Medleyana: Year Four

I’ve been thinking about Dungeons & Dragons lately: specifically, the period in the mid-1980s when I was most obsessed with the game. (This is a periodic thing for me: I don’t play anymore, but once or twice a year I get the itch to relive past glories.) I’ve been reading some of the adventure modules and other materials from that era, and one thing I remember is how much time I spent as a kid just reading those same books, poring over the pictures and the endless statistics and rules (well, the rules I mostly skimmed) and regretting that I didn’t get enough serious playing in. I felt like I was missing out. I’ve since heard from many D&D fans who in fact never played the game at all, either because they didn’t have friends who were interested, or they weren’t allowed to play by strict parents, or they just didn’t have enough free time.

I am certainly familiar with the daily ritual of examining gaming materials that would never see a round of melee combat, but my situation was a bit different: in those days, the writers at Dragon and Polyhedron (and, I dunno, White Dwarf I guess) put an awful lot of emphasis on the importance of developing your campaign. “Campaign” was the word for the ongoing game over the long haul, and in particular the interconnected skein of events, personalities, and long-term goals that transformed a series of disconnected sessions and small-stakes adventures into a sweeping epic like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Amber. A properly developed campaign was, it was hoped, the stuff of legends, the kind of immersive collaborative storytelling that years later would make players wistful as they recalled together, “Do you remember that night in Shanar, the one with the Halfling assassin?” “Ah, yes, I remember it well.” Sighs of contented reminiscence all around. It’s no wonder that the word campaign itself was borrowed from military jargon by way of wargaming: were not a group of players bonded together over time and shared experience in a manner akin to veteran soldiers?

Equally important, at least in the pages of Dragon, was your campaign world. It was fine to play in the World of Greyhawk, the default setting of most of the early published adventure modules (replaced later on by The Forgotten Realms and a number of other prefab settings), but it was assumed that you would only be satisfied with that for so long, and that at best such supplements were to serve as a springboard for your own Great Work, the Magnum Opus of any Dungeon Master: your own individual campaign world, one that you created, and sown with seeds for adventure derived from the unique geography, history, and culture(s) that you came up with. It all sounded very compelling, and just as importantly designing your own world from scratch gave you something to do during that time when you weren’t playing but you were leafing through the rulebooks anyway.

In middle school, I had a lot to learn about worldbuilding, Dungeon Mastering, and storytelling, but that’s not the point of this. No, the main thing I remember about my campaign, set in the world of Ix-Nay, was how it got harder and harder to get all four (and later three) players, including myself, together, until finally we were playing maybe once a year. No wonder Ix-Nay never had the breath of life in it! In roleplaying games, a setting isn’t really a world until it has been set in motion and players have been given a chance to explore it. So I felt that I was missing a key experience in any serious gamer’s career (and as you can tell, I took this calling very seriously indeed).

But here’s the thing: even though my campaign with my custom-made world and handpicked players withered on the vine, in retrospect I played D&D quite a lot. There would be random pick-up games with kids who would come and go, most of these sessions one-shots with characters who were never seen again. There was even a Dungeons & Dragons club at my middle school, held in the art teacher’s room. Sometimes I was the DM and sometimes the player. Sometimes you would be playing with people you didn’t even particularly like. The game experiences I had ranged from total party kills at the hands of rigorous (to a fault) DMs who had strong ideas about the integrity of the game, to freeform fantasies that included guest stars like Bon Jovi. I have a lot of memories of playing D&D (or the mutated offshoots of it we came up with ourselves). Yet at the time, snob that I was, I didn’t think those games “counted” because they weren’t part of my campaign. They were, at best, pre-season or exhibition games (to use the parlance of sports with which I was hardly conversant at the time).

It wasn’t until much later that I renewed my acquaintance with the Devil’s game from the player’s side and experienced some truly excellent Dungeon Mastering. I learned that developing a campaign is a two-way street, built upon the contributions of both Dungeon Master and players, and most of it all it requires regular care and feeding with weekly or biweekly sessions (ultimately I just didn’t have time for that kind of commitment, but I kept it up for a few years). Perhaps that helped put my youthful gaming in perspective: I could stop beating myself up about my “failed” campaign and embrace the fun and growth I had experienced in the “unofficial” side quests. They really hadn’t been so different.

