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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On Joe Buck, the Midnight Cowboy.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been chipping away at “Midnight Cowboy” by James Leo Herlihy. This is the novel that the famous movie was based on, and although I cannot help but picture a young, cocky, blonde Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the Buck from the book beats the movie Joe handily – to a fictiony pulp, in fact.

This is not to say I don’t like the movie. I love the movie. The movie is beautiful to me. But although it was the novel that led to the film adaptation, in a weird inverted loop-around, it was the film that got me interested in the novel.

On the silver screen, Joe Buck is kind of surface-sincere-sweet and demonstratively himself, but in the novel, once you’ve read two dense pages of Joe’s internal deliberations on whether or not he’s being noticed in the Universe (or if he’s even worth noticing), the book version of Joe seems novel indeed, and the onscreen version seems as flat and fleeting as a film frame.

In his novel, Herlihy gives Joe Buck a depth of feeling and an existential sincerity that completely enobles him. Joe searches his blurry memories and his daily street life for answers to the question of who he is. The Cowboy is Joe’s conscously-adopted swaggering persona – the outward-facing role – that he, a lost and wayward son, has adopted in response to a hard, uncaring, and confusing world. Midnight is the dark confusion in which he sits, asking himself and the Universe his deepest, most difficult questions.

He’s lost so much in his young life: his innocence, his family, his security and identity, and his place in the world. The novel is about Joe’s world, his estrangement from it, his attempts to reconnect to it, and how he claws his way back into the light of hope by ditching the Cowboy in him. Texas and New York city are the gauntlets that Joe must run in order to pass through his trials.

Finding Rizzo gives Joe an unlikely ally, but even more, it gives Joe someone to take care of. As a wannabe hustler, Joe only really ever held alegiance to money and to the sexual power he could exercise to get it. However, throughout all his nasty adventures in dark movie theatres, hotel rooms, or up on rooftops, Joe always felt sympathy for those others who were suffering. He had compassion within him, perhaps waiting to be drawn out from under the embroidered shirt and suede jacket. So, the cowboy finally ended up trusting Rizzo, and became a friend and confidante to him. Joe Buck became a caregiver to somebody smaller and weaker than himself. He evolvd from a man-child to a parental figure, in his own way.

Herlihy uses plain language and essential phrases to weave together an elaborate world of internal confusion, torment, and compassion. Through Joe Buck, he questions the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the nature of family and friendship. In the movie version, Joe is a bit of a shallow but well-intentioned hayseed, and it is Voight’s personality that illustrates the sweet soul of Joe Buck onscreen. In the novel, we dive head-long into the emotional quagmire and philosophical dillemmas of a sensitive, yet illiterate young man who’s desperate to ask the big questions about his life without really having the tools to articulate them.

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Ernest Huntley and Ernest John

The cold morning air shocked Ernest John’s cheeks as he followed his grandfather down the five wooden steps from the back porch. The chickadees stopped arguing and scattered away, creating a rare moment with no sound at all. Ernest John was the namesake of his grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, whose nickname in the family was “Poppy”. To Poppy’s slight amusement and disappointment, six year old Ernest John had recently stood on the fireplace hearth in the livingroom and declared that he preferred to be called John, instead of Ernest.

Poppy stopped before reaching  the white gate at the sidewalk and waited, watching John poke along the narrow path with his head down. “C’mon. Let’s go son.” Poppy always called him son instead of grandson, and John liked it. It made him feel special. “Okay” John agreed, trotting a few steps to return his small, freezing hand into the security of Poppy’s large, gloved, waiting one.

Kitty-corner across the street from Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland stood the bus stop sign where they caught the Lake Hill bus everyday. It took Poppy downtown to his Manager job at the Yates Hotel, and took John closer to his private school in Esquimalt.

After about five minutes of knocking his knees together, feeling the frigid morning air creep uncomfortably up into his private school short pants, John saw the bus coming up the street. It had felt like forever.

The driver greeted them with a familiar smile and a deep, gravelly “Hello, Mr. Clarke”. John smiled at the driver and got a quick wink in return. Poppy knew everyone on their route. Victoria was a city, but in 1972 it wasn’t too big for familiarity and good morning greetings.

Shuffling towards the back of the bus, they passed a girl sitting with her big brother. She was blonde, tied back in pigtails, with a round face and a sour expression. The girl recognized John and stuck out her tongue. He didn’t understand the reaction and tried to ignore it.

