Dear Jon . . . (#16) Re: Crime and Punishment, Trials and Castles

BY JON PILL

The digital flap rings out, and a writhing mass of bletters slap down onto the mat, each one struggling against the dark red elastic band that binds them to each other.

A bletter gets loose and wriggles away so, in order to keep it from slipping down the hole in the skirting board chewed long ago by an ancient king-rat’s many teeth in many heads, you skewer it on the end of your bletter harpoon and chew away the edible flaps to reveal the words etched into the skin of the bletter in rattlesnake venom.

Dear Jon,” the bletter begins. “Being, shall we say, terminally unhip – I too had an angst canon, though the bulk of it came out of the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s. Specifically, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, the connections with your canon are there, no? Instead of a murderous Manhattanite, there’s the axe-wielding Raskolnikov killing old women in St Petersburg…”

To read the rest of the bletter turn to page 34, or click here .

 

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The Best Books For Writers – Part 5: Books on the Other Arts

BY JON PILL

Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing

Part 3 – Books on The Writing Life

Part 4 – Books on Reading

This is the last and considerably latest, in this series on books to read if you’re a writer / into writing / want to write. This time looking at a grab bag of books that I and / or humans have found useful in our approach to writing that deal with other art forms topics.

There will also be another post coming soon about all the non-book resources people have found useful. So look forward to that, kidz.

Part 5 – Books On Other Art Forms

1. Silence by John Cage

This collection of lectures by experimental composer John Cage (he of 4′ 33″ in(fame)y), is a collection of lectures on various subjects. Unable to keep from experimenting even in the when typing up his lecture notes, the book is full of odd formatting and the occasional section of apparent word salad.

But as a creative guide it’s served a few of my writerly friends. It might well serve you to.

2. 7 Minutes. The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon by Norman M. Klein

This is another Interior Dasein recommendation, covering the history of the short American Cartoon, typified I guess by the work of Chuck Jones. There are parallels between the zany movies and the short story, and you can certainly learn a great deal from the discipline of the artists and the surreal and metamorphosable worlds they build.

For members of the straw poll, it was also a source of inspiration and permission to break the rules of our world in interesting and fun ways in their art.

3. The Artist’s Reality by Mark Rothko and 4. A History of Art by E. M. Gombrich

Visual art has inspired a great deal of poetry and a little prose, but it is also probably the art form with the longest history. Where the stories told by the cavemen at Lascaux are lost to time, their paintings live on.

The Rothko is a collection of essays on art and artistry, and the Gombrich a broad history of visual art from the ancients to us with a ton of colour plates and a lovely binding.

5. How to Read a Film by James Monaco

An overview of the mechanics, theory, business and history of film this book is readable intro to the medium. I consume a lot of story through television and movies, and having a better sense of how to watch closely and think critically about film has improved my ability to do the same for reading and in assessing my own writing.

It could do the same for you.

6. Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev

Recommended by Jim MacDonald in an Absolute Write thread on the grounds that Chernev’s approach works for the creation of plots as much as it does check-mating your opponents on the board.

If nothing else, it will probably improve your chess game.

7. Measurement by Paul Lockhart

Measurement teaches maths creatively, and draws comparisons between the formal restrictions of poetry and the logical restrictions of maths. Paul Lockhart empowers the reader to go away and create maths on their own by focusing on the process and on proof. Having given the reader the tools to do maths, he then sets them off with a bunch of questions for them to look into and solve on their own.

The link with writing is pretty tangential but much of what makes maths beautiful is there in literature: those moments of realisation and discovery, and the revelling in patterns. The approaches to learning however, are perfect for the writer.

Enjoy.

If you have any favourite books that have helped you with your writing, especially if I missed them in this series, let me know in the comments.

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Dear Jim . . . (#15) Re: Angst and Anxiety

BY JON PILL

‘Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.’ – Douglas Bader

Dear Jim,

Christmas came and went. 2016 came and went. I hope it came and went well. I have a horrible feeling 2017 will be a time of reaping what 2016 has sown. But it also looks like it might be pretty good for you and me on a professional level.

As you guessed in your letter, I have been fiddling with the odd reading list for the coming year. You asked a bit about what guides my instinct re reading. I’m not sure I have a very interesting answer to that. I am rarely coming to a book cold, years of Google, Wikipedia and long conversations with book mad friends like you means I have a general sense of who and what out there will fit my given needs.

Plus my reading lists are almost always for a purpose, however broad. Catching up on the classics, research for the novel, sometimes its just: read more stylists, more plot, more nonfiction, more James Bond novels.

There is a certain amount of the should’ves on my lists, but I don’t know how sophisticated a gut instinct is needed to know one should have read some Dickens if you want to be a writer.

 

Your other question re teenage reading is a little more interesting, and one we’ve discussed several times. When you’re a teen you’re in that weird tension of wanting to be part of the group and to be an individual, different. If one of those things wins out you end up as either Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez or Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. Or that nerdy kid or the janitor. Or something*.

The compromise of being a goth or hipster or whatever is to belong to a little group that dresses funny. Same-same but different.

