Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alan Moore: Swamp Thing, Alan Moore's Writing for Comics

I finished Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and Writing for Comics as the next couple items in my Moore stack. I don't really have a scheme or patter for choosing to read what I read and in the order I read it. Because the things I have to say about works are, unfortunately, short, I've combined the two books into one post. You can thank Apple's hopelessly useless Safari program for this double feature. Some misguided times I try to use the stupid thing, and it crashes without fail if I try to do more than one thing quickly. For example, browse the internet AND have the computer on, or go to a website and sneeze. I should always use firefox.

Swamp Thing I'd always avoided. I watched the cartoon a little bit as a kid and had a few of the toys, my favorite being the one that turned bad guacamole dark green when cold and good fresh guacamole green when hot, like in water or sunlight. I'd always preferred Marvel's Man-Thing, who was innately more ethereal and based in horror tales about demons and forest spirits and stuff. Man-Thing came first, and Swamp thing about a year later. I knew someone was stealing from someone. Ultimately, I guess it was DC who stole from Marvel.

As far as I know, Swamp Thing started out as a Science Gone Wrong vaguely environmental warning. A man, Alec Hammond, ends up getting reconstituted as plant matter through the combination of dirty swamp water, a secret chemical compound, and an explosion. I had no interest. When I read about a year of Alan Moore's take, where Swamp Thing becomes a sort of lesser spirit god, my interest was piqued. My guess is that that's something Moore builds on later, because it was mostly vacant in this book. This book did have a reinvention of his origin – instead of Alec Hammond simply becoming a thing made of old roots and leaves, he dies, and his soul (more or less, the book doesn't use these words) inhabits the roots, and with the aid of that special serum, a man shaped plant thing with the memories of a dead human comes into being. In this book he fights one lunatic who wants to destroy the world with plants, and a demon. The setup for forest god is easily forseeable.

Moore works in homages, as established in the last post. So I'm going to get that out of the way first: the second story involves a battle with a demon named Etrigan, a Jack Kirby creation, complete with a dedication to Jack at the end of the book. The art is also an homage to the old Creepy Comics style artwork: very scratchy, lots of lines. The art fits the book perfectly, and I stopped many times to admire the artists' (though I think the inks show better than pencils) skillful rendering of haunted plants. It really reminded me of Sam Kieth's run on Sandman.

As far as story is concerned, this one was much more straightforward than probably any other Moore book I've read. There wasn't a fleet of characters to remember, and they're introduced in small groups allowing you to easily file it away. Since Moore wasn't there since the start, there are a lot of en medias res characters that I had to build partial profiles for simply because I wasn't there from the start. The book really only has about five characters to keep track of, which is much easier than Tom Strong's ever growing cast, or Watchmen and League's ponderous casts.

I don't really have much else to say about this one. It didn't have as much Moore token weirdness, though I know he takes it in a progressively darker and inward direction. I don't even really know if this was worth typing because there weren't many Moore techniques I could mine or anything. I honestly found myself more routinely impressed by the art and less by the story. Maybe when I read following volumes I'll have more interesting things to report.

I was really looking forward to Alan Moore's Writing for Comics, but I was kind of disappointed. There's a series of perplex things happening with this book that I first want to address. The first is that it's almost five years old and it says volume one on the cover, and there is no sign of a volume 2 having ever existed in the history of ever. The only publication date listed in the book is 2006, but an afterword letter dated in 2003 references the work as being fifteen years old, which isn't inherently awful, but I feel in some way slighted – like the book was trying to deliberately keep the piece's age away from my attention. So apparently it was written in 1988 though nothing about the book's afterward and simple math belies that impression. Whatever.

The next thing is the art. I'm not sure why it's there. Maybe so the reader doesn't forget that Alan Moore draws for the funny books? But that makes no sense because if you're reading this book, there's no way you don't know who Moore is. And the art's pretty awful. It's not awful in the Dirty-Hippy-At-ComiCon-Who-Tells-Me-I-Don't-Even-Have-To-Know-How-To-Draw-To-Make-Comics kind of awful, though his art is among the worst I've seen seek publication, but awful in the Art-Is-Such-Standard-Comic-Art-That-It-Almost-Feels-Like-It's-Making-Fun-Of-Itself kind of awful. And they have nothing to do with what Moore's talking about. It might be better if they in some way did, though I'm not sure how that'd work, but they're ridiculous. On page talking about pacing you have a gladiator in a little box, then in another page talking about the believability of the world there's a cartoon man being drug along on a leash by a cartoon dog in horrible generic cliché comic art. It's not even good. And it's so forgettable. The only art I remember is the very end which has a picture of a man and woman kissing, and it's only because I vowed I would remember one image by the end of the book, or my name wasn't whistling dixie, and I forgot until I got to that last image. It sucked like the rest.

The book itself wasn't all that hot either. I constantly felt like Moore was gearing up to tell me something amazing, but never quite got there. That might be the same sort of thing as Swamp Thing (whose art was AWESOME) wherein it's merely the first volume. Supposedly. Unfortunately, whereas Swamp Thing got to go on with more volumes, it appears Writing for Comics did not. Most of what Moore said are things that I internalized long ago. Maybe if someone who hasn't had as many writing classes as I had, or who hasn't been reading comics as long as I have, or someone who pays less attention than I had read this book they would have thought it was amazing. But a lot of felt like rehash. Which I wasn't anticipating. Moore tells us on the first page he doesn't want the book to be a “How To Write Like Alan Moore” tutorial, which isn't want I wanted, but I suppose I expected something a bit more exploratory than this books alloted forty pages. I was honestly expecting a novel when I ordered this book from the library.