All of which brings me to the changes I’ve gone through in the last year and how that has been reflected in this blog. This weekend marked four years since I began Medleyana, and as I always do at this time of year it’s time to set down a few thoughts about what I’ve done with it and where it’s going. I’ll be the first to admit that writing hasn’t always been the first thing on my mind this year: my work as a musician and teacher has kept me busy, and even “free time” doesn’t always equate to writing time if I really just need to recharge my batteries. (I won’t deny that the dreadful state of our politics has gotten me down as well.) I’ve also noticed that the majority of my blog posts have become reviews: it’s much easier to get the words flowing in response to a movie or a book or comic, and it makes it easier to stop when you reach the end of that topic, as opposed to the open-ended ruminations that Medleyana started out as.

At the same time, however, when I look back at the past year, I’ve actually done a fair amount of writing. Although there were some gaps in posting, I’ve averaged about two entries a month, and I can be proud of what I’ve written (revisiting my first year, it strikes me that many posts were filler, born of self-imposed deadlines). Among other things, I also completed the draft of a novel earlier this summer, an undertaking of at least the last four years or so (another one of those “small” projects that grew bigger as I went); it’s still in need of complete rewriting before it will be fit for any kind of public consumption, but being able to write THE END on it, even in the state it’s in, has been a real relief, and is perhaps one reason I can look at what I’ve published this year and be okay with it.

Ultimately, just as I learned when playing D&D, there is little difference between what I see as my “real” work and what I produce in the mean time: it’s all part of the process, and it takes just as much focus to write a good blog post as it does to complete a novel, the only difference being the length and the relative challenge of sustaining that focus over the long haul: the difference between a one-off adventure and a campaign, if you will.

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The Graveyard of Unfinished Articles

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The truth is that while I will go to just about any lengths to stay on a schedule, even a self-imposed one, when I allow myself the freedom to only post when I feel like it, it becomes easy to put it off or just not bother, and that’s how I’ve ended up with such a paltry output on Medleyana this spring. This week, after finishing up my Tune in Next Week series covering the Buck Rogers serial over at The Solute, and feeling self-conscious about how long it had been since I posted here, I wrote up a thousand words or so about a topic that had been rattling around my brain for a while.

The article, once I finally got rolling on it, was a speculative endorsement of a live action feature film based on a popular children’s property. (No, I won’t say what it was; I may yet find something to do with what I wrote.) I thought I made a good case for a live action version of a property that has, as yet, only been seen in a direct-to-video animated format. However, the more I wrote, the more I felt that I couldn’t be the only one with that idea. Sure enough, upon searching for information online, I found that a live action film is already in development, although a release date isn’t set.

My feelings upon learning this are mixed. On the one hand, I feel vindicated: I’m clearly not the only person who sees the potential in the property, or at least my ability to recognize patterns in the media strategies of large brands is intact. On the other hand, there goes a morning’s work that I can’t use without serious reframing. (Note to self: do research before writing.)

While the amount of labor involved wasn’t huge, the incomplete article joins others stored in my hard drive or notebooks that will likely never see the light of day, made obsolescent for one reason or another. A partial review of Galavant‘s first season, begun under the assumption that it would be a self-contained story, seemed pointless to complete when it turned out that the story ended on a cliffhanger; the many loose threads would be tied up only in the second (and now final) season. Another article about the wave of detached, ironic “appreciation” of bad pop culture prominent in the 1990s (think Mystery Science Theater 3000) petered out after two paragraphs (its premises overlapped too much with a similar article I had written about listening to “bad” music). Another article on shape-changing “versatile” animals in fantasy fiction remains just a series of notes and references (I suppose that one may still get written some day). All of these drafts fell victim to a fatal lack of accessible information or the realization that I didn’t have that much to say about the subject, or simply fell out of date, overtaken by events before I could complete them.