My cod-sociological theory is that the angst canon of books teenagers read is a way of revelling in that specialness. The Molly Ringwalds opt for manifest destiny as their reason for being weird, so Harry Potter and Star Wars for them. The Ally Sheedy’s are more likely to have a copy of Camus poking ostentatiously out of their pocket. Or as in my case Chuck Palahniuk. Judd Nelson didn’t read very much at all, I suspect.

For me the books that I read and reread (along with Michael Crichton’s whole oeuvre) were: American PsychoFight Club and The Beach. All in some ways were aspirational wish fulfilment. All three are books about outsiders who exercise power (and often violence) in their own sphere. It probably doesn’t hurt the appeal that they all get laid and enjoy freedom from authority (it is no coincidence that the British boarding school produced the inventors of the concentration camp).

What is also odd is that they are all also about mentally ill characters. And I do remember having a very romanticised notion of what it meant to have poor mental health. Think of the pop culture crazies like Donnie Darko and Hannibal Lector dictated my images of madness at the time. Being a teenager is often to be locked in several forms of mental breakdown anyways: , a barely developed sense of empathy, constant crises of identity and purpose, or else monomania and narcissism. or persecution complexes, anxiety, insecurity, paranoia, body dysmorphia, mood swings, sexual obsession and perversion, your average teenager is a grab bag of pages out of the DSM and Dr Levick’s notes on penguins.

The nihilism and existentialism (both in the most vague and colloquial sense) in the Ellis and Palahniuk reflected, and probably intensified, my personal philosophies at the time and that the books reflected and reinforced my dislike for those who feel entitled to authority.

I don’ know exactly how much I saw myself as Patrick Bateman or Tyler Durden (though it would not be beyond my cognitive dissonance to have seen myself as both), but I enjoyed for those years a total condescension and contempt towards all people everywhere. And although I was a very shy child, and am a pathologically anxious adult, in my mid-teens for a few years I felt very little shame or self-consciousness at all. It was around then that I was reading those books.

I still like those books. I haven’t read them in a long time, but their film versions have jogged my memory from time to time. But I like them for completely different reasons**. Where I used to admire Bateman, I feel pity instead. What was revelled in as wish fulfilment as revel as a teen reads as a satire now. Nice flat, expensive suits, and taking what he he couldn’t buy at the end of a nail gun, everything seemed perfect back then. Now he looks desperate and trapped. The horror isn’t in the gore, its in the empty relationships and impersonal flat.

These books are no longer my favourites. But they are still interesting as much because of my personal history with them as anything else. That as a writer is something that is probably impossible to account for in your readers. But interesting to ponder.

I’d be interested to hear about your own teenage readings. But I also wonder if there are any artworks in whatever form, that you’ve had a similar revisions or reversals of your feelings about a text or play and what they were?

Sincerely Yours,

The Breakfast Club

* P.S. I know and also don’t care that the movie was about how they’re not all that different you and I.

** P.P.S. I deliberately avoided talking about The Exorcist, because I could write a whole bletter just on that. Every time I have watched that film, it has seemed to be about something totally different. But that is because the film has so many ambiguities, and so much of the story happens off screen that it allows for interpretive shift. They all feel like natural readings of that movie. American Psycho, on the other hand, I find hard to imagine  missing how unhappy Bateman clearly is. Which I definitely did at the time.

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Dear Jon . . . (#14) Re: On Waste Lands of Straight People

BY JON PILL

‘You’ve got mail,’ said the computer electronically.

‘Read it to me, computer,’ I spoke organically.

‘So many,’ it quothed digitally.

‘So many what?’ queried I fleshily…

I had not thought death had undone so many. -T.S. Eliot

Dear Jon,

Well, I hope you had a merry Christmas time. One way to address your question is to refer you to my very early reading this year in which I made a sally into the 1700s. I read Robinson Crusoe, I read Gulliver’s Travels, I read Tristram Shandy. And the last of these showed me clearly that the madcap and what might be called ‘the experimental’ is inherent to the canon. That cray was there, all the time… Click HERE for the rest of Jim’s bletter.

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Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

BY JON PILL

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”[…] In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments[…]” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your last bletter. Sorry this one is late, I blame everyone but myself.*

As to your question: What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? the short answer is: None.

The longer answer is: None that I can think of but also I guess all of them sort of a bit but not really all of them dot com.

Which is to say, I don’t remember a work of fiction drastically changing my world view or granting me sudden insight into worlds hitherto unseen. To some extent every book does this a bit but I find the effect one of accretion, one book gives you a look at someone else’s point of view, another someone else’s. It all adds up, but I rarely have that flash of insight from a fiction-book.

So, I am not going all They Came Together** or denying the ability of fiction to expand one’s horizons, or to give one insight into – as in your examples – the life of a black Americans, but for me, it is always non-fiction that cuts new channels in my brain. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans would be the books that did for me what Citizen and Invisible Man did for you.

Another book I would recommend for this reason is The Ruins of Empire which was a fascinating insight into the post-Colonial cultures of India, China, Egypt and the Middle East. That rendered the grievances more, to use that word again, more complexly and personally than I had previously considered.

