Words II: Literary Terms

I remember the pretensions of my college days, everyone trying to use high fallutin’ words to outdo each another. I promise not to do that in this, my weekly segment on words. I will instead keep in mind simply that words are great. This week’s installment focuses on literary terms:

cacophony: using words to produce sharp and unmelodious effect.

ellipsis: three periods indicating missing text or a character trailing off. In our lazy times, this can sadly be referred to as dot, dot, dot.

malapropism: misusing or mispronouncing words for comic effect.

Laugh or Cry

The Onion has it right. It’s a mess of a world and we have to laugh at that. Crosby, Stills and Nash said it too. It’s not the way it should be, not at all, but we can still do okay.

The Newfies know all this. Life is more than tough. It’s bullshit and worse. All they had was the fish, and now not even that. And yet you won’t find them moaning about anything. Not at all. It’s in the words; there’s a dictionary of Newfoundland words – indispensable in my research for my novel – that spells it out. Look up maul mouth, chucklehead and angishore. There’s bogger too, and sulick and ree raw. They’re all in there, good words. The best.

Are We Worth It?

In the film I’m Still Here (see yesterday’s blog), Joaquin Phoenix presents himself as a vile, cruel and vindictive drunk.  It doesn’t come across as a joke, but a dark challenge to humanity, asking the chilling question: How bad can we be?

If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a recently opened Off-Broadway play by Nick Payne, examines this question as well. The fatherly academic George underlines his dim view of a species that willfully destroys its own world by directly asking, “Are we worth it?” The audience is left empty and doubtful too after witnessing the characters, including Jake Gyllenhaal’s most profane Terry, drift around in their sad isolation, as the stage floods from our suicidal global warming — depressing stuff indeed.

This isn’t anything new. Our storytellers have gone at our damaged and demented psyche from the beginning – including Aeschylus’ The Oresteia and Shakespeare’s  The Merchant of Venice – right through to this not-so-sunny day. The message is always the same: we’re just not that great.A similar malaise permeates my novel, My Bad Side. No matter how much we have – and that’s the goal, isn’t it? – we’re still stuck with the knowledge that we’re just not worth that much. As Crystal states: I drink too much. I have a problem with it. But so fucking what? Everyone’s got something. Everyone’s dragged down by something. There isn’t much of anything in this life but pain and tears. The Greeks said it. Shakespeare said it. Salinger said it. Fucking everyone. That’s just what we have in this life, Anne-Lynn, a few moments of happiness and the rest is suffering and death. That’s life.

Uh…yeah, well, maybe we should just forget all of that for now.  Everything’s cool., right? And it’s Friday! Time to party.

Still Reel: Herzog, Phoenix & Synecdoche

“Filmmakers are liars.”  So said Werner Herzog at the New York premiere of his 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 2011. He explained that  film is a constructed thing, made up in its framing, lighting, editing, acting and the arc of the story. No matter how Cinema Verite any film might claim to be, it will always be what it is: fabricated and artificial.

Joaquin Phoenix’s film, I’m Still Here, attempts to address this issue directly. As he explained on The David Letterman Show, the film looked to “explore the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves. We wanted something that would feel really authentic.” Indeed, the film makes a mockery of the Hollywood machine, the audience, even himself.

The thing is that film – as is writing – is just a synecdoche, a small part of something else. In other words, even though a narrative might strive to be more than it really is, with the characters staring back, time codes in the left hand corner, it remains just a story, a splinter, a rejoinder, a sigh, a whimper.

As Dee says in My Bad Side: “I mean, I know there is only death, just that. I know it is just about waking up and getting out of bed until I don’t. And then it isn’t. I know that dreams are chemical. I know I am stuck in this life. And I know that is it. I hate it or say that I hate it to myself, but it isn’t that bad a thing.

Writing Rule #1: Don’t Get Cocky!

Writing Rule #1: Don't Get Cocky!I had a pretty good writing day yesterday. After a dozen or so attempts, I had finally worked my way through a scene that had been a morass.

I felt suddenly clear, not angry, nothing like that. I was in the moment. I only had to fill it. “You remember when we were on the dock?”

I made significant headway after that, another 15 pages, rocketing through it all. Everything was making sense. I had found my way. I knew the next day would be easy, more of the same, clear sailing until the end.  I was on auto-pilot. And then I ran into this:

I accepted his sudden blindness for nothing but his need of this. I knew there was nothing else to it, holding my hair back and kissing his neck, my practiced breath, my shoulders forward, and had a feeling of being held there and then all of me sloping down through me…

Writing Rule #1: Don't Get Cocky!

There was more of this, a lot more. It was a wall of awful. I stared. That was all I could do. I had gotten cocky. I had screwed up. I had thought I had it, when I had nothing.

I sat and stared. My mind was blank. I was beaten. I started to write and stopped again. I got through maybe a sentence and stopped again, until finally I had insect momentum and went at it again. I clawed through maybe a page, and then did another, went backward, went ahead and then maybe three more.