Some of the things I had already internalized that Moore mentioned were things like making sure you realize what you're doing; everything has a purpose and when you break from that purpose, make sure you know why you're doing it. There were even some things that I know, but he worded in ways that made it a little more succinct in my mind (which was cool). For example, he said there's a different between story and plot. Story seems to be a larger more nebulous concept. In the literary world, it would be called theme. It's the thing that connects this particular story, or plot, to humanity at large. And even if you're dealing with something silly, like elves, makes it relevant to the human condition. Plot is the particular sequence of events in that story. To use a familiar example, Finding Nemo is a story about the nature of father-son relationships, whereas its plot would be about a little boy fish getting lost in the ocean and his dad trying to find him.

Another thing Moore talked about was scale. His advice was to imagine the large details of a story and progressively work towards the most exact details until all of a sudden, you have a story. Start with the world: the time, where it's located, all the factors that went into the world. What's it's political climate? Is there a war? What events happened in the past to form the current world? Is it a totalitarian world? Is it primitive? Do they love TV? On and on. He says this is the most time consuming part of story creation, but makes the rest go smooth and comparatively faster.

Next, you'd develop your characters: everything about them and how they fit into this larger scope around them. From there, the plot is essentially the natural expression of the world and characters over time. In my book I wrote that P=(W*C)/T. Moore's advice is to think of plot like a four-dimensional construct, where the fourth dimension as time: each panel or situation is a single 3D slice operating within a 4D construct. His writing about plot was the most informative and enjoyable of the book.

In a 40 page book I only took a page of notes. Which is not a very good rate. My sincere hope is that he visits this concept later with more information. Then it might not suck so bad. I guess we'll see.

Alan Moore's Writing: Tom Strong

As I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, I'm trying to work through Alan Moore's entire corpus, or what of it I can get my hands on, before school starts in the interest of trying to absorb Moore's writing into my own. I thought a wise element of that would be to, on this blog, try to dissect some of Moore's tools hopefully distilling his craft into an ingestible tonic that will grant spirit powers. In the spirit of that, I just finished Tom Strong volume 1, the Deluxe Edition. A couple brief observations:

  • It's twelve issues long.

  • The issues appear denser than, say, a standard offering from DC or marvel.

  • Published by America's Best Comics, Moore's own line, which I think is distributed through DC.

Despite the fact that I really really dislike DC, I love their off-the-beaten-path stuff, like America's Best (of which I've also read portions of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Top 10) and I've never read a Vertigo comic I didn't like, most of which I loved. I don't know what it is about those English comic writers, but they are some clever and unabashed mothers.

So Tom Strong is kind of like Superman brought about through Batman means: he's incredibly strong, slow aging, and uncannily resilient, but it's mostly thanks to a special regimen of diet (slightly magical) and exercise. He protects a city called Millenium City from its many would be adversaries with the help of his wife, daughter, and talking gorilla friend. It's very much modeled after and feels like old comics. Which is actually the first Moore device I wanted to address.

Most of the issues in this first bound edition feature what Moore calls Untold Tales, which is a flashback into Strong's deep past (being 100 years old, it's extensive), the art and narration reflecting an appropriate comic genre. Moore is really big on homage. V for Vendetta was built up on a lot of literary and cultural allusions, V himself being derived directly from a significant part of England's history, and Top 10 is essentially a big love letter to a half century of superhero books with all the tropes and easily recognizable characters and situations. More on Top 10 some other time.

Tom strong lapses into a sort of Archie style whenever the comic focuses on Strongmen of America (his fanclub) number 2059, but the rest of the present stories have a very classic comic look. The coloring is very smart: the characters look very much like cartoons. In fact, one of the homage pieces is even in a mock Disney style.

The first flashback's style I don't totally understand. It takes place in WWII Germany, but nothing about the style looks Golden Age. In fact it looks very 90s, and it's even difficult to say why. It has a vaguely Joe Madureira or Humberto Ramos look to it, which might be why. Both artists gained prominence in the late 90s, and all the women are ridiculously out of proportion (90s comic tradition), which isn't in keeping with the bulk of the art. It definitely has a 90s feel, but I don't know why a WWII story is reflected. I'm stumped on this one. As near as I can figure, it might be an homage to some Captain America retooling that happened around this time, but apart from WWII there's nothing to really make you think of the Cap himself.

The second one is easy. Strong and wife Dhalua fall backwards in time and meet a giant creature composed of millions of algae cells that mimics both the biology and psychology of its prey, but living on Pangaea, before there were even reptiles, Strong and wife are the first chance it's had to mimic complex biology or physiology. A fight ensues, and Strong escapes safely. The art is definitely done in a Tales of Suspense faux-Scifi/horror art style, complete with a total lack of though bubbles, and every word being spoken outloud. Most sentences end with an exclamation point. The art looks very comic book, and is probably the style that comes to people's minds when they hear comic book.