The record for my fiction output is even worse, since I’ve tried to find outlets elsewhere for it rather than self-publish. I’m not talking about finished but rejected stories–those are annoying enough, but I can show them to anyone that wants to see them–but those “stubs” that started off strong but petered out or were interrupted and never returned to. (I’m hardly alone with the latter problem, exemplified by the “man from Porlock” who interrupted the composition of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.)

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.” This blog, as well as my work at The Solute and other venues, has been part of an ongoing effort in the last several years to finish more projects, even small ones. Certainly there is satisfaction in having a steady stream of small articles instead of being invisible for a year at a time between unveiling larger projects, but there is something to be said for single-minded application as well. Currently, I’m scattered between several projects, and while the time to work is more abundant than it has been for some time, it still takes discipline to manage so many competing interests. That’s a matter for discussion at another time, however.

In any case, whether I recast the article I wrote or simply leave it in the drawer, it surely won’t be the last thing I write that fizzles out or is allowed to die quietly; sometimes those premature deaths are mercy killings. At least a few of them have the potential to be repurposed, perhaps into an article about leaving projects unfin

My 2014 in Books

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to keep a list of everything I read or watch, but in 2014 I kept a list of books I had read, in part because I was conscious that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Although the number this year is relatively small, I’d say the mixture of non-fiction and genre fiction is fairly typical of my reading in the last few years. The list includes some graphic novels and collections of comics, but not single comic book issues (which I’ve also fallen way behind on). It’s also influenced by subjects I was writing about; however, it only includes books I read from cover to cover, not those I dipped into for reference. Finally, all but one was a first-time read, although I had read parts of some of them in the past.

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January
Batman: Odyssey, Neal Adams
King City, Brandon Graham

February
The Look of the Old West, William Foster-Harris

March
Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman
Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battle

April
The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux
The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut

May
Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Alan G. Barbour
Misery, Stephen King

June
The Lost Worlds of Power Vol. 0, ed. Philip J. Reed

July
Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights, various

August
The American Book of the Dead, Stephen Billias (reread)

September
The Bloodhounds of Broadway, Damon Runyon
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Jacques Tardi

October
Showcase Presents Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, various
All The Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, Lemony Snicket
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

December
The Lost Worlds of Power, ed. Philip J. Reed
All the Wrong Questions: “When Did You See Her Last?”, Lemony Snicket
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, Chris Nashawaty

Much of my thinking on what I read this year has already been included in the articles to which they are linked, and since most of what I read was published before 2014 and is in a diverse range of genres, ranking them seems pointless. I am struck, however, by how long ago some of the books I read in the spring seem to me; I might not have remembered that I read them this year at all without this list, instead consigning them to a hazy, indistinct “past,” even though I enjoyed many of them. To tell the truth, even September seems a long time ago from this vantage point. Such is the telescoping effect of the end-of-year holidays, I guess.

It strikes me, however, that I began and ended my year with two very different books that explored the rush of unbridled creativity in different formats. (Sorry, Batman: Odyssey, I don’t mean you, although you were memorable in many ways.) Brandon Graham’s King City is a graphic novel set in the futuristic metropolis of the title; its central character is a young man returning to his old stomping grounds after training with a mysterious group that uses multi-talented cats as weapons (yes, it is quite strange, but that description doesn’t even scratch the surface). In Graham’s notes (which I am paraphrasing, as I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it in front of me), he said that King City‘s plot was guided by his desire to only draw things that were exciting to him: to not bore himself. Such an impulse could have led to disaster, but tied to a strong sense of craft, it makes for an immersive, invigorating read, with its weaponized cats, ultra-violent gangs, sexy girls, and graffiti-filled urban vistas that are part Moebius and part Mad magazine.

