when power might be restored. Twitter and Facebook provided echoes of what other citizens were experiencing, in real-time.


The Internet and social media kind of serve to connect my mind to others in a personal way. It surprised me how much I missed having access ti the Internet for real-time news updates, and to social media for that weird invisible community.

It’s the same feeling of fascination I get when I get a headache and realize it’s because I haven’t had a coffee yet. My body is telling me I’m dependent upon that thing.

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On Creativity: Multiple Media and a Billion Artists

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Maybe a singer-songwriter like Adele or Beck will say something extremely poignant to me through their music. The same with film-makers like P.T. Anderson, Michel Gondry, or Quentin Tarantino, through their movies.

But even more so, the farther back in time I go: Orson Welles speaks to me strongly.  Buster Keaton makes me cheer for the little guy, and Fritz Lang and Murnau make me wonder what happens in the darker corners of our minds. Illustrators and graphical storytellers like Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee feel like uncles. Their lines are like well-known handwriting that evokes a familiar voice in my head. Steinbeck made me anguish for the poor and desperate working families. Charles Dickens made me love the charity, trust and loyalty of dear David Copperfield.

Some of the stories were recorded decades ago, and some well over a century ago, but they are alive in real-time whenever I experience them again.

I think that the human mind must truly not care a thing about timeliness, or temporal sequence. There is just now.

And now, we all have the capability to dream, to create, to defend our values, and to reach out to each other through our art. The insanely fast, relentless growth and spread of digital communications technology allows us to bring our minds and hearts together in time and space with an immediacy that we’ve never before known.

Of course, there’s a lot of crap and idiocy out there online and in realspace, but in the midst of it, a billion potential artistic voices are trying to call out to each other.

 

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On Creativity: Inspired by Orson Welles

Orson Welles
Once in a while, when one feels they are in a bit of a creative slump (I suppose “downturn” is the fashionable term for it nowadays), it helps to be reminded of some of the great artists whose work has inspired me in the past. I have recently become inspired (again) by Orson Welles.

I’ve had a few artistic heroes. In terms of a modern creators (particularly multidisciplinary ones who work in film, direction, and radio), Orson Welles looms largest in my mind.

I associate him most strongly with black and white film and with things like film noir, compelling photography, autobiographical themes, and moments of explosive energy. His life and personal drives were lived very much in the public eye, and his art seems deeply infused with his personality, ego, and psychology.

Today, I read a statement that described Orson Welles as a renaissance man of the 20th century:

Innovative film and theater director, radio producer, actor, writer, painter, narrator, and magician, Orson Welles (1915–1985) was the last true Renaissance man of the twentieth century. From such great radio works as “War of the Worlds” to his cinematic masterpieces Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello, Macbeth, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight, Welles was a master storyteller, as expansive as he was enigmatic.

I agree -he was a true renaissance man.

Here are a few links about Orson Welles that I’ve recently enjoyed:

Great Directors: Orson Welles:
http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/welles/

Orson Welles – Genius Without Compromise:
http://www.squidoo.com/orson-welles-hollywood-genius-

Orson Welles (Wikipedia):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles

“Me and Orson Welles”:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_and_Orson_Welles

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