The next homage is a flashback to a Riddler type character that likes to kill the hero in complex Rube Goldberg situations. The art is pure Detective Comics. I wish this one had gone a little further, losing the modern six color process and adopting a more era appropriate three color process. Things look too vibrant for a comic mimicking a nearly 80 year old style.

There are other homages – western, Disney, and horror included, complete with Lovecraftian scratchy pen renderings, and narration that's contained entirely within paragraphs, more like an illustrated book than a comic. That one was the most striking as it presented the greatest deviation from the art. Tom looked a little stupid and out of place though, as his rendering wasn't as scratchy, but with everything else looking so victorian and rough, almost like a woodcut, he looked cartoony and ridiculous. And of course there's a Kirby homage. If you have the words Comic and Homage in a single sentence, it will invariably include Kirby. Kirby is to comics what Jesus was to religion. Just saying.

So apart from very careful homages makes Tom Strong worth reading? Well, at first glance, not a lot. At first glance.

The comic feels like it tries to start both en medias res and at the beginning, as if after having heard of Superman your whole childhood you decided to read his first issue. It almost feels like as if on a meta level, the reader is expected to already have knowledge of the person contained within the comics, which is sort of what's happening. The first issue is a split between 2059 (referenced above) reading his comic initiating him into Strongmen of America, and the comic he's reading: Tom Strong's origin. A clever device, but it makes getting into the book a bitch. If I wasn't turning Moore's writing into a project, I would have put the book up. And I did. I first tried reading this book about a year ago. I should have known then to push through, because honestly, when has a Moore book let you down? Never is the correct answer.

Nevertheless, I hate it when books just open up by throwing names and places at you. Few things make me want to learn about them less than having to keep track of names of people and places before I'm given a reason to care about them. Watchmen was expert in that way: it revealed a character at a time, peeling back the layers of characterization back like an onion. It opened with an exciting murder scene, which gives you the incentive of learning about who these characters are.

Another thing that made the book difficult is that the first two issues feature barely any Tom Strong. The first book features him only in exposition inside the comic in a comic, while the second one features his daughter, Tesla, and his Gorilla, Solomon, trying to understand this bizarre machine symbiote. He only shows up at the end to deliver a spoonful of Deus Ex Machina. Related to this is the fact that we watch his supposed greatest nemesis die in a single panel without seeing any of the conflict or who his villain is. By the time I got to issue three, I was using lots of will power to get through it. I wasn't even sure if this comic had real characters, but like any Moore comic, he starts to administer hook after hook and there's no getting free.

It's hard to say how Moore did it, but by issue four when we meet Strong's opposite in gender and philosophy, I felt like I knew how Strong would react to situations, the kind of character he was even though the amount of character revealing dialog is kept to a strict minimum. The third chapter about space faring dimension hopping Aztecs with a quantum computer bound Quetzalcoatl had me hooked enough to get through to the fourth chapter, and then the book really started to gain altitude.

I think Moore depends on what we as the reader know of superhero archetypes to fill in Strong's character. In many ways the character is himself a cypher. He rarely does anything that seems unique to him, but seems in many ways generic, as if the compulsion to read doesn't emerge from Strong as a character, but Strong's universe, which I suspect a vehicle for Moore to tell us a little about how he thinks time, the world, and the universe(es) are structured. And in that regard, the book is successful.

Strong himself though acts as Superman would, and has a lot of Batman's characteristics, such as the reliance on wit and technology. But he's willing to go a step further: he kills his arch nemesis. Strong is benevolent to a fault even relocating a self replicating machine that was eating the planet to reproduce itself to Venus where it would be free to replicate without impinging on other life. Strong seems to recognize when someone is a villain simply because of a clashing world view, and when someone is malevolent and needs putting down, as in the case of his nemesis. This draws attention to Superman and Batman's own failings to do the same. Yet, Strong isn't tortured by it. He simply recognizes what needs to happen and does it, but reserves killing for the absolute final solution.

Also interesting is that he's Earth's (or Millenium City's) ace in the hole: there are no other super heroes that we see, only Strong, yet apart from the introductory issue, he doesn't meddle in the small scale stuff. Being significantly weaker than Superman (though he could probably take Batman), he only really deals with stuff that is threatening on a planetary or often larger scale.

This whole idea of a character that is defined by what the audience knows is a double edged sword: ultimately the character himself doesn't matter resulting in a character medium that's totally driven by concepts. That part I like: it's experimental and risky, and Moore's ideas are immaculate. On the other hand, the character is ultimately meaningless. There's absolutely no tension worrying if the character will live or not, because he's not the point. The point is seeing where the situation will take him. In a way, he's more like a spiritual force, like Jesus; something that enters into the world and whose actions unlock real potential around him, but being spirit, he himself isn't ever in genuine danger. I never once found myself worrying that Strong would die, but rather instead wanted to see what idea Moore was going to show me next. But honestly, when was the last time you read a superhero comic and actually worried that the hero would die? Never. Even when they actually die (see: Superman (4 times?), Captain America, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Spider-Man), the tension that they'll stay that way is near zero. Moore knows that, and he expects the reader to know it too.

At least that's my working hypothesis.