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At the other end (and just finished today, in fact) was Chris Nashawaty’s pictorial/oral history of influential director/producer Roger Corman’s career, from his days cranking out cheapies for the drive-in market to his nurturing of young (and affordable) talent, to his eventual recognition as a Hollywood elder statesman. The book includes reminiscences from such graduates of “Corman University” as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and James Cameron, to name only a few. I was somewhat familiar with Corman’s career and working methods, and of course many of his films; Corman, and “mavericks” like him, continue to inspire because of their perseverance and determination to create in the face of low budgets, limited time, and (in many cases) lack of prestige. Corman and his crew made a virtue of such limitations, but the many anecdotes about making films show the value of committing to do one’s best work, whether on a pointed political statement like The Intruder or on the many monster, biker, and women-in-prison movies that Corman made on an assembly-line basis.

Tomorrow, I look back on the movies I watched this year.

I Stood in Line for an Hour to Watch Stephen King on Television

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Like something straight out of the hit film The Lawnmower Man, a futuristic digital simulacrum of author Stephen King manifested in one of the “overflow rooms” of the Hughes Metroplex at Wichita State University on Friday. King visited Wichita as part of the tour supporting his newest novel, Revival, and while I arrived early to hear him speak, I didn’t arrive quite early enough. The event (a reading from the new book, some prepared remarks, and a Q&A) was to start at 6 pm; having secured my ticket before they quickly sold out last month, I thought I’d head over to the Metroplex at about 5, giving myself plenty of time for travel and parking. Around 4:30, my wife noticed a Facebook post from a friend who was already there: the line was three quarters of the way around the building already. I hopped in the car and left, just barely finding a place to park. The line was fully around the building by this time (about 5), and many more people got in line after me. It took an hour for the line to wind back around, an hour of standing in near-freezing weather; at least it wasn’t raining or snowing. Quite a few people gave up and left, or didn’t bother queuing up when they saw the size of the crowd.

To make matters worse, the event was oversold: only the first 1700 ticket holders would be seated in the auditorium, and to get in the auditorium you had to have a wristband, which they started issuing at 4 pm. This information was on the event’s website, but not printed on the ticket:

Seating at the event is general admission. Once the Lowe Auditorium is full, the remaining attendees will be seated in overflow rooms with excellent, live audio / visual feed to Mr. King’s presentation.

So perhaps I was naive not to expect something like this, but based on the number of people who gave up, and the backlash mentioned in the Wichita Eagle‘s coverage of the event, I wasn’t the only one unpleasantly surprised. Needless to say, I was in the “overflow.”

But enough bitching. How was the presentation? It was fine: although King protested that he was terrified of large crowds and implied that he was at best a reluctant public speaker (supported by the fact that the Revival tour would only have six stops), he had an easy-going, conversational tone and was engaging and relaxed. A slight cold didn’t noticeably slow him down: he promised us it wasn’t ebola, and on that note observed that every time a new flu strain hit the news, sales of The Stand spiked. He sounded much like he writes, at least his non-fiction: I never once heard him use the word “fuckeroo” (although the sample he read from Revival did include “whoremaster,” another King standby).

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I’m more interested in King’s creative process than his books these days. That’s not to say I won’t read Revival, a copy of which was included with the ticket price. But even King’s diehard fans tend to take his books as they come these days, cherishing the good ones and shrugging off the disappointments as part of the cost of being a fan of this most prolific of authors. King is like a baseball player, grinding out a season’s worth of games, day in and day out, and even the Hall of Famers don’t hit home runs every time they go up to the plate.

The unevenness of King’s work has a lot to do with his intuitive approach and (reported) two thousand words a day: early on, King observed that he is “not an organized writer,” to which I responded “NO SHIT” in my notes. King said that every story begins with an image, and the process of writing is one of exploring the implications of that image and asking what happens next. He compared it to pulling a thread from a mouse hole: sometimes the thread is as short as a few pages’ worth of story, and sometimes it’s as long as a novel. And since King doesn’t know where it’s leading any more than the reader does, there’s always the possibility that the ending won’t be satisfying, or that it won’t be what he thought it would be when he began. Sometimes characters turn out to be stronger than he expected (he cited ‘Salem’s Lot, saying that his original plan was for the vampires to win), and sometimes they don’t make it. “I love a happy ending as much as anyone,” he said; “it’s just not always possible.”

