July 27, 2010

The How-To Cult of the Wroter

I would really appreciate a how-to-write book which begins with the following disclaimer: “More than likely, you don’t like to write; you just want to be a writer.”

The authors of these how-to-write books generally omit the following disquieting points:

1. Feeling like a writer has nothing to do with being a writer. Self-esteem is the product of repeated failure, self-doubt, honest assessment, and repetition of the proceeding steps. Any direction as to how you should prepare yourself emotionally for the creative moment is irrelevant because the authors of such directions are probably not psychologists or behaviorists and certainly do not know you. How-tos that tell you how to become inspired is as ridiculous as me telling you how to feel on your birthday and then you trying to feel that way. Feelings are your business, figuratively and, if you are a writer of even rudimentary ability, literally.

2. Most of us are not an expert, not even on the subject of our own lives. The relative homogeny of our experience, which is generally articulated by media cliches, gives each of us a false sense of expertise. Most of us, with only a glancing understanding, may feel like an expert on an impossibly broad spectrum of subjects, from the superiority of the American version of The Office, to the presence of life on Mars. Writing what you know is not the same as having something to say.

3. Understanding other writers and their process does little to improve our understanding of ourselves or the world. Unless our aim is to impersonate, we would be better served reading the United States Tax Code than any how-to-write treatise. A writer writes a book about the mystical process of writing for the very pragmatic reason that they need money and are out of ideas for writing anything else. Except Rilke. He gets a pass on his charm alone.

4. We are told that writers must play all of the following parts: writers, editors, agents, publishing consultants, marketers, networkers, and spokespeople. Many how-to books will outline the process of publication and success with breezy simplicity, when in truth the process of publication and success is absurd, capricious, and often unique. Getting published is much like losing your virginity: many people have very specific ideas about how it should go but the moment itself follows no script. Writers must be writers. The market is glutted with great networkers and expert marketers, but there are very few writers anywhere on the bookstore shelves.

Tellingly, many writing how-tos often share a common tone and idiom that is reminiscent of a devotional. It is common for the authors of writing-instruction-books to adopt the idiom of religion (especially Eastern religions which still smack of exoticism to Americans) in their efforts to mystify a relatively simple compulsion which has been learned for generations through the still-simpler process of: 1. Reading great works and 2. Writing copious amounts of mediocre crap.

Based on the evidence of the how-tos, I can only assume that would-be writers are incapable, uninspired, and uncommitted to the task. Apparently, would-be writers must be goaded into the ritual of work, reassured as to their writerly purpose, and cajoled into creativity and inventiveness.

I recognize that all of the above is hypocritical given the frequent content of this blog. I sometimes extoll a process; I sometimes explicate the deed. Don’t listen to me. And don’t buy any more books that tell you how to be a writer. They’re essentially pornography for unmotivated wroters.

July 13, 2010

The Uncanny Canyon, Part 2

I've been trying to figure out why increasingly I get more enjoyment from watching a B-movie than the latest Scorsese, why "production value" sounds more and more like a euphemism for "inhuman," why reality television continues to be popular despite the glut of elegies sung by a host of cultural critics. The same critics might explain the persisting popularity of actor-free TV as a failure of taste or evidence of cultural collapse: the coming Second Dark Ages.

The mistake that many cultural critics make is arguing that reality television is inferior because it is obviously fake; it is artificial. The "actors" are just amateurs emoting under the "direction" of producers, working through crisis after crisis in the stead of a plot. It is a mockery of writing, direction, production, and acting. It is dishonest.

But reality television is popular for precisely the opposite reason. It is popular because it is more human than the staid sit-coms, more honest than the morbid and cynical cop shows, more relatable than the Cheshire-hearted anchors. Reality television, like community theater, has no reverence for the illusion or the artifice; reality television is drunk on the goofy and inconsistent, the insecure and petty humanity of its characters. The artificial elements are obvious, and seem, if anything, the butt of a joke. More important than story, or production, or direction is emotion: that elusive, irrational, and utterly human quality.

The "uncanny valley" creeps us out because we are being shown artificial structures which are trying to approximate humanness. Reality television, on the other hand, delights (and sometimes frustrates) because it shows us humans playing with artificiality, with fraud, with pretension. By doing so, they forefront their humanity.