This Post: 60 Total: 145/600,000 Minutes

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I'll Just Write Nothing 3

This 'con was super mini, but I really liked it. It was reassuring to know I'm not the only person in Denver who's thinking these thoughts. Don't misunderstand, a lot of the comics were wretched and the creators shouldn't be seeking publishing. One guy told me that I could write a comic any time I wanted. In fact, “you don't even have to worry about drawing good, unless you obsess over things like story, art, and layout.” His comics were possibly the worst, unsurprisingly. But you'd be hard pressed to find more useless advice than, “you don't have to worry about learning how to do anything in order to do anything.” There was a guy there whose work was done with wood burning, and his stuff was amazing.

I had two favorites, however. The first is Big Head Press, whose books looked professional. Professionally put together and professional grade art. I really wanted to buy a couple, but I didn't have money enough. The best artist at the show by a league and a fortnight was Leila Del Duca. Oh my god does she know her shit. Her inks are amazing. Whenever I write a book, I want her to be on art so bad.

Unfortunately, she led to some household stress, which actually added to my difficulty in writing. My sweet wife, the best woman I know, felt jealous that I was oggling this girl's art. Understandable, but I declare before the internet that had Leila been a dude with art as good as hers, I would have oggled equally, and in fact did at other booths wherein the artist was present. I didn't even spend the most time at her booth (that would be podcast hero Spinner Rack's booth). Seriously. I don't know if Wife will ever read my blog, she doesn't have to, but I can't stress to her enough that she has no reason to be concerned. No woman on earth can compete with Wife.

But it was really awesome. The morning was great, and it was awesome to see these people doing their art. It got me so excited that this conversation would loop back to Alan Moore if I continued. My problem right now is that I don't really have a story to apply to the comic medium. My pal at Abraxas and I are sort of cofounders of a company with which we hope to make various entertainment stuffs. If Leila were to come work with us, we might have her set to graphic novelizing a few of the scripts we got laying around.

So that's where I am. 3 bloglets of stuff that's been crammed in my neural space for a few days now. I hope that when I reintroduce regularity, the braintap will again flow freely.

This Post: 15 Total: 185/600,000

Monday, August 16, 2010

I'll Just Write Nothing 2

For brevity's sake, I decided to break things up a bit.

The second thing I thought about writing about was Alan Moore. Right now I'm trying to burn through as many of his books as I can. For the uninitiated (which since this blog is me and Dane right now, I doubt there are any), Alan Moore is the writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta most famously, though there are so many more. He also did League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Swamp Thing, which also have substantial acclaim behind them - they both got made into crappy movies.

Anyways, I'm trying to burn through his stuff because I love comics so much. So so much. I love comics more than almost any book, movie, CD, play, TV show, or novel I've ever consumed. The only thing I like as much or more is cartoons. I want to write a comic. But I've never done it. I'm reading Moore's stuff because he is perhaps my favorite comic writer, and I'm trying to absorb as many of his nuances as I can. He follows in the footsteps of William Blake, and I love William Blake. Someday I will be posting my paper I wrote on his book Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I figure if I want to model myself after someone, the company can't get much better than Blake and Moore.

Moore is fascinating. He views himself as a real life magician, though for him magic isn't wands and fruity dresses like in Harry Potter. In an interview I watched with Moore, he stated that he views art as magic because it brings about a felt change in consciousness through the use of words and symbols. God how amazing. I want to be a magician too. He is equal parts swords, sorcery, druidism, teutonic gods, and science. One book of his that I just finished reading, Top 10, is the story of a city populated by nothing but super powered individuals and that city's police force. Some of his hero's have totally technologically explainable abilities – like the woman who dwells in mechanical armor – and they are set in stark contrast against those like Odin who are simply gods, and there's nothing more to say about it. Gods and technology side by side. I'm particularly excited to read Swamp Thing because the book started out as a science-gone-wrong tale wherein the protagonist gets turned into a human vegetable by some science mishap. Moore retooled the character (without rewriting the origin) to be the incarnation of a forest deity. So excite.

I also just picked up a book more wrote on his process of writing comics, which I'm very excited about. Alan Moore said he doesn't try to just write a story, but puts in any information he feels is important to conveying the mood of the piece, his mood, the mood he might have been in when he conceived of a particular idea. I read, though I can't find it now, a snippet of Moore's script for Watchmen, and the first two pages is him simply describing his room, surroundings, cigarette, drink, before he finally says something like, “Let's get to it, and maybe through the process of writing which will inevitably change both of us we can arrive at something edifying.” Something like that. In my life I can't believe I never really thought of writing a comic before, considering that it's been a part of my life almost as long as cartoons have. In fact, yesterday (being Saturday 14), I went down town to a local comic fest, and it really cemented my desire to do it.

This Post: 20 Total: 170/600,000

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I'll Just Write Nothing 1

I haven't written in a week, which is a shame, but I take heart in two things: the first is that everyday I realized I wasn't writing, but for whatever reason decided not to, such as the three days I spent stripping floors and felt too tired (not necessarily excusable, but understandable, right? Right!?). The second is that I (eventually) got back on it. The problem is that I have no idea what to write, as I wrote in my free write. My imagination feels a little crippled, which is understandable when I haven't exercised it in a week, I don't really have any solid ideas to work with. Well, that's not true. I do have one idea for a super-indy-wins-all-the-awards type movie, and I will write that mother, but it hasn't percolated enough. I haven't spent enough time in raw thought over the movie yet to understand what it is I'll be writing.