I was aware of his general approach from his writing already: in addition to his memoir/handbook On Writing, King has often included writing and storytelling (and discussions of same) in his fiction, to the point that stories about writers are a significant subset of King’s work. As I wrote last summer, Misery, in addition to being a gripping story of suspense, is also something of a master class in writing as King surrogate Paul Sheldon thinks his way through the book that will preserve his life as a captive of his “biggest fan,” Annie Wilkes. Much of the imagery King uses to describe his process, such as seeing the story through a hole or window, is present in Misery and was still part of King’s discussion on Friday.

I suspect this is one reason King continues to fascinate long after his ideas are not only no longer shocking, but even familiar: his willingness to allow readers into his thought process, to show his tricks, to let them come along as if he needed their help in telling the story, is endearing. It’s also as much of a pose as that of the author who reveals nothing (such as John Irving, whom King said told him that he doesn’t begin a book until he knows what the last sentence will be, to which King responded, “Jeez Louise”), and I’m not naive enough to believe that King has completely laid it all on the table for his audience. Still, the sense that King’s personality comes through his writing is palpable, and longtime fans accept him as they accept old friends or family members, foibles and all.

One of the more interesting moments came during the Q&A: an audience member asked if King still slept with the light on, as he once claimed in an interview. King appeared to search for a memory of having said that, gave up, and finally said, “I’m a big boy now.” The audience laughed, and King segued into a bit that he had likely delivered before and clearly relished, drawing the audience into one of his stories: he pointed out that of all the people at the Metroplex, some of us had probably forgotten to lock our cars, and “anybody could climb into the back seat. And when you’re driving home and you look in the rear-view mirror”–he mimed a figure rising from the back seat–“‘objects may be closer than they appear.’ . . . But that probably won’t happen.” He continued, “And when you get home, and your house is all dark, you’ll go into the bathroom and see the shower curtain closed, and you’ll tell yourself, ‘I left it like that.’ . . . There probably won’t be anybody there.” We all laughed, and King laughed, too. “We’re all laughing,” he said, “but these things have a time release. Because some time tonight, you’re going to be alone, and it’s going to be dark, and then it won’t seem so funny.”

Art Isn’t Easy: Five Examples

Most artists like to talk about their creative work: they give interviews, write program notes, or even try to share their knowledge through teaching or writing how-to books.  It’s a different matter, however, to get across one’s ideas about the urge to make art, or the creative process itself, within an actual artwork.  To some degree, every work of art has something to say about the way it was conceived and constructed, but it’s not always obvious without knowing the artist’s work intimately and/or spending time decoding the work.  At the other extreme, not every look at an artist’s life (including many autobiographies) has anything meaningful to say about where artists get their ideas or the inner resources that they draw on to face artistic challenges.

Within the somewhat rarefied field of “artwork that says something about the creative process,” I have a few favorites that have been important to me.  Some I’ve mentioned previously in this blog; most are centered around an artist actively creating, either as biography or autobiography, yet all have qualities of fiction, even if based on a real person.  Indeed, no one’s life is a perfect vehicle for a statement about art: there are too many accidents and interruptions to line up neatly with any particular theory.  Yet, on the other hand there are often real-life coincidences and symmetries that would be too far-fetched if part of a completely fictional life.  In the spaces between mundane fact and pure fable, the writer or artist is able to express their own viewpoint.

(As an aside, I wonder if this is why there have been so few satisfactory depictions of the Beatles as characters?  There was hardly a single day of their professional career that went undocumented, and their every utterance has been recorded and examined closely.  Is there any room for them to be reconceived in a fictional context without doing violence to the record?)

Fidelity to the facts isn’t a primary concern for Amadeus, the dramatization of composer Antonio Salieri’s supposed plot to eliminate his hated rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  As much as I love Milos Forman’s 1984 film, it is in some ways too successful: like the best period films, it wraps its characters in the physical trappings of their time, drawing us in and convincing us, through dramatic means, that it must have happened just this way.  For the last thirty years, musicologists have diligently corrected the many misconceptions spawned by the film (which is not always a bad thing, if it leads to fruitful discussion and understanding the difference between art and history).