B-movies are delightful not because of their story or staging. I don't laugh and grin while I watch because I am superior to these "amateurs," these deluded auteurs and their cast of bumbling, unpaid friends and colleagues. I'm not laughing at their obvious humanity, but rather I heehaw because the B-movie is one long poke at artificiality, a jab at the tidy perfection of the shadows we're used to seeing on the wall. The greatest B-movies are more human and inspiring than anything that's ever won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Or put another way, most studio movies are advertisements posing as art. A B-movie is humanity posing as an advertisement. It is wonderfully subversive, an uncanny zenith.

July 10, 2010

The Uncanny Valley is a Canyon, Part 1

The "uncanny valley" theory describes the human response to robots and computer generated characters which are designed to appear human. The emotion which results from an encounter with an almost-human robot or figure is one of general dread and distrust. (The "uncanny valley" response could also explain why some people are disturbed by mannequins, wax statues, or dolls; all of which, incidentally, are represented in the horror film genre.)

We have evolved to have an incredibly nuanced sense of humanness. We aren't easily deceived by mimics or approximations. Near-human is not human enough.

Interestingly, designers' attempts to close the uncanny valley (that is, to produce a non-creepy synthetic human) are closely tied to film making: that increasingly artificial and inhuman art form. Obviously, computer generated graphics and digital characters are not entirely new and so cannot be wholly responsible for the artificialness of films. CGI is but one contributer to the cinematic nauseous dream. Consider, for example, the increasing artificiality of time in movies. It is no coincidence that our impatience with the pacing of older films has increased as modern film editing has abbreviated each image and moment. Or consider the artificiality of the actors themselves; certainly, this is not a new phenomenon in Hollywood, but it seems ever more pronounced. (I find it fascinating that the majority of attempts to bridge the uncanny valley are made by emulating unnaturally beautiful women; similarly, it isn't by coincidence that the pinnacle of beauty is an actress sculpted to look like a heroine for a video game.) And what are the endless parade of remakes and sequels if not artificial stories?

"Independent" cinema, as a counter point, would be defined ideally by its "humanity," centering on characters, philosophical meditations, settings, relationships. This human address often strikes audiences as pretentious and ostentatious. The box-office hero is more human than the plodding indy flick. I would like to raise my glass to the independent film, but it has increasingly become a product-based genre, a vehicle for Hollywood stars to show off their acting chops, a self-congratulating waddle through the most sophomoric of revelations. There are of course exceptions.

My point is, we are so immersed in the artificiality of cinema that the inhumanity of computer generated characters seems almost inconsequential. I am stupefied by the broader fraud. My identity, physicality, and emotionality, respond to and reflect this uncanny canyon in a thousand different ways.

Ultimately, this is the problem with artificiality; the more we are exposed to it, the more we begin to emulate it. Essentially, the process works the same as socialization, but unlike socialization, which brings you into a large and tangible landscape of interactions, artificialization prepares us to interact with vistas, scenarios, and persons that are not real. I am poised to be a hero in a plot and on a planet that do not exist.

July 2, 2010

The Technology of Ghosts

Reading a book is the closest I get to conversing with a ghost. Reading is like a seance, and just like any seance, it is difficult to discern how much of what is experienced is me talking to myself and how much is the ghost of the writer whispering in my ear. Actors have a significantly different kind of immortal presence; they are both less substantial and more imposing. Much like the light of the projector their image leaps from, the actor can never touch us, but our faces can reflect their light.

Reading a book is a different kind of haunting, a more subtle and intimate exchange that does not exist (even in reflection) within the physical world. To read is not to be possessed by the writer, but to be possessed by the words. The voice that is generated by our reading does not seem disembodied; quite the opposite, it feels very centered inside of us. And while the voice is not wholly our own, neither is it entirely the voice of the writer. Rather, that voice we hear is the amalgam of two voices, is both purely the writer's and purely the reader's. In this way, the voice of a book is a ghost unique to each reader.

When I try to express my feelings about a book I've read and loved, Invitation to a Beheading or To Kill a Mocking Bird, I'm often frustrated by how ephemeral and fleeting the experience was. I will remember the emotions, but I can no longer feel them distinctly; I will remember the intimacy, but I no longer feel the voice's presence in the room.