I do (did) know that I want to write a blog post. Sometimes when I can't write or think it's because there's crap clogging up my brain and that crap can make a good blog. But that isn't always the case. I'm not sure where we'll be ending up with this. It might end up being a journal that goes nowhere and gets seen by no one.

The first idea I had to write about is the nature of the stories I write. I've noticed that ever since I was in high school I've tended to write stories about people that are heroic, but sort of fall into that role. They just get stuck in bizarre situations, and a lot of times there isn't much reaction, mostly a vehicle that allows me to write about a place or time. For example, in a college writing class I wrote about a guy that falls asleep and goes to heaven (a place on the bottom of the ocean) and discovers that heaven is really lame; filled with effeminate androgynous weirdos. So he tries to escape and finds the door to hell, and hell sucks just as much, but in different ways. Instead, hell is lonely, filled with sunken ships, is uncomfortably hot (not flaming, but hot enough that you definitely never feel at ease, can't breathe, can't sleep. Essentially Texas in August). Finally he finds a shaman type character that delivers him from hell. I really like the story, but the character doesn't really have any reactions to what's happening. I actually really really like the story. I think it's an instance in my life of unrestrained creativity. Nevertheless, the character's a total blank slate.

Another story I wrote for another short story class, this one based on a dream, had a character kidnapped and frozen by a less-than-on-the-level girlfriend. He wakes up in the future and dies of some kind of cell death brought about by the freezing. Essentially he melts. Again, the character is a leaf in the wind just going where the current of the story takes him.

Even the newest story I've written (temporarily called Meaningful, which I'll be posting here soon) features a character that is a leaf made fate's bitch. I'm also incredibly proud of this story. It feels to me as pure an expression of imagination as the hell and heaven story, but combined with the intellect of some of my better college papers. Nevertheless, it has a character that just falls into a situation. At least this time, however, he reacts: sometimes actively, but mostly internally. I don't really know if I have a hero (if heroes they be. I'm doubtful) that follows a typical hero arch. I'm actually trying to write a story right now that has a more typical hero's arch and I'm having balls of a time doing it. It's one of my unsuccessful irons in the fire at the moment. Strength in numbers.

Even the little scrawls from even younger follow the same motif: guy (hasn't ever been a girl that I can recall) finds himself in a new situation, goes with flow. I wonder what this says about my worldview.

This Post: 20 Total: 150/600,000 Minutes

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No More Religion, The Sequel

So I quit going to church, but I was still very much Christian. I was bolstered by exotic new ideas about the non-deity of Jesus (supplied by that friend I mentioned); that he was just a man infused with God's exotic spirit. This was exciting, and I took my time believing it. What if I was wrong? See, that's the primary concern of Christianity: being right. Despite the fact that Jesus never said that believing the correct cereal box back is what made you a good person, rather that bit about neighbors and love, Christianity is mainly concerned with making sure you have the right belief reduced to a mantra bullion. And man did I have the ammunition to prove them wrong.

Another formational book was Pagan Christianity, which confirmed what I had long suspected: that the church traditions I had participated in were actually the result of vestigial pagan practices woven in through Catholicism, administered IV drip style down through Orthodox and the infinitude of Protestant religions.

About this time I helped start a small house church. For those guys and gals I will be perpetually thankful, though I don't see most of them anymore. That period of church was probably the purest and most invigorating of all my church experiences. I don't really have a bad thing I could say about that time. But all good times must come to an end. The guy who hosted it left for college, and the rest of us couldn't seem to organize well enough to keep it alive. Que sera.

I became without church, but kept reading. I was sad that house church was gone, but I certainly wanted no part in Church more so than I had. I went back to college myself and began to read in earnest things about astronomy, evolution, the history of religion and things on paganism. One book, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, rendered certain irrevocable changes within me. It discussed evolution in ways I'd never heard (the only ways I heard were the horribly retarded and inaccurate methods devised by American Christianity), and it made a lot of sense. It really seemed to explain in greater detail things that religion only chalked up to “fallen nature.” Mainly Daniel Quinn's books introduced the idea that a majority of the things we chalk up to Fallen Nature is simply man living in ways that don't compliment man's nature. It made so much sense. It was like a gong in the heart.

Around this time I also read History of God by Margaret Armstrong, who is one of the most gifted spiritual/theological writers I've ever read. Mainly it introduced with historical proof the notion that the Jews got God from El, the grand patriarch of the Syrian hierarchy, and gradually they became monotheistic. Having read that book and reading the traditions of Sufism and Kaballah, and even Gnosticism, I knew that my progressively more tenuous connection to Christianity was slipping. But I didn't go easy. I struggled, and boy howdy.

It became harder to know what was inevitably coming, and I didn't feel happy. Finally, one night I couldn't sleep, and I wrestled the last vestiges of Christianity, at least fundamental Christianity, out of me. I still feel essentially Christian, but I certainly don't follow any particular dogmatic. If anything, I've worked to become more centered and see things from as many angles as I can. I certainly think that man is living out of balance (Naqoyqatsi to steal from a movie and Hopi word), and I'm not sure what it' take to bring that balance back. But I do so hate stories that obsess over balances of whatever inane Disney concept we're throwing around.