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Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, the basis of the film, is much more clearly using historical figures as an allegory for the contest of mediocrity and genius.  As for Salieri’s role in Mozart’s death (a myth that may have had its roots in Salieri’s dementia in his later years, and which before Shaffer was dramatized by Pushkin and others), it might as well be Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau: it is the mythic resonance, the archetypal conflict, that interests Shaffer, not documentary accuracy.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ve actually learned about creating art from Amadeus, but it does speak to the reality that talent is spread unevenly in the world, and that wanting to create isn’t enough.  Salieri’s desire to be a good composer, and a good man, to speak for God, isn’t enough, isn’t even relevant.  “Was Mozart good?” he asks.  “Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art.”  (Again, we don’t know if the real Salieri said anything of the kind, or how he even felt about Mozart; but haven’t we all felt like the fictional Salieri at one time or another?)  On the other hand, one could take from Amadeus the lesson that even for the world’s Mozarts success isn’t guaranteed, that there will always be challenges even for the most gifted among us.

Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is one of its composer’s most direct statements about the creative process, to the point that Sondheim borrowed the title of the song “Finishing the Hat” for his collected lyrics.  The phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the endless labor and attention to detail necessary to create something out of nothing (“where there never was a hat”).  In the context of the musical, it also stands in for the real life painter George Seurat puts on hold in order to complete his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  All his subjects, and especially his model and muse, Dot, have lives and stories of their own, but to him they are largely formal elements, puzzle pieces to be fit into his great composition.

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It’s not hard to see why Sondheim identified with his fictionalized Seurat: the precision and formal clarity Seurat brought to his pointillistic canvases is a good match for Sondheim’s hyper-articulate wordplay, and the fragments of speech that Sondheim pieces into a mosaic of conversation, Robert Altman-style, is a fitting counterpart to Seurat’s modular approach to form.  Sondheim’s formidable talent for meter and rhyme elegantly sets up the Act I finale in which George marshals his subjects into the final form of his painting.  (If anyone ever tries to produce Tetris: the Musical, I can think of no other composer for the job.)

Sacrifices of a different kind are entailed in Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery.  King has never been shy about sharing his view of writing—how many of his novels are about writers, and how many of his stories feature writers’ creations and alter egos taking on lives of their own?—but Misery is probably his ultimate (fictional) statement about the work itself (I assume: I’m far from a King completist).  As his stand-in Paul Sheldon struggles to complete a novel for his captor, Annie Wilkes, King speaks directly about both the urge to escape into stories and many of the mechanical aspects of constructing and maintaining a narrative.  I was struck by the observation that “there was always a deadline,” even for books written on spec: “If a book remained roadblocked long enough, it began to decay, to fall apart; all the little tricks and illusions started to show.”  There is a time and a place for every creative work, and some can stay on the shelf longer than others; for some the phrase “strike while the iron is hot” is imperative.  One hears about novels and operas written over the course of years, even decades, but that’s never been King’s style.

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Director Edward D. Wood, Jr. has been called the “worst director of all time,” and his movies are memorably batty in conception and clumsy in execution.  I don’t think he deserves that title (there are many worse films than his, and at least Wood’s work is entertainingly bad), but it’s unlikely that Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood would have had the same combination of humor and pathos if it were about someone more accomplished.  The film takes plenty of liberties with the real Wood’s life, mostly concentrating on the making of Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  While Wood is the kind of outsider Burton has identified with throughout his career, it was Wood’s relationship to fading star Bela Lugosi that really attracted him to the material, reminding him of his own friendship with Vincent Price; I think it’s fair to read the movie as being more about Burton than Wood.  The movie has an optimistic tone despite the ineptitude of its title character; it’s possible that Johnny Depp’s performance is how the real-life Wood saw himself, perpetually chipper and energetic in the face of constant failure.  In any case, the goodness or badness of Plan 9 is beside the point: Ed Wood promises a look at the making of “the worst movie ever made,” but it’s really about the joys and frustrations of creating something, which is why it’s so relatable to anyone who’s tried.

