Reflections

Posted by Paul Raven @ 26-09-2012 in DissertationDiary • Writing

It’s nearly three weeks since I submitted my dissertation and effectively finished my Masters. This is the seventh attempt I’ve made to write about what that means. I suspect it won’t be the last, though this one is actually going to make it past the draft stage; I realise I’m hesitating, and I want to step on that habit.

So, there’s a hook: what have I learned about hesitation in the last year? I’ve learned the extent of my fears and insecurities, certainly (and it wasn’t much fun at the time), but I’ve also learned something that it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn: that the fear can be beaten.

This is a lesson more general than just writing, though. This isn’t the time or place to rake through my past like the entrails of a sacrificial goat, in search of kinked loops or lesions that might auger how I became what I am become, so suffice to say that self-confidence and I are only recently acquainted. (Hardly unique among writers, or artists in general, of course.) To have been pushed to the edge of what I thought I was capable of, and then some way beyond that, and to have come through and delivered in the face of my own fears… “revelatory” is probably a shade too strong a word, but it’s close enough if you can stomach the cliché.

I find myself wishing I’d been pushed like that before, but realising at the same time that I wasn’t ready for it before now. The push is important (and in my case almost certainly vital), but the choice to allow myself to be pushed, to bend to the yoke willingly (if reluctantly and fearfully at times) – that was the most important thing, perhaps, and it had to come from inside of me.

I’m not used to valuable things coming from there. But damn, it’s fucking sweet when they do, isn’t it?

But enough with the wide-eyed self-discovery moments of an emotionally-underdeveloped introvert: what did I learn in terms of writing?

That’s a trickier question than it initially appears, which is why this is the seventh attempt at answering it. The obvious solution would be to list the module topics: I learned of voice and narrative, of character and of place; I learned of the short form, and of the long! But those topics are inherently fuzzy, more like a closely packed Venn diagram, crosshatched and overlapping like the petals of an orchid… and to be honest, they all revolve around teaching you how to read properly, how to read with an eye for certain types of effect (or affect) in the text, and how to see where and how such techniques might be reused in works of your own. A long, long way from “when [x], a good writer should [y]!”, then.

This is a good thing. (Or it was for me, at least.)

If anything, then, we might say that the most important lesson I took away from the course is that technique – or what I think Nick Mamatas means when he snipes at “craft” as a writerly shibboleth – is important only inasmuch as it supports the greater edifice of creation; that there’s sod all point in crafting lovely precise sentences if you’ve not got a story to tell with them, in other words.

But I also misunderstood story itself, I think, albeit in a way that’s remarkably hard for me to put into words. I guess the closest I can get would be to say that I used to think story was almost entirely what I now think of as plot, but now realise that plot is actually subservient to story, which is also inextricably bound up in narrative and character; that story is, in a way, everything but the words you see on the page. With hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that all those writerly advice books and blog posts that talk about how fiction is “driven by conflict” contributed to this problem; I was thinking of story as sequences of unfortunate events, rather than as characters experiencing the turbulent flow of their own lives.

Obvious in hindsight, sure. But internalising that old saw about characters “needing to be just as real as the people you know outside your head”, realising that it’s a description not of some sort of winsomely artsy manifestation of multiple personality disorder, not of hearing voices, but of a process of imagination infinitely more thorough than “oh, let’s say blonde, early thirties, works in a bank in West London, that’ll do”… it’s harder than you might think. Perhaps it’s even a subset of cognitive dissonance: learning to imagine the subjective experience of an imaginary intelligence while simultaneously taking into account your own subjectivity in observing them and the world in which you’ve created around them.

To be clear, I suspect this is a crystallisation of stuff that I’ve been absorbing for some time; doing the Masters has been like adding a catalyst in the final stages of a reaction. I also realise it reads a little like “ZOMFG narcissist discovers empathy!”, which wouldn’t be an utterly unfair way of looking at it; put it this way, I think it no coincidence that the last few years have also seen me becoming more politicised. (Opinions on whether that’s a change for the better are, I believe, somewhat divided. Selah.)

So, yeah: I learned a whole bunch of profound-seeming metastuff about fiction and subjective experience that I can’t yet explain very clearly, but which make me feel a) much more engaged with my art, and b) more confident in my ability to do worthwhile art (for values of worthwhile as defined exclusively, at least at the moment, by yours truly.)

