Petrichor

At thunder’s sullen grumble to the east
the clouds roll in, their dirty woollen grey
a blanket for a tramp. And you will say
“That’s it, that smell! It has a name. At least
I know I saw it on the internet
a while ago
, so it’s A Thing for sure,
no Wikipedimeme!” There’ll be no cure
for curiosity; when you forget
this word you’ll wander Sainsbury’s, slightly high,
a-chanting three full lines (which just popped out
while walking there) as memo, mantra – why?
The rain distracts you, irrigates your thought
with slow warm dusty drops that fall
on concrete slabs, that smell, what is it called?

[ Author’s note: kludgey sonnets a speciality. ]

Paracosmic

So, hello again. Mixed news from Planet Dissertation today: on the plus side, I’ve got a much better (working) title (more on this in a bit), and I’ve got nudging up to 3k of first draft done already; less rosy, I’ve bogged down badly over the last two days or so.

Reasons for this are potentially manifold. For a start, I think I may be coming down with some sort of plague. I woke up on Monday feeling like my lower back had been pummelled with a socket wrench while I slept; experience dictates that this either means I drank way too much the day before or am undergoing some sort of viral assault, and I had maybe two beers all of Sunday. That said, Saturday was a bit more drinky, and involved lots of walking and sitting on awkwardly made pub benches… but I’ve felt rum as hell all day today also, which I’m also trying to put down to other environmental factors, in a kind of desperate attempt at coercing reality itself by barraging it with evidence in favour of my preferred conclusion… so, yeah. Maybe I’m ill, or just a bit run down. No biggie, but, well, schedules – and quality material is hard to come by when my body’s shouting too loud for the brain to work. Slow progress, like ploughing a concrete field with a toy tractor.

Also: I have continued to read Burroughs, to the point where I have decided to stop for a while. Like so many drug-centric writers, he attained something of the same power as the drug that obsessed him. I’d forgotten how much you sink into Burroughs’ writing, like a warm clean bath taken in the bathroom of a filthy squat paved with used needles and empty wraps… and once you’re in there, the prospect of getting out looks very unappealing. And in your own local consensus reality (should you venture there, as I must from time to time), you notice something newly chitinous about your fellow pedestrians, a horrible mechanical grace, a speeding-up of action and urgency like something out of a wartime newsreel, herky-jerky every limb and grinding jaw, Max Schreck lurches and the leers of cornered foxes… Burroughs gets into every cell, tries to make you into him, a colony, your DNA rewriting itself before starting on your body from the inside out, a nanofactory that consumes itself to produce its one and only possible product. What you read can definitely affect you physically — I remember taking two sick-days running off one of my old factory jobs after reading Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, which I spent laying in bed, exhausted and weepy, battering my mind with cheap soapbar hash in the hope of being able to sleep without dreams. Perhaps I’ve overdone it on Burroughs, cooked a grain too many for the comeback spike. If I turkey off immediately after this binge, though, I might just get away without and further ill effects…

… unless that assumption is in and of itself one of said effects, in which case the mugwumps are probably disembarking at Sloane Square as I type. Point being, I’m headed up to Sheffield for work on Thursday afternoon, and I could really do with not getting ill right now. Selah.

Now, yeah, titles. I really liked the original working title I had for this… thing I’m writing, for the sake of the word itself and also because it sums up one of the dominant motifs of the fictional world in question. Regrettably for me, a certain Charlie Stross and a certain Catherynne Valente have both written very well-received (and well remembered) stories with the title Palimpsest in the last fistful of years, so I can’t use that, and have know it from the start. (OK, technically I could use it, there’s nothing to stop me, but it would haunt me forever, because that’s the way my brain works. Selah.) But in a serendipitous fashion, an alternative just rolled on out of my Twitter timestream this afternoon, courtesy Gary Gibson.

A definition of paracosm:

paracosm is a detailed imaginary world involving humans and/or animals, or perhaps even fantasy or alien creations. Often having its own geography, history, and language, it is an experience that is developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years.