I don't really live any less morally than I did before. I definitely feel better about things, and I feel like the world makes more sense without Dogma shouting in my ear. I feel way more comfortable as a sexual being now. Sometimes Wife feels unsettled by the directionless our new life brings, but I have never felt more excited. I'm an explorer charting the secret Jungian world. I don't have to qualify my thoughts anymore: this is what I think, but because I'm a Christian, this is what I have to think.

I do have a few admissions however. The first is that there are a few things I am unsure of. I definitely used to believe in a magical world, especially in that space where Jesus quit being God, and I learned that El was simply one of many gods. Now I'm not sure. Was it just a totally unique human mind back then? Something alien and unknowable by my standards now? A metaphorical way of viewing the world without dividing spirit and science? Were things different back then, and the things we think of as scientific constants are actually variable? There's evidence for all of that. I definitely don't believe that ancient humans writing profound texts were liars, making shit up because they needed an explanation. I think they were far more honest than that, and when they write something, it means that thing or something like it happened, whether it's really magic or a difference of looking at the world. Again, if magic really exist(s)ed.

I also had certain experiences that I feel are undeniable. Times when I knew things that I had no way of knowing at different times. Times when a small depression would be followed by strange dreams, knowledge, and incite. I can't really say if I experience those still or not. I've always had strange and inciteful dreams that tell me things about myself and my surroundings, things that I don't think I would have learned any other way. But nevertheless, some of these experiences I don't know how to qualify. Were they God? Is there some other process at work? Is there simply more capability in the brain than I think, and sometimes I touch that? It's hard to know.

I suppose that's the story. Few things irritate me more than people who are bitter and angry about religion because they themselves are no longer religious. I try not to be one of those people. Of course, if there's something worth being mad at – like the fact that four years after I simply left church I have yet to receive one phone call or one email, even from friends, about why – I'll be mad. But bitterness for bitterness' sake isn't a way to make friends.

This Post: 40 Total: 130/60,000 Minutes

Sunday, August 8, 2010

No More Religion

I can't seem to write today. It's irritating. I have an idea I'm working on, and I worked on it yesterday and the day before and felt generally happy with it. It felt a little clunky, but I was going to work through that and finish it up. Sometimes I feel like ideas, creativity, inspiration are really outside of me and if I'm not fortunate enough to be sitting in the right space when they fly by, I'll be totally incapacitated. I think it's a good idea. Starts out more like fantasy, but ends up being kind of hard SciFi. I'll try to tackle it again tomorrow. Hopefully today's just an off day.

My friend over at Abraxas started his blog off with an explanation of his spiritual/religious evolution. I've wanted to do the same for awhile. It's been a big part of my life, and probably something I'll talk about on more than one occasion.

To start with, my family started going to a Christian church when I was ten. Before that, however, I had an assumed notion that there was a god of some kind. Contrast that with Ricky Gervais who says that he was an atheist by the time he was five years old. Do keep in mind, however, that Gervais has a lot of undeserved popularity and is generally a one hit one wonder kind of guy. The point is that what a person thinks in their earliest stages doesn't always mean much of anything, or really what anyone thinks at any point.

My relationship with church was always tenuous and inconsistent. God almighty is it boring. If God wants to learn me something, he couldn't do it in a more stimulating way? I always found reasons to miss church, whether it was helping to watch little kids, or finding some reason to just wander around. I would often find some (crappy) book in the church's (crappy) library and read that as some kind of distraction. As I got older I got more into church, at least the heady intellectual bits. I would always try to be interested during the sermons, but I always felt like I would get more out of it and enjoy it more if I were reading it. And sitting somewhere comfortable.

Church was always this double edged sword that swayed wildly from side to side. On one end there are friends and acceptance. And when that side was up, I tended to really enjoy church. At least the part that had to do with friends. So really, I just enjoyed friends, and in these instances they happened to be at church. For awhile I played bass for church, and I really enjoyed that (though the music did suck) because the piano player was amazing and a covert smartass. She showed me a lot about music (which I'm sure I've forgotten in more recent years). Overall though, it gave me something to do that felt like it actually mattered, even though I always hated worship. People always told that heaven was sitting around worshipping God for eternity and I'd think, “Fuck! My choices are eternal pain or eternal boredom?”

When that blade was down, which was more frequent as I got older, chuch meant frustration, self hate, boredom, and inadequacy. I was always being reminded about how much of a fuck up I was. The two that seemed to come up most were “impure thoughts,” and worship (fucking worship!). The first one seems ridiculous in retrospect, but is it ever a big deal in the church. Here I am, a guy in my teens, and I've made it my life's mission to see boobs. As dumb as it is, that's the nature of teens. All of them. Not just guys, but girls are just as fascinated by sex although various sources will try to convince you otherwise. But goddamn could I not think of anything else. Sometimes it would get irritating that I felt incapacitated by it, but more irritating is the church's reaction. You're vilified for something that is hormonally natural. It's disgusting, immoral, unnatural, and perverse that you, a 14/15/16/17/18 year old man would want to have sex. What's wrong with you? That was an awful self-loathing spiral. One that has only been remedied by an absence of church.

But I can understand why they try to vilify it so much: it's so hard to handle, and sex really is more dangerous than we're inclined to think. It's in the interest of protection. I truly believe that. The problem is when the best advice you can muster is to simply ignore it. Applying a standard to address a problem without ever fixing it.