I used to dream about flying, almost every night. And then I bragged about it. “I fly every night.” It ended there. I’ve flown maybe twice since then, over 15 years ago. What an idiot. I must be patient. I believe that I’ll have it back tomorrow. I’m building back. I just have to think about yesterday and remember that I can fly…if I want it.

Writing Rule #1: Don't Get Cocky!

Ultran on “The way forward”

The Amazing Ultran writes, The way forward is certainly at the center of your values. And you are a focused and accomplished participant whose capabilities are well recognized, it would seem. It would appear that your next step is to gain a sharper sense of your own depth.

The experience on Sunday at All Tomorrow’s Parties – waiting in line, observing The Amazing Ultran’s automated movements, staring back into his dark eye, watching him write and write and write and finally receiving my fortune – was a curious one. There was certainly an aspect of mysticism to it, even with the knowledge that it was an art performance piece; it’s funny what goes through your mind when you are being read. Does he really know my future? Can he divine even an inkling?

Get quiet, undistracted time and recollect your subtle voices little by little, as they shift to the surface. This is where the enhanced awareness is and this seems to be where you are ready to grow next.

Uh…maybe, maybe not…but however genuine or word-accurate the medium, it’s still great advice for writing. It’s those subtle voices that count!

Godspeed Tomorrow’s Parties

All Tomorrow’s Parties is one esoterically overwhelming event. Staged on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, bands – including Autolux (pictured above) and The Magic Band – performed directly underneath the congealing weekend traffic on the FDR Drive overpass. There was another stage inside a converted warehouse – with music such as The Album Leaf – and a mini-festival of Criterion films – Eating Raoul & Harold and Maude and others – in the hull of the party cruise boat, Queen of Hearts, as well as The Amazing Ultran offering to forecast your future. (More on him tomorrow.)

Headliners, Godspeed You! Black Emperor closed the evening with two hours of full-on-and-oh-so-fucking-loud sonic-film-scapes. Click on the picture below to view a haunting and somewhat distorted clip:

Godspeed at ATP

It was a lot to take in – eight hours of constant input in the end – including what looked like a perfect fall (?) evening.

All of this should help me write…when my brain stops spinning.

Sunday’s Words

Sunday is a quiet day, a good day for thinking, just a little, about words. Today’s inaugural edition features silent letters.

Subtle: I’ve liked this word since I was a kid because it’s so…subtle, that little ‘b’ hardly there.

Indictment: I had a radio show in college, the After Z Radio show. I made the embarrassing slip up one night of pronouncing the ‘c’. Put me on trial. What a goof.

Psalm: Yes, it’s Sunday.

Kudos to Colbert

I attended a taping of The Colbert Report on Thursday, September 20. And while I cannot say much of anything good for the long wait in line nor the fascistic demands placed on the audience – reminiscent of Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate – I have nothing but praise for Mr. Colbert himself.

Stephen Colbert is a sharp fellow. Brimming with wit, confidence and talent – he sang three Sondheim extracts off the cuff –  he comes across as an old friend. He has clearly worked hard to construct his candy store and is relishing every minute. Everyone wants to know what’s next. And after that? What else have you got? Even when he screws up, it’s good. Let’s try that again! Forward and on! He’s like a perpetual motion machine. Does he ever turn off?

I was thinking that it would be great to write like that, jumping in and out of scenes, switching between characters, dabbing in details, punching up the ending, twisting the start, whipping in quotes, snapping out descriptions, commas and colons in a whirlwind of brilliance and light…yes, that would be nice. Back to it.

Music: in a trance

As Jerry Garcia sings in the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station: “Inspiration, move me brightly.”

I process many narrative difficulties through music: doing my workout on the elliptical, staring out the window from the couch or attending a live concert. Once I get through the problems of the day – Did I send that email? Did I buy that ointment? Is the lawsuit going well? –  I find a better path, a more open space, and start to think. Music is my primary place of thought.

My favorite works include Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting, Low’s C’Mon, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Off the Sky’s Cold Distances and William Basinski’s Distintegeration Loop #5. Each of these works help me shed the harsh light of this ‘sterile promontory’ to bring out the ‘excellent canopy’ instead. (That’s my spin on Hamlet.) Characters grow; the plot thickens.

Another recent inspiration has been the work of Icelandic performance artist, Ragnar Kjartansson. I was fortunate enough to attend his work Bliss at Abrons Auditorium in New York. A troupe of Icelandic opera singers – with full orchestration – sang the final arias of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a two-and-a-half minute sequence repeated again and again over twelve straight hours. Please click on either the link or photograph below to see a six minute sequence from the production, featuring two renditions of the piece:

Ragnar Kjartansson, “Bliss”

The above photograph is from the final hour of production; note the woman climbing out of the orchestra pit to go to the bathroom; full meals were also served on stage throughout the day. Assuming the same pace was maintained, they performed this sequence of arias approximately 240 times. I was there for only four hours and wish I had experienced more. It really was something to live in that music.