Now, any genre writer or critic will recognise that as being either a fully-fledged secondary world, or something that would wander toward the liminal fantasies of Farah Mendleshohn’s deliberately provocative taxonomy of fantastic literature: fantasies where the demarcation between the ‘real’ world and the fantastical elements in play – not to mention the actuality of their fantastic-ness (fantasticality?) – is elusive for the reader, and very often for the narrators too. (I’m probably mangling that definition a bit, but I plan to go back and re-read that chapter sometime soon, so I’ll leave it for now.) But the suggestion of childhood and immaturity around paracosm as a term fits nicely, because I’ve realised that what I’m really doing with this novella is exorcising a whole load of mental baggage associated with Portsmouth and the years I spent there, flailing my way through adolescence and a succession of rewritten selfs/identities.

Which sounds absurdly pretentious, of course, and makes it little different from much of my writing to date, but this story is much more explicitly set in a recognisable Portsmouth, and isn’t going to be a ‘proper’ science fiction or fantasy story. It’s a slipstreamy kind of thing, and the metafictional aspects make that even more slippery; I’m deep into unknown territory, here, and kinda making it up as I go along. Which is why it’s incredibly frustrating to get bogged down – if I can make anything happen, why can’t I get myself out of this transition?

The obvious answer is that I can get myself out of it, and that I just haven’t found the right route yet… and it occurs to me that thinking about paracosms might help me find it. (As might reading less Burroughs.) So, that’s the plan: pick something new to read, read it, and head back to the cliff-face tomorrow with my pickaxe all shone up and sharpened.

And that, ladies and gents, is how you publicly pep-talk yourself out of a writing funk.

Can’t believe I never tried it before.

[ Physician’s note: all optimism herein should be considered retrospectively null and void in the event of poor progress tomorrow. The patient must not be unduly encouraged in these grotesque performative ramblings. ]

23 skidoo!

So, welcome to the first of hell knows how many (or how few) Dissertation Diary entries. Analysis of our creative work is an important component of the grade, with an emphasis on analysing process, inspiration and sources. This means some sort of documentation of the process is necessary; I’ll need to mine it heavily for the ‘rationale’ piece, so I can demonstrate what I was trying to do, and what I did to achieve that. It’s a surprisingly difficult way to think about my own work, even though it’s a component of the ‘critical mode’ that I apply to everything else I read. An odd little ego-firewall built into the brain, there; like a Dunning-Kruger prophylactic.

Now, the way I write means I kinda end up self-documenting as I go; it’s a by-product of the process. When I have a question about what needs to happen next, or where a character wants to go, or even just which compass-point I should be pointing the plot-jalopy toward, I tend to just literally ask myself that question and answer it on the page in front of me (screen, notebook, whatever). I picked this method up from reading John Berlyne’s mammoth work of obsessive fan-scholarship, Powers: Secret Histories, which includes images of pages from Powers’ original scripts and notebooks, where you can see him doing just that[1]. “So, maybe Harry’s just lost his job? That could be good — but no, he needs to keep the job a bit longer because Sally will meet him there, but not until after her courtcase, which hasn’t happened at this point (though we could have the courtcase scene earlier on as a false flag)…” (I’m not paraphrasing there so much as showing you how it works out on the page when I do it.)

This leaves me with a bunch of metadata chunks that describe how I came up with the chunk of text-proper that follows it. The transition from one to the other can happen mid-sentence, and often does (techniques that get the words coming out are the ones that get kept). While it’s not common for me to argue about technique in these braindumps, they stand as a window into my own mindset as I wrote them, and that will make the storying of the stylistic choices I make during writing and editing far easier, as well as sounding more self-reflective than saying “that’s just how it looked like it should be written, y’know?”(which, if I’m honest, is about as much as I can ever recall of the process of writing immediately after the process has ceased… assuming, of course, that the true fugue-state of Actual Writing has happened; by contrast, I can recall every single second spent in the more easily-accessed state of Trying To Write, in horrible and vivid detail.)

All of which is a rambling way of explaining that whatever gets posted here will be like the next layer of meta-ness out from those raw notes. I will probably do some kicking around of the bigger questions that crop up in the writing processs here, not least because – beyond the initial concept and character and a few ideas for set-pieces – I’m making it up as I go along. This is a deliberate choice, and a chance to push against a long-held personal hang-up, the “you can’t start writing the story until you can see the whole of its shape in your mind” fallacy. The first half of the course has convinced me this isn’t the case (or at least isn’t a cast-iron Law), and writing in a different way will make me more conscious of process, which in turn will make the documentation of said process easier. That’s the theory, anyway. Yeah.

