Tag Archives: writing

Review: “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” by Cory Doctorow

The title is misleading. Cory Doctorow’s full observation is, “Information doesn’t want to be free. People want to be free.” Though the book is sold as a guide for creative types to make a living off their work in the digital age, Doctorow’s real purpose is political. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s a rich book with a lot of useful insight into the rapidly changing way we create and consume media. But calling it a “how-to” book is selling it short.

The gist of it is that we are at a crossroads in history. We can either embrace the possibilities of new media or let powerful existing interests dictate them for us. The pessimistic view is that you’ll be at the mercy of Amazon and Apple, buying products and thinking you own them only to have them deleted from your hardware because you didn’t read the fine print. Or, worse, get fined or thrown in prison by bringing the wrath of Disney down on you.

On the other hand, Doctorow argues that creators could instead trust their audiences and fight for relaxed copyright laws. It’s kind of a utopian view, but not necessarily wrong. Now that instantaneous copying and dissemination is a fact of life, we are faced with the choice of creators (actually, the distributors) having absolute control over their work, which is technically impossible without destroying personal privacy, or just trusting people to be honest.

Doctorow isn’t saying everyone needs to be honest, just enough people. And this happens all the time without anyone realizing it.

Growing up I developed an enduring hatred of NPR’s membership drive season. My parents, since before I was born, have been dedicated listeners and the radios in their kitchen and car have always been set to NPR. I’ve inherited the addiction. About a year ago, I realized that I finally had a disposable income and could do things like financially support the news, art, and institutions I’d been freeloading on for 27 years. And it feels good. I don’t get anything extra out of most of my monthly donations, but it does give me gratification to know that I’m giving back to mainstays of my intellectual and personal life. And, as any development professional will tell you, arts and culture nonprofits can’t exist without contributing audiences.

Point being, this model already exists and it works. People want to support the content creators they like, preferably without going through five middlemen.

Anyway, I agree with all that Doctorow writes, to a point. He’s Cory Doctorow — of course if he publishes a book and puts it up for a free on the internet with a “donate” button he’ll earn bank. He is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years and so his generous terms don’t really prove anything.

On the other hand, he is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years. That really isn’t any different than the traditional way of becoming an artist, except that instead of going to a publisher or label, you go right to the audience instead.

So, I look at myself and wonder, “Could I follow his advice and become a successful, professional writer?” Maybe. But I write professionally already, churning out grants and copy for an organization I like, so I don’t feel compelled to make a lifestyle change. But I am optimistic and I think Doctorow has a good point. I do know artists who make a living (not a glamorous one, but neither is mine) off of their work because there are enough people out there who like their work enough to support them.

That was a review, I guess. Read it and come up with your own opinions.

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Prompt: Someone you used to know

A friend of mine recently contacted me to say that he was in acting school and I keep coming up in his subconscious. The context is that there’s an exercise the actors do in which you imagine talking to someone you know well and act it out.

As acting techniques go, that’s on the kinder end of the spectrum. Another friend of mine in college told me about when her teacher made her do a monologue given by Allison in Proof. The character is afraid she’s beginning to exhibit signs of schizophrenia and so my friend’s teacher made her go sit in the corner and scream “Please, God, don’t make me crazy!” For five minutes. I saw her a few hours after this and she was still chain smoking. And they say writers are masochists.

But, I can’t claim the moral high ground. When I directed plays, I used to make my actors shout their lines at each other. Besides the fact that it’s amusing as hell, it actually is very effective in getting people to memorize their parts.

Back to the first friend and his subconscious. The exercise he described sounds a lot like one of my favorite prompts, which I will now share with you.

Ideally, someone else is supposed to read this aloud. It’s almost a form of meditation or therapy, but this will have to do.

Imagine you are in a place you know very well. It’s a place you find comforting and meaningful. Maybe it’s your childhood bedroom, your college Animal House-style living room, a church sanctuary, your old office (assuming you liked that job), or your favorite bar.