I learned that I am capable of completing big and challenging projects, which makes me feel like I can do it again, and do it better.

These are valuable things. I feel like I got what I needed from the course, even though what I needed wasn’t quite what I thought I needed. I signed up for the course with the attitude that I wasn’t really bothered about grades, and at this level, I’m still not; I am a better writer, which is why I came. That said, I’d like to take home a top score, too, not just a mid-list pass. But if I don’t, well, what the hell. With my dissertation, especially, I had to take the decision that rather than worrying about what the assessors would want to read, I had to focus on doing something I felt was worthwhile, something I could be proud of on its own terms, no matter how it got marked.

And I did – but that’s probably another post (or three) for another time. For now, I have vague ideas for two novels fighting for position in my backbrain, an imminent moving-of-house to Sheffield to arrange, and an academic paper on sf prototyping to finish… so I’d best be getting on with it, hadn’t I?

**

Oh, yeah: I also learned just how far I can take procrastination and displacement activity in the face of intimidating deadlines: while in the middle of doing my dissertation, I somehow managed to research and write a ~10k piece on Nordic LARP, the first part of which is now up at Rhizome.org

Amphetamine Fugue #3

Posted by Paul Raven @ 02-08-2012 in DissertationDiary • Writing

His history be the hallowe’en of her. “T is down, pumpkin.” Pumpkin scene flickers, checked to his wobbly cardboard killing-jar Oxfam? Every Oxfam?

T spins, unfocused, shitty again. Pavement. It’s a heard object, really arch, dears — sucking a brickwork road, we’re the end of pavement. And air in the world harrassed his public clinic, mad with that library hunger, her light, and shrill pistols end Benji fitfully, loud bitten in the awful window. Heard of the specimen; says nymphoid’s best is back in straight pockets, but together: speed.

Too straight, everything is clear: impatience shopfront, clinic maybe. But still the woman is clear, or just unfocused, too loud a photoshopped corner in the scene. Happens she takes people, wobbly. But you, cardboard, she told you: “guy, say sucking pockets,” heard behind him, nestling in her freezeframe. Manages the newspaper, palm coming to a stalled nothing. Leap.

Go big, solution: shoplifting really sucking now, sucking air, worrying, strangled — that type reminds her, something that stretches Benji to clear, pistol cardboard, world, speed, dears, bag, scene, in, tied out. Told to leap back, moving down Palmeston, air supposed where things of air might think: public speed.

Her Matrix straight unfocused, benches grinding, shrill imagining haunted the back expression: keep windows clear of clinic-think. Down pistols, unfocused, then be clear, expression back to pavement — just pavement? Dears, the shoplifting flickered, they’d say “maybe” to type; go the clinic.

All of history cartoonish, why and away? Crowbar. She happens. Not today, pumpkin; sci-fi clear, but no black-out. Leap the strangled history you call photoshopped, crusty expression for his dear object: speed.

They know, shoved onto a moving pavement. Down, away, pumpkin-seeing-the-pavement! Newspapers still spin her away, we leap anyway: it’s the throb of my pinning her here, supposed solution, spins, grinding awful impatience. All afraid, looking the best — why noticing? Speed.

Nothing spins repeated, used sci-fi hide; Saj trodden down, probably worrying. Think. Typed the library — speed, her hands like Oxfam? She stalled, takes out time. End mad, maybe — and why type, awful clear, like Oxfam? That’s once herself, guy, before T stalled, coping high to the end, her pistols, guy: she, she the awful speed.

Like wordless toenails, only anyway: coming back by, she’s made of something again. Go T, unfocused; buy back, be loud.


From the dissertation-in-progress; an experiment with using automated cut-up engines to recreate the narrative disorientation of severe CNS-stimulant withdrawal. Methodology: write scene, leaving gap for fugue; paste entire scene into cut-up engine; retrieve results, cull, kill and splice, repunctuate; paste results back into cut-up engine, repeat process (as many iterations as you want, or until you get a batch that seems to sing without being prompted; chop into paragraphs, tease out emergent themes and riffs; condense down; display to a baffled public who’ve already heard of Burroughs, thankyouverymuch.

Paracosmic

Posted by Paul Raven @ 08-05-2012 in DissertationDiary

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!

Posted by Paul Raven @ 04-05-2012 in DissertationDiary

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. ]