Speaking of theory, though, the novella-to-be is already veering hard into metafictional territory (which wasn’t unexpected), so I figure a record of contextual guff might be useful, or at least interesting (to me). Especially as I’m planning to do some cut-up stuff in the text. Which brings me (finally, elliptically) to the title of this post. Now, as I’m doing cut-ups, I need to be going to some good primary sources, and who’s the man for cut-ups? Ol’ Bill Burroughs, of course. So I got myself Word Virus, the Burroughs ‘reader’ anthology, and dug up his original article on the method (which is now manifold, with dozens of re-annotated or re-introduced examples scattered all over the intertubes).

Now, Burroughs is a sychronicity trigger, perhaps because of his own fascination with sychronicity. I’ve also heard this called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – a phenomenon whereby shortly after first encountering a concept or idea or person, you subsequently run into loads of things that connect back to it or them in really obvious ways. Think of it as a more paranoid version of “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”, if you like; it’s a pattern-making mind connecting three dots and calling it an elephant, perhaps. Whatever the cause, it happens, and it always feels odd, like a mild deja vu that rings on for weeks with occasional spikes of volume or intesity, like the chime of a temple gong.

Today’s example, for your delectation (or for posterity, or to kill the time while I wait for them to finally announce whether BoJo gets to keep his crown for another four years). While doin’ my Inbox Zero, I find an email from a guy telling me about the piece he wrote for the LA Review Of Books for the A E van Vogt’s centenary. So I click through, and there’s a page of all his van Vogt pieces all linked in a row. Scroll down to the World of Null-A review, encounter reference to Alfred Korzybski and his theory of general semantics. Look up Korzybski on Wikipedia… discover footnote to the effect that Burroughs went to one of Korzybski’s workshops. See?

So I took things to Twitter, as I am wont to do. My reasons for including the results should become clear upon reading them:

The sphincter of Theory

While bleating about the inevitable synchronicities attendant on reading Bill Burroughs…

Storified by Paul Graham Raven · Fri, May 04 2012 18:46:41

"There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking." KorzybskiPaul Graham Raven
As I probably should have seen, reinvestigating Burroughs for my dissertation is becoming a cascading tree of sychronicities…Paul Graham Raven
Even when I go to look up something that seems unrelated for a different purpose, it all points back to Burroughs…Paul Graham Raven
Question is, given metafictional status of dissertation piece already established, can i fold these synchronicities back into the text?Paul Graham Raven
I may have disappeared up what a writer of my acquaintance once referred to as "the sphincter of Theory".Paul Graham Raven
@PaulGrahamRaven as long as you cite your question on twitter in the references, I think it is fineS0B
@PaulGrahamRaven I didn’t even understand the question…Matt Wingett
@S0B But that means I’ll have to also cite your reply, and this counter-reply… #dividebyzeroPaul Graham Raven
@paulgrahamraven: hopefully not into The Colon of No Return.Brendan Carney Byrne
@PaulGrahamRaven What would Žižek do?S0B
@S0B He’d say "the problem is not that Kung Fu Panda is inherently socialist; it’s that he doesn’t appear not to be", maybe.Paul Graham Raven
@BrendanCByrne Semicolon, Shirley? ;)Paul Graham Raven
@PaulGrahamRaven “the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” as well you knowS0B
@paulgrahamraven: don’t call me, Shirley. looks like I picked a bad day to quit painkillers. etc etc.Brendan Carney Byrne
@PaulGrahamRaven Use more lube^Wdirect social engagement.Eleanor Saitta

Hmm. Well, I guess when you’re doing cut-ups, everything’s literally grist for the mill.

And that’s probably enough DD for now, as I’ve put in about the same wordcount on it as I have today’s fiction output. There may be more of this to come. Hell, at some point I might even get around to explaining the concept, explaining why that concept led inevitably to metafiction, and explaining (to myself, in increasing panic) why I thought any of it was a good idea when I started.

[ 1 – The great irony is that I have yet to read a Powers novel in published form. ]