You walk in, and you are alone. It’s quiet and peaceful. But, there’s a difference: the walls are covered in pictures. Photos of friends, family, people you associate with a the place you’re in, and people who never set foot there.

One picture, in particular, catches your attention. You walk over and study it. It’s of someone you know very well, but haven’t spoken to for a long time. Suddenly, that person walks through the door.

Write the conversation you have.

#

(Iowa City, the Ivy House. The living room is crammed with furniture buried under layers of junk, jackets, and books. It smells like pizza, dust, and wine. Autumn. The back door opens, closes, and someone walks through the mudroom, kitchen, and library and stands in front of me. It’s Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees.)

SS: You know, we’ve never actually met. I don’t think this is really in the spirit of the exercise.

Me: (Aside to the audience in the style of Shakespeare or Frank Underwood) In the three years that my friends occupied the Ivy House, about twelve people lived there sporadically. They left all sorts of stuff behind, particularly the guy who occupied my room before I moved in. One thing that he left was this poster. At first it terrified me, but then Stockholm Syndrome kicked in. Three months later, when he came to collect his shit, I hid the poster and have had it with me ever since.

SS: I can hear you.

Me: The People need context.

SS: There’s really no context to explain why I’m here.

Me: Why don’t we talk anymore, Siouxsie?

SS: You graduated college. As imaginary friends go, I had some staying power.

Me: What does that say about my current state?

SS: I’m not going to speculate. So, what do you want to talk about?

Me: … Want to go to Uglies?

SS: Sure.

(Exit all. End scene.)

#

This is a great prompt to exercise writing dialogue. The idea is that if you write a conversation between yourself and someone you know well, the dialogue will sound more natural. That’s the trick to writing dialogue — you have to know your characters and their intentions well enough that they seem to you like old friends.

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Getting to the point

There’s a(n I assume apocryphal) story about Hemingway and Salinger’s first meeting in which the latter started to tell the former about the novel he was working on and Hemingway said, “Stop. Tell me in a sentence what it’s about. Otherwise, you’re not a writer.” Salinger responded, “I can sum it up in a word: incest.” That novel became The Catcher in the Rye, unsurprisingly.

For a long time, I used this as an example of why I really didn’t like Hemingway – that and the fact that he was an asshole and snobs bash you over the head with his Iceberg Theory in every writing and analysis class I’ve ever taken. In high school, I hated reading his stories and novels and it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I read The Sun Also Rises and realized, to my horror, that I liked it. Ever since then, I’ve been struggling with ambivalence about all things Hemingway.

But in the past few days, I’ve started to reconsider the advice he supposedly gave to Salinger. When I first heard it, it sounded like an extension of his whole philosophy of writing that if the reader can’t pick up on the subtext then they don’t deserve to get it. Now, I think I’ve found something useful.

My job is to write grants, and in most proposals there is an “executive summary” section where you more or less have to sum up the document in one or two sentences. It’s an exhausting, but rewarding and necessary exercise, because if you can’t do an elevator speech for whatever it is you’re doing, then: 1.) the people with money won’t give it to you and, 2.) you probably don’t have a firm grasp of what you’re doing in the first place.

Looking back on it, I think that most of my best stories, essays, and plays, I can usually pitch in a sentence or two. The bad pieces are the ones where I meander around the point for twenty pages wondering why I’m spending so much time on it. For that reason, whenever I’m stuck on a project, I have found it useful to step back and say aloud, as simply as possible, whatever the hell I’m trying to say.

Try it. It’s cathartic.

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Against Bad Reading Recommendations: If You’re Shaming Adults for Reading YA, You’re a Bad Critic

For the record, I haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, Twilight, Looking for Alaska, or If I Stay and many other popular YA novels out there, but that didn’t stop me from being appalled by Ruth Graham’s “Against YA.” Because I have read Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Charlotte’s Web, A Christmas Carol, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, guess what, those are all classics (a few are even considered to be that weird thing called the Great American Novel) and they’re young adult novels. Some are even (gasp) children’s literature.