Poppy had noticed the little exchange. As they sat down, he leaned over and whispered “What was that all about?”

John didn’t want to say, but the girl had stuck her tongue out at him a few times before, and then pouted when he didn’t respond. He pictured the girl sitting in her desk in their little classroom, two rows in front of him and one row to the right. He pictured how she always loved to put her hand up first and answer the Teacher. She thought she was cute and maybe she was. Maybe he hated her, he thought. He wasn’t sure how he felt, and finally just shrugged. “That’s Tracey,” he told Poppy. “She goes to my school.”

Poppy watched her squirm and squabble with the boy next to her, and looked down at his grandson, who seemed so passive and distant most of the time, but especially now. “Hm.”

Poppy sat back and closed his eyes, remembering his wife Edna, and how she used to make the boy his oatmeal. She’d only been gone for a few months, and Ernest sat as straight-backed as he could in spite of how lost he really felt without her. At seventy-four, he was long-past retirement age, but needed the money, and anyway, what else could he do? The job was practically the only thing he had left to call himself a father and a provider.

After a few minutes, he heard John singing quietly to himself, and listened to his grandson’s small soprano singing voice ringing quietly until they got off by the Yates Hotel. It was a pure, high-pitched echo of the voice that John’s mother Angela had once had. Angela, who had been the apple of his eye. Angela, who at 41 now spent most of her time sleeping and drinking, having surrendered her joys and creativity to manic-depression and alcoholism. Ernest Huntley didn’t know if he could truly ever help his daughter, but he knew that he could help her six year-old son and her four year-old daughter. He pictured John and little Kimberley laying on the living-room carpet, talking and colouring together peacefully, and he smiled to himself. They were good kids with an uncertain future.

Later, as they stood on the pavement waiting for the second bus which would take John to the front door of his school, Poppy straightened John’s cap and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The second bus pulled up and the large Irish driver greeted Poppy and waved John aboard.

“Have a good day and be a good boy,” Poppy said. He really meant for John to have a happy day and to remember that he was already a good boy.  John looked up into Poppy’s blue-grey eyes and loved him, and tried to smile. He hated going to school. He climbed aboard the bus and waved from his seat, and worked up a fake smile for his grandfather.

Poppy would never tell his grandson how he’d been shipped over to Canada from West Sussex in 1910 at the age of twelve, “transferred to another family” in Canada” under an English Home-Child program which lessened the burden on large poor English families by paying them to ship their youngsters overseas to work in other people’s farms and gardens. The lad waving back to him was too young to understand how some families just unravelled from the outside-in, or in the case of John’s mother, from the inside-out. Hopefully, John would never need to know.

All that mattered was the family that he had today, and the bus which would come for them again tomorrow morning.

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William S. Burroughs: The terrible truth-telling Orifice.

I bought Naked Lunch back in 1997, I think. I never could get into it past the Introduction sections. I really liked William S. Burroughs’ opinions on addiction and the junkie mindset. His opinions sounded so authoritative, with a mixture of almost clinical objectivity (which drugs he’d become addicted to, how much and how often he’d tried to cure himself) and an acid-tongued cyncical editorializing on the Doctors and approaches that had failed him. Burroughs’ voice is cold and smart and sharp, but soaked in a bitter backwash of pain and regret. But, as much as I liked his observations in the intro and the epilogue of Naked Lunch, I’ll be damned if I could get into the guts of the book in any meaningful way. I wasn’t ready for it, I guess.

The closest I ever got to seeing the whole Naked Lunch novel rendered was by watching Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch movie, which was a collage of Burroughs’ stories and experiences, framed in a narrative featuring cockroaches, centipedes and throbbing anthropomorphized typewriters with talking assholes for mouths. I think the first talking asshole typewriter reveal was the biggest moment in that movie for me. It still makes me laugh.

Cronenberg captured or interpreted a lot of Burroughs’ imagery, and did his work as much service as possible, I think, while making somewhat necessary concessions to his own film tropes. I’m still crawling through Naked Lumch the novel, and digesting it slowly, while regurgitating scenes from Naked Lunch the Movie.

So, flash forward another 16 years, and I found myself reading Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time (and generally liking it), and getting a sideways introduction to Burroughs via Kerouac’s “Old Bull Lee” persona. Now I’ve restarted reading Naked Lunch, and it seems I’m ready for it now. Burroughs writes in this crazy, satirical voice with these cut-up chunks of narrative that mostly use a terse, clipped style, resembling a secret agent’s espoionage report, or a detective’s telegram. I found myself picturing him in his fedora and long overcoat, banging out reports in his almost anonymous, government worker voice, with hints of vernacular from the streets of New York or Tangier. It began to feel like watching a documentary film about a Raymond Chandler detective who was addicted to morphine, and whose cases were just falling apart in his face.