The second thing was worship. A lot of religion is so keyed into emotional reaction. If you're not having an emotional reaction, you're doing it wrong. I hated worship, and I would always argue against it for a variety of reasons: the music is too simple (I've always loved complexity); the lyrics are insipid, insubstantial, and infantile; it doesn't provoke a reaction within me; there are other ways to worship (something I still believe); I feel like I'm honoring God more with the use of my intellect or skill; I can have a worship reaction to secular music, so doesn't that invalidate this church crap? They would always get shot down. My two favorites: “Well, the music has to be simple to appeal to the greatest number of people,” and, “Worship is about supplying those feelings even when you don't have them to show your earnestness to God.” God likes simpletons and liars best. If honesty and complexity are your bag, sorry. No dice.

But at least I did worship so that I felt like I was actually doing something as opposed to simply sitting in a congregation trying to have a God orgasm through music. Even then, they started to harp on me for trying to do too much. Which I probably was. Afterall, it is simple music.

Around this time, I started reading things written by people of the church, but that started to move me in some very unchurch ways. One book called Why Men Hate Church kept hitting me right in that sweet spot that I couldn't believe it. This guy was so on. But inevitably, when you showed it to women, their reactions were almost always something like, “I could never trust a guy that was this mercurial,” or, “These guys just need to grow up.” Essentially, the book said that women derived the most comfort from the church setup while guys felt stifled or brow beaten by it. Women didn't like me trying to take their house apart.

For so long I was afraid I'd have to marry a boring inane church girl.

I had been going to church something like four or more times a week. Not every time was for something churchy exactly. It was between two different churches, and sometimes it'd be a game night where we'd play card/board/video games and watch movies. Again: friends. Around this time, however, the friends thing began to falter. I had one really good friend who was Christian, but decidedly outside of church (the coward has since moved back into that ridiculous fold), the rest who I'd known for a decade or more in some instances began floating away from me. Secret girlfriends, secret rendezvous, secret housemates, secret everything. The final straw is when they did the camping thing without me, despite the fact that I'd been in on all the planning. I woke up one morning to get to church early for bass practice, and thought, “Fuck it. Everything I've done for church, and all I get to feel is exhausted and lonely.” And with that I quit going to church. And I felt great. And I've never felt quite as awful as when I was going to church all those times. A week.

This Post: 40 Total: 90/60,000 Minutes

Thursday, August 5, 2010

More Than You'll Ever Know

Because this thing has sat vacant for a month, and my first post wasn't the most substantial, I figured I'd sacrifice some of my short story writing time (possibly all of it today) and try to provide some more substantial information.

To start with, is this blog. Underneath the header is a tag explaining what I want to do with this blog (which, if you read this section of this post and find it to be untrue, don't be surprise. What you see before you is not the final version of this blog), but I figured I might address that a little further. To start with, in theory it does take 10,000 hours of performing any specific activity to master it, and I have no idea how long I've spent writing in earnest. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 if I had to hazard a guess, but I really have no idea. So when I write here, I plan to post at the bottom how long that particular thing took me to write. What you'll see is the final amount, after all the editing and drafting, so sometimes the number might seem larger than it should, but that's because you're only seeing part of the process. I hope I continually remember to do this part. We'll see.

And I might post anything. Anything like a plain old blog post like this, or a short story, or it might be something I had to write for school, although those might be less so. I dunno though. Now that I'm in my (finally!) senior year of college (good Lord boy, what took you so long?) I find myself being prouder more often of the things I write, even if it's for a literature instead of writing class. Like my paper on wisdom in William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell? Quite possibly one of my finest pieces of writing. My paper on Charles Williams (as hinted at in the banner) was a colossal let down. Colossal. I'd be hard pressed to imagine a larger let down.

Perhaps something on my process? Writer types tend to be interested in that stuff. First, I need lots of distraction. I'm listening to music on my headphones up loud enough that I can't hear anything other than what comes from my computer. I have Firefox open (cool to see that blogger recognizes that as a real word), as well as AIM, Facebook, and Google Chat. I also have something like ten tabs open in Firefox. Unfortunately, at eleven in the morning, there aren't many people around to distract me, but I wish there were someone to chat with. I find that smallish semi-frequent distractions like that keep my mind loose and adaptable. When I do the freewrite (mentioned in the previous post), I only have the music on, almost as a purely auditory queue about my time situation. There are no other distractions with that for two reasons: 1. Because I hand write that, and it's too irritating to switch mediums like that, and 2. The purpose of the freewrite is to make your brain loosen up its own process; to learn to stop obsessing over things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, whether or not you're coherent or have the right word. It's just supposed to make your brain think quicker and freer. It's supposed to make your writing smoother, which in turn makes the piece stronger. It also divorces writing from editing so that when you're doing one, you're totally devoted to that one instead of trying to juggle the two simultaneously.

