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. ]

One thought on “23 skidoo!”

  1. I do exactly the same thing, literally write a discussion with myself as to where the story should go next. Usually I do first draft in longhand so the notebook is littered with […discussion…]. When I type up the story I usually ignore them completely, in fact going out of my way to not read them. You’ve got me thinking that maybe I should extract them as metadata. Somehow.

Leave a Reply