So, the writings of Burroughs are very interesting to me because of his challenging style. But Burroughs the man seemed a dependent, fucking mess. The portrait drawn of him in the book “Call Me Burroughs” demonstrates his ample wit and dry humour, but also his itinerant life, co-dependence in relationships, his many (many) addictions, and all the complicated pain that he endured as a gay (or bi?) man. I really don’t know what to make of his life from what I’ve read so far, except that he was probably fortunate to have survived it into his eighties. Burroughs took a beating, but a good deal of his misfortune arose (I think) from his own bad judgement and misadventure.

I started to envision something of a lineage growing down from the post-WWII Beats, down through later poets like Bob Dylan, and especially Jim Morrison. Old Beats like Ginsberg and Lucien Carr quoted Rimbaud’s idea of pursuing a “sustained derangement of the senses” as a path to finding the truth, or perhaps, as a way of escaping a rigid, distasteful reality. I could never do that, personally. I have often wanted to escape reality, but not through drugs or alcohol – just through my imagination or mental escapes into fantasy.

In my teens I loved Jim Morrison, and now after reading about the Beats a bit more, and relistening to “American Prayer” by the Doors, I truly think that no child of the Beats pursued a sustained derangement of their senses like Jim Morrison did. “Break on Through to the Other Side” was Morrison, singing about that same break with conventional values and ways of thinking that drove Burroughs, Kerouac and the Beats.

William Burroughs used a cut-up, collage technique in Naked Lunch. That is very intriguing to me. I’ve played with collage with images from magazines, comics and photos, inspired by Gary Lee-Nova, my art school multimedia instructor (himself a life-long fan and scholar of Burroughs). But I’ve never done it with words. Sometime, I want to look at different ways to derange my thoughts after I put them down on paper or record them.

These days, with composition and acquisition being commoditized into microscopic electronics, there might even be an app for that.

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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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Getting closer to writing again…

Other than the occasional blog post, I haven’t written anything of consequence, personally, in close to a year. So goes my on-again-off-again relationship with creative writing.

The stopper (or slower-downer) for me this time has been a preoccupation with  money (re: earning more) and enduring a series of extensive repairs and renovations to our condo.

Our building was built in 1995, and that, coupled with the fact that our suite is on the ground floor, makes us prime targets for receiving water from the world outside (a cracked cement planter adjacent to our bedroom), and from the upper floors (a broken pipe a few stories above).

These leak damage repairs began in November, and were finally completed in February, so we endured a few uncomfortable months living in our guest bedroom with all our master bedroom and en-suite bathroom contents piled up over our ears throughout the rest of our place.

My inner grateful voice told me many times “at least you weren’t unemployed this time”. Yes, dear inner grateful voice, that is true and I am indeed grateful. When things break and you don’t know how long it will take to fix them, it’s a good time to count your blessings.

Reading fiction is one of the best forms of escape from stress or grief that I know. I have been trying to finish Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserables”, and it’s reminded me of the meaning of true suffering and sacrifice. How can one compare a leaky condo to being homeless, ostracized, or physically and emotionally beaten down? I had a hard time beginning this novel, and at first found Hugo’s writing style rather hard to take, since his voice tended to switch from narrative, to period history, to philosophy, or to personal polemic. It requires a great deal of patience and perseverance,  but the reward is a deeper comprehension of his characters and the world in which they live.

As inspiring and beautiful as “Les Mis” is, it’s a monumental novel for a part-time reader like me. After months, I’m not even halfway through the epic.

The only writing I’ve been doing in recent months is business communications, and editing/reformatting training manuals for a much-appreciated contract. My inner creative mind has been eclipsed by my inner pragmatist. Of course, this delights my inner grateful voice no end, since in addition to blessings, it can also count a few new dollars among its reasons to keep on smiling.

I’v finally started to hear the voices of my own characters calling to me as well. I haven’t worked in the world of Jack Owen for a long, long time, but it’s starting to feel like writing time again. I’ve neglected Jack’s world for too long.

God, it’s getting crowded in there with all those bloody voices. But, they’re telling me good things. I just have to keep listening.