As for actual writing: there's a difference between scholarly (or what I do for school) and what I do for myself. Sometimes with school writing, if I'm caught on a particularly tricky thought, I will have to pause the music. I think of it like a computer in a way. A chaotic computer. When I was in high school, there was a computer game I loved that was a side-scrolling shooter, and it ran fine on my old computer (it was a DOS game), but on my new computer it would run way too fast. So I would have to run other programs in the background to slow my computer down enough that it would play this DOS game at the proper speed. On the other hand, when I ran the benchmarking software, I'd have to shut down every other program to devote as much processing power to the benchmark. That's how I feel. If I'm only ever doing one thing at a time, I feel fidgety and like I'm wasting time. So if I'm watching a movie, I try to have something to do with my hands (like crochet, which I do). Similarly, if I sit down and only try to write, I find that my mind wanders and I don't get much done. On the other hand if I have music to take some of my focus, as well as various chat clients to keep checking on mentally, it takes away some of that extra processing so that I can get something done. Sometimes though, when I get stuck on something really tricky, like with Charles Williams or William Blake, I have to use extra processing and then have to cut out some of the other things I'm keeping track of. Apart from that, however, whether I'm doing personal writing or scholarly writing, the two are virtually indistinguishable.

I do have a different idea making process for each, however. If it's a personal project, I usually just spend tons of time thinking about it. When I worked at Xpedx, while I was doing whatever stupid retail thing I had to do, I would devote all but the meagerest of thought power to idea making. So, before I ever commit something to paper, I've spent ridiculous amounts of time thinking about it. With school, however, it's different. I can't seem to generate ideas the same way unless it's something I'm already intimately acquainted with, which is rare. In fact, my graphic novel class is the only time that happened, and only because I've invested myself in different forms of comic book since I was seven. Lots of time to think on the topic.

When I write for school, without fail I always try to tackle it the same as personal reading. I'll try to think on the topic before writing about it, but I always draw a blank. Inevitably, I have to write down thoughts on the topic and usually talk to one or two people about it before I can write anything on it. Sometimes my brain leaves me hanging until the last possible second, as in the case of my Odyssey paper, in which I didn't start writing the sunday before it was due because I couldn't simply think of anything. It's both nerve wracking and exhilarating. As exhilarating as school work can be.

From there, they both look the same. Ish. I'll find some thread of thought and follow it to the very end, either staring so intently at my fingers as they type like I'm trying to start a fire, or closing my eyes and looking up, like the inspiration's up there. Which it might be. With school writing, I'll write as fast and hard (that's what she said) as I can, until the thread's exhausted. Then I'll reread what I wrote, editing as I go, and by the time I reach the end, I've found a new thread. Repeat. With personal writing, I don't really have those starts and stops. It's just go go go until I can't anymore. Then I reread, edit, revise, and so on. I do try to stop at a point where I know what's going to happen next so that when I come back the next day, I have a good place to start. It was Hemingway’s method of avoiding writer's block.

I don't think I really have anything else to say on the topic. I'm sure as I write more, more things will come up, and I can always revisit this topic. But I'm cached for right now. I'll close by saying how amazing I think it is that when I listen to headphones, I don't hear the music on either the right or left sides of my head, but rather, it feels like it's coming from the center of my skull, with perhaps a few parts that spike out onto either side.

Oof. A final final note: when I posted my music list on the first blog, my plan in arranging it was that all the louder stuff would be up front, and it'd get slowly softer until it ends with a piano piece. The last three go soft, soft with a loud middle and soft ending, and then the softest. I figured it'd be an auditory cue almost Inception style in which my brain would know that it's getting close to wrapping things up time. And with that, the first of the soft songs (Schism by Rockabye Baby) has started playing. Onto other writing, I guess?

This Post: 40 Total: 50/60,000 Minutes

Y'gotta Start Somewhere

So why not here?

This thing (blog) has sat here vacant for about a month. I do have plans of using it. But I hate it when blog administrators make up excuses for themselves. Usually a sign that their blog is going to die. I have several that I could point you towards. No more excuses.

A little bit of my process, for right now: I've just started a new regimen, if you will, in which I freewrite for ten minutes listening to Married in Berdichev, a local girl, this song in particular because it's ten minutes long and that's what I need. Plus it's very unobtrusive and meditative. But I can't write in quiet if I'm writing for myself. Next I write for an hour on something. Or mix of somethings. Like write now I'm using what will probably amount to ten minutes of that hour to make my first blog post, and then I'll continue writing a short story I started yesterday, having spent the whole hour on it. I'm sure as I create more substantial projects, my writing will increase, but right now that's not the case. This morning to compliment my hour long writing session, I whipped up a play list of songs I find to be particularly stimulating. That playlist reads thusly:

1. Lost Keys (Blame Hoffman) – Tool
2. Rosetta Stoned – Tool
3. Tree of Life – Clint Mansell
4. Welcome to Lunar Industries – Clint Mansell
5. Intensive Time – Philip Glass
6. Lateralus – Tool
7. Schism – Rockabye Baby
8. Death is the Road to Awe – Clint Mansell
9. Memories (Someone We'll Never Know) – Clint Mansell

You'll notice that it's almost exclusively Tool and Clint Mansell. That's because I associate their music most with space odysseys and big mystic ideas. Which are my favorite ideas. I don't do small scale very well, which is probably my greatest weakness as a writer. I don't really give a rip about the small unless it's connected to the big. Which is why most dramas and all chick movies pretty universally make time stop moving. If I knew I had two hours left to live, I would watch any chick flick. Probably the Notebook. Shit be at absolute atomic zero when that's on the screen.

Lastly, I hate the accepted blog format. It feels so incredibly unright to me. But I've finally acquiesced to and use it.

This post: 10 Total:10/60,000 minutes