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Ed Wood also shows that no matter how much you enjoy creating, it’s impossible to predict how the finished product will turn out or how it will be received.  If Wood’s work suffered from a lack of critical discernment, it’s even worse when self-criticism stops you before you’ve begun.  That’s a central theme of Lynda Barry’s “Two Questions,” a short comic strip story that appeared in McSweeney’s and has been reprinted in a few places since then.  “’Is this good?’  ‘Does this suck?’  I’m not sure when these two questions became the only two questions I had about my work, or when making pictures and stories turned into something I called ‘my work’—I just knew I’d stopped enjoying it and instead began to dread it,” begins Barry’s story.  The process by which she learns (and relearns, over and over again) to let go of those preconceptions, “to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape,” is one that I recognize, as I recognize the paralysis of engaging in judgment too soon.  As Barry says in a note accompanying “Two Questions” in The Best American Comics 2006,  “trying to write something good before I write anything at all is like refusing to give birth unless you know for sure it is going to be a very good baby.”

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It’s probably telling that most of the works I’ve mentioned were published or released during my teenage or twenty-something years, the age at which I was most engaged with honing my own craft and wrestling with what it means to be an artist.  Which aspects of these stories affect me the most depends very much on the day and my own state of mind: sometimes I feel chained to the desk like Paul Sheldon (though not literally, thank God), praying for the tiniest bit of inspiration like Salieri or dreading the oppressing self-judgment of Lynda Barry’s two questions; other days I feel my creative juices flowing as freely as Mozart must have (my excitement tempered by the knowledge that Ed Wood probably felt the same way).  At still other times I’m preoccupied with business matters, also touched on by these works.  Perhaps that’s why I continue to return to them for inspiration and perspective: there’s an understanding born of experience in each one of them.

Do you have a favorite work of art that conveys the creative experience?  Share it in the comments!

Last week, Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter invited me to write a little about my contribution to The Lost Worlds of Power during the lead-up to publication, and it’s available to read now. While avoiding spoilers for the story itself, I zeroed in on the relation of fan fiction to the descriptive manuals that often accompanied video games in the early days, and the ways in which the illustrations could suggest a more detailed setting than the graphics of the time allowed.  (That wasn’t as much of a problem by the time my selection, Legendary Wings, was released–it’s graphically quite impressive–but I guess it was on my mind, and I can never resist the opportunity to travel down memory lane.)

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don't they?

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don’t they?

Check it out, and consider following Noiseless Chatter while you’re there, won’t you? Updates on The Lost Worlds of Power appear there regularly, although the release date hasn’t been finalized as of this writing.

 

Art Rules: A Brief Example

In my last post, I described the process of discovering affirmative formal rules during the process of composition. I thought I’d share an example from my own work, a short piece for piano four-hands entitled Odell Lake.

Most of my compositions for piano are in a ragtime style, and while Odell Lake started off that way, it took off in a different direction as I composed it.  Formally, it is not a rag: it doesn’t follow the typical AABBACCDD arrangement of themes, and the themes are not 16 bars long.  It does, however, contain repeated sections, and as I composed it I focused on how to use repetition as a constructive element: was there a way to change the context of a repetition so that it sounded different, or had a different musical function, each time it was played?

The rule that emerged was twofold: first, everything in the piece (except the very beginning and end) would be repeated, sometimes more than once (two sections contain “nested” repetitions, echoes within echoes).  Second, most of the phrase endings don’t correspond to the points of repetition, giving the impression of phrases that end in two different ways, depending on whether the music circles back to a previous point or continues into the next section.

This formal approach led to a piece that is fairly sectional (appropriate, given the ragtime influence), but in which the themes and ideas are continually developing, as if the listener were examining them from every angle.  I didn’t worry too much about thematic consistency (although the initial ideas return at the end in the manner of a recapitulation), given that everything would be repeated.  Because it was a duet, I also gave thought to where the repeat signs would fall on the page, in order to avoid excessive page turns; that was also a contributing factor in the sectional design.

The end result was a piece that had formal integrity without being predictable, and was fun to play.