Perhaps this is because, until a few years ago I didn’t read much serious fiction. I read nonfiction, I watched movies and TV***, and fiction was picked up for light entertainment.

Perhaps it is because non-fiction has a greater power for directed brain thrilling perspective shifts for me. Almost the books which I come back to over and over again in my mind are nonfiction. My intellectual biography could be written in The… titles****: The Theory of PokerThe Selfish GeneThe Problems of Philosophy. I remember where I was when I read them, and how they moved my brain in one direction or the other. I guess these sort of texts amount to a sort of personal canon.

But your question was more precise, about books that helped imagining Others complexly. On that score books like my A-level psychology textbook, played a role. And sections of The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker, especially concerning the idea of taboo. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt is another book that for many reasons was empathy expanding. Some of the Bhuddist literature I’ve read did the same thing in different ways and for different reasons: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. Their merits are probably fairly obvious, so the one I’ll pick out to expand on is Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind.

Tricks is an odd grab bag of a book, made up of chapters on each of the things Brown is interested in. It lays out his aesthetic theories about magic and misdirection, gives guides on lie detection and memory tricks, but also contains the science of – and his speculations on – the nature of hypnosis and influence.

The hypnosis chapter combined the science of influence (Milgram, Zimbardo, Ariely, et al.), the ability of the brain to trick itself, and ideas about intentionality and self-justification. The implications go far beyond hypnosis, every human interaction does to some extent the same thing that a Mentalist does with his ‘hypnotised’ subject.

It gave me a far better sense of how I and you and everyone else on planet Earth live their lives. We all do what we mean to do only a tiny fraction of the time, our brains seamlessly filling in the justifications afterwards. Our experiences are largely lies, memories even more so.

The world looks different when you realise no one is in control of even all their actions. That a missed lunch can have as great an effect as someone’s ethical code. It’s a little easier to forgive, and to see oneself in the same position.

I would recommend Tricks of the Mind to almost anyone, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have the effect on them it had on me, I don’t think it would have had that effect if I had read it a few years later. Personal canons are exactly that.

I know in many ways your personal canon reflect the literary canon quite closely, and you have always a broad respect and interest in that trunk line of culture leading back inexorably towards Gilgamesh. But, I’d be interested to hear how your recent batch of reading all madcap and experimentalist has altered your views on the works of the past?

Yours hypnotically,

Jon

*I should also probably point out that ‘imagining others complexly’ is not my phrase, but John Green’s.

**

*** For example House M.D. was probably one of the biggest fictional influences on how I thought about other people, ethical questions, even epistemology. The way that show used its ensemble cast to create a dialectic on whatever the issue of the week was. There are few shows as entertaining as House that also have the intellectual heft of those first three seasons.

**** Also Michael Crichton novels.

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Writing Update: Sunday, 11th Dec 2016

BY JON PILL

Novel Word Count

First draft document: 27,391 words
Zero-th draft documents: 19,512 words
Total Words: 46,903/~90,000 words

That is correct, there has been no movement on the novel since the last update around a month ago.

This can be blamed in part on my having found a job – part time call centre work in Warwick – which led with two weeks of 8 am – 5 pm shifts for training which mucked my schedule about and put a sudden stop to my NaNoWriMo effort to hit the big 50k in one month.

Since then I’ve pretty much been playing catch up on my various commissions and with keeping the blog vaguely up to date. I think on that front I am going to be reducing the blog output to two articles a week instead of three. The regular posting is good exercise but I at the moment I need to conserve my writing energies for the more important Novel / £££s.

But I’m of back to the island home in a week or so for a long Xmas hols, hopefully I’ll be able to get myself back up and running on the novel during my time off.

Other Word Count

As at the time of writing if I can squeeze out a little over 30,000 words before NYE, then I’ll have written 200,000 words total in 2016. It’s a shame more of that wasn’t on the novel, but one needs to stay vaguely liquid to avoid tipping from starving artist to starved. 200,000 words seems like a nice round goal, and doable if I can get myself back into the habit of writing.

That habit thing always seems like the easiest thing in the world when its going well, but I find that it doesn’t take much to disrupt it, and the last few weeks have been frustratingly short on words written by myself. Even losing almost all of my reading time and replacing it with writing I still had one of my least productive months in November.

Fixing that needs to be a priority, though what exactly that will entail, I am making up as I go along. I’ll pretend to remain optimistic and hope that hope follows.

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Dear Jon . . . (#12) Re: Imagining All the People

BY JON PILL

You’ve got mail! Well, not you. Me, really, but you can read it too.

Dear Jon,

I think that I mostly agree with your thoughts there. There is a lot you say about how words can divide us. How they frustrate debate or inflame resentment. I wanted to engage with this by talking about how words can do the opposite – specifically in relation to the imagination. What you termed: thinking about Others complexly. The imagination is often a slave of the passions too – it can both be something that spurs us onto the better futures that we see for ourselves, or can twist the facts to create parallel universes. . .[click here for the rest]”

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