I could go on, but so could everyone else reading this. You see, I love spec fic and I’ve had enough arguments with people who automatically assume it’s garbage to know better than to make lists. For every example of a lousy book you can go tit for tat with a masterpiece and vice versa. But, I admit that I just gave examples of the canon, just like Graham – but I think my argument is strong enough not to have to be propped up by Dickens and the Bronte sisters.

By now, I imagine Graham has gotten a lot of flack from the mob who shares my opinion, so let me be clear that my first reaction when I read the essay was admiration. She’s right – it’s now acceptable for adults to read YA, so her opinion is probably unpopular. I’m pretty sure what Graham was really getting at is that people should challenge themselves with what they read, and that’s good advice. But her argument is so patently bad that I can’t even begin to take it seriously.

If you want to encourage people to seek out good art, try recommending good art instead of attacking what you see as inferior. Fans of the latter will hate and ignore you, and advocates of the former will just agree with you more.

So, here are some things that are wrong with Graham’s essay – and, indeed, telling people they should be ashamed of their reading preferences in general.

For starters: assuming that any genre (or arbitrarily selected group like YA fiction, which includes a multitude of genres) has objectively better or worse aesthetic qualities than any other. That’s not just ridiculous, but lazy – and I’m tempted to dismiss it outright, but that would just be committing the same crime.

Basically, if you assume that any genre or class of art has intrinsic value by virtue of what defines it, either, 1.) you’ve got an agenda and are straw-manning whatever you’re criticizing by choosing the worst examples possible, or 2.) you’re being willfully ignorant. I can’t tell the difference between one death metal band or the other, but I have friends who are connoisseurs.  As I said before, in any craft imaginable, there will always be examples of crap and excellence. So I find all-encompassing statements like “… YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way,” as suspect, at best, and stupid, at worst.

(And, as a small and irrelevant gripe, I’m baffled by the statement, “YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.” Have you read Shakespeare? As a rule, comedies end in a bunch marriages and tragedies end in a pile of bodies. Is it any more unexpected that a lot of YA books have happy endings than a lot of literary novels have deliberately ambiguous and obtuse endings? Moreover, just because the conclusions may seem satisfying, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something there to think about. If I can find critical – though tongue-in-cheek – interpretations on The Cat and the Hat, certainly you can be bothered to accept a piece of writing on its own terms.)

But, let me step back a moment and entertain Graham’s actual argument that mature readers ought to have higher standards and read challenging literature. Okay, good, I’m with you. Yes, you should read books that challenge you. But just because you indulge in something light and entertaining every so often doesn’t mean that’s all you consume. What’s wrong with pleasure reading? I love playing Go, but I’m not ashamed of playing Cards Against Humanity (okay, maybe a little, but everyone does. Especially when playing with family).

But, apparently, mature readers must “… find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all.” I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly difficult to empathize with teenagers, and I’m just 27 (damn kids).

The crux of what bothers me is this: Graham isn’t just saying that YA books are inferior, but that adults finding emotional resonance in them are wrong to do so, that the sentiment itself is mistaken. I have a strong feeling that there is just something wrong with that analysis.

But, in the end, I have to admit that I agree with Graham. People should read what challenges them. If that means revisiting and reckoning with some of the most emotionally confusing years of our lives, what’s wrong with that?

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“The Man Who Killed James Dean” now available with Tincture

So, I meant to make this post weeks ago, but, well… no excuses.

Tincture #6 is now available in Kindle and ePub editions. In it, you will find many fine short stories, poems, and essays (and my short story, “The Man Who Killed James Dean”). Check it out. It’s good (Tincture as a whole).

Special Shout Out: I have published a few short stories now and all of my experiences have been pretty good, but I think the editors at Tincture are exceptional. They are courteous, communicative, and passionate editors. So send them your best stuff. And buy Tincture.

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