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Stream of conscious delight

My headphones are in. Robert Plant wails and Jimmy Page brings layer after layer of metal blues and funk. My heart has been uninspired to do anything creative for weeks. Fuck my own voice, I seem to have been murmuring to myself. Just work and get paid. Get it done, and climb out of that financial divot that you’ve chipped yourself into, and then get out of the weeds and play your ass back onto the green. Great. A golf metaphor – how creative.

Listening to songs that I love always makes me fantasize that I’m singing and playing guitar and having the time of my life with my friends. I don’t know if I have the patience to learn guitar, but I would like to sing. That’s an instrument I would love to cultivate. I like my voice.

When I was a little boy, I sang like a little bird. A beautiful boy soprano withe dirty blonde hair. Back then, singing in a choir was more my family’s idea than mine. I rebelled against it in my own way, yet also loved the spotlight and feeling of freedom. Singing well was work, but it was also about virtue. Notes had to be clear and pure. It might be the closest thing to flying or teleportation that I can imagine. On a grey, misty day, I’d love to see the sun shine. Maybe tomorrow.

Now Beck is saying “All right! Turn it up now!”
Yeah, I should totally turn it up now.

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Meeting Michael Slade and talking about eBooks

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Canadian author Jay Clarke (aka “Michael Slade”).

He’s a former lawyer and the author of over a dozen crime novels, in a genre sometimes referred to as “Mountie Noir”. (It’s a great label – almost as good, IMHO, as “Tartan Noir”, which refers to Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin.)

Mr. Clarke is currently doing a Writer in Residence at Vancouver Community College, and during that time is making himself available for one-to-one’s with students and staff, as well as conducting some presentations or classes. Check out his personal “Special-X” website.

What did I learn from talking with Michael Slade?

Michael Slade appears highly energized, with a laser-like focus and a rapidity of speech akin to a machine-gun. In answering my questions, he flowed breathlessly from one story to the next, in effect raising me up out of my chair a little, buoyed on his waves of enthusiastic patter. The man has a lot to say, and says it with a quickness and precision that had me picturing him sweet-talking many a jury back in his day.

I had hoped to ask him some questions such as who his favourite writers were, what fiction had influenced him, etc. I had considered my questions around in my mind, but I never asked them. I never even got close to ’em. That’s because when I spoke, my mouth began telling him about how I hoped to find an Agent or a small publisher to help me repackage and market my first novel. I suppose this is what I was really frustrated by – a lack of success in selling my books.

What he told me was this: the eBook revolution is still a work in progress. The market will soon “tip over”, and eBook sales will eclipse print book sales entirely – not just at Amazon, but everywhere in the market. The tablet and eReader markets are making this happen, and the traditional publishing industry will be changed forever.

What does it boil down to?

My efforts as a novelist are split down the middle by an important boundary, One the one side (the side I love and am blindly devoted to), there lives me, the caring creator, trying to formulate and legitimize a mythical world of characters and events through the written word. On the other side, there’s this realm of unknown results and lack of predictability, where I stuff little messages into bottles and fling them out into the sea, hoping for one of my books to get purchased. On the first side of the boundary, the one where I’m synthesizing out of fragments, I’m in familiar territory. I know I can do it and have confidence that my skill will improve over time with lots of practice. On the other side, it feels like a no-man’s land, with me flailing around in the dark.

All the same, the aspect of both those things is the concept of me remaining in control of the work and the process. Above all, that is what appeals to me the most.

The books I’m trying to write (and Jay, if you read the copy I handed you of my little novel, Owe Nothing, then bless you sir), are vastly different in content, pace, and tone from anything by Michael Slade, whose last novel, Red Sun was described by one reviewer as “Ian Fleming-esque in its narrative drive”. I am still developing my voice.

But, we’re all working in the shadow of the same industry-changing technological tide that is putting more emphasis on writers becoming their own publishers, and paper turning into pixels.

The stigma attached to self-publishing (“vanity press”) is eroding as more readers and writers get involved online, and as the barriers to “getting published” continue to transform.

Jay Clarke also named quite a few famous authors who initially self-pubbed (Mark Twain?) or who had struggled for decades before their big book came (Elmore Leonard!). He mentioned that every author tends to compare himself to another whom he admires, whether newer or older. We’re all influenced or inspired by somebody else.

I believe what Michael Slade was telling me was essentially this: Don’t quit. Keep trying, and keep control of your work, because the sea change is coming…

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