Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Month: January 2010

I just caught a tweeted link to this blog by Mitch Joel on publishing and blogging.

Those of you who’ve read my “The Trouble with Blogging post know that this is something I’ve been thinking about. Hell, it’s part of the reason I’m doing an MBA.

Right now, I’m teaching my students about structure and plot using Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone as a demonstration of a Hero’s Journey plot archetype. Reading it, I’m rediscovering just how excellently Rowling hits every plot point and necessary element note for note, from the Call to Adventure to the Crossing of the First Threshold etc. Harry Potter is really an excellent example of someone who becomes a hero; he certainly doesn’t start out that way. Yesterday, while teaching, I was asking my students what makes people heroes. What do we look for as a demonstration of heroism?

One mentioned worthwhile purpose, and intention.

Continue reading

So if I’m now doing what I want to do when I grow up, does that mean I have?

When I got the call that offered me a position teaching fiction, I was staring down a fork in the road. After this semester, I’ll be a mere few courses shy of an MBA, and one of those courses is a capstone, which I get the impression is a demonstration of the proficiency I have acquired by way of my courses.

I decided to earn the MBA because while I learned some great things about craft and writing in USC’s MPW program, the courses I took concerning the business side of things really set me thinking and made me want to learn more. I hear too many stories of too many writers who concentrate solely on one word after another with no concern for audience and how to reach it. And while I think that strong writing and good stories must be one’s primary concern, the thing about strong writing is that writing is a form of communication. It is meant to convey a particular idea from one party to another. It’s not just about the words, but what those words are conveying, and by extension, to whom.

I think it’s detrimental to a story to neglect that. Any story. Writers must consider to whom and for whom they are writing, as those aspects, I think, must be part of the why they are writing; if not to convey information, if not to transport a reader, if not to entertain and excite, what, precisely, is the point? Don’t take me wrong; the ideas conveyed may be for some purpose, to convince the reader, but still, both reader and purpose must be considered.

Which is why marketing and branding fascinate me. I have always liked stories that strike on a visceral level, stories that, for some reason or other, somehow transcend the words and the pages so that the stories take on lives beyond both writer and reader; stories are the halfway point in culture where tellers and their audiences meet, and like all halfway points, there is much power in them.

Before I digress too far, however, my dilemma: three courses left for a general degree, only a couple more than that for specialization–I’ll be done by next May at the latest, and probably sooner.

And what to do then?

I haven’t had a corporate job since I stopped working at a small publishing company in South Jersey a month before I left for USC, and one of the myriad reasons I had to stop working was that I could no longer fulfill my end of the employee contract. I would say the corporate lifestyle of set hours and salaried wages doesn’t appeal to me, but really, to whom does it?

I love marketing and branding and advertising, though. I thought I might be able to usefully apply what I’ve learned in my business courses beyond my own writing career by trying to find work as a copywriter in ad agency, eventually working my way up to creative director. Of course, a position like that requires much experience, which requires many long hours working for clients. I’ve been in that position before, working with Kraft and Sony and Campbell’s. I won’t say it’s not fun. I can’t say it’s not fulfilling.

But there’s writing.

There’s always writing. I tried for years not to do it. I tried to find other things I liked to do as much.

And then, at USC, I did. I still remember the moment I was standing at the reception desk as the gym where I was working, mostly folding towels, when I realized I’d like to stand in front of a class. When I considered how interesting it might be to teach. At the time I envisioned a fiction workshop.

In four semesters, I’ve gone from teaching freshman composition to teaching core fiction. And this fiction course? It’s a dream. I walked out of the meeting during which I talked to the chair about the books I hoped to use, and I was giddy. I literally jumped and clicked my heels. Because I always heard that’s what people do when they’re happy, and so I made it a habit to do so when I get great news.

I’m only a few days in. I’m still teaching Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I’m using as an introduction to elements of story like structure and plot, as well as to outline the Hero’s Journey as explored by guys like Joseph Campbell and George Lucas. So far, I’ve been relating it not only to Star Wars and The Matrix but also to the big myths, the real myths, like the stories about Baldur and Christ.

So far, I’m having a great time. I’m hoping my students will ultimately say the same. I’m hoping they’ll learn some new things about fiction.

It’s been validating enough that I’m realizing I need to retake the general GREs and then take the subject one, too, because, okay, fine, yes, I want to get my PhD. I always avoided it because I never thought I’d find a place in academia, but maybe I don’t need to. Maybe it’s worth enough that I feel like I can say the same thing about a chalkboard and a roomful of students that I always said about a keyboard and a screen.

Give me those things, and I’m home.

To be imagined in a Pikey accent, a la “Snatch.”

Yesterday’s Manhattan sky, looking north from Macy’s.

Not a book deal. Yet. Hopefully soon there. Querying and such.

Sitting there in Miami airport, which currently has free Google wifi that doesn’t actually work, or didn’t on my iPhone. My phone goes off with a number I don’t have stored in my contacts. Usually I let such calls go straight to voicemail. Usually it’s a creditor or something. I’m a writer, so payment due dates are like deadlines, both of which I love for the whooshing sound they make as they shoot past.

I’m glad I didn’t. It was the chair of the English department at the college where I’m currently teaching composition. Or was teaching composition last semester. There’s been a lot of alteration to my schedule; when they asked me onboard, they offered me two classes, but they only had one for me by the time the semester started. I took it anyway. This semester around, they’ve switched me out of not one but two classes. I get it, of course; there are a lot of other faculty members who have been there for ages, so seniority gets dibs. I’m still a new guy, only having been there for a semester, and it’s not like I’m tenured or anything. Technically, in fact, I’m still an adjunct instructor, and not a professor, even though they still call me a professor.

The chair told me there was good news and bad news. The bad was that they had shuffled me out of the composition class. I was disappointed by this; they had begun me in one only to shuffle me into the second-half of my first semester class, which I was actually looking forward to as a challenge; I’ve never taught a two-semester course. Never had any student for more than one semester.

The good news, though, was that they had a prose fiction course offered. Which is, like the composition course, a part of the core curriculum, but which is an actual literature course.

This is ludicrously exciting for me. Then again, I’m a giant geek, so of course it is.

I’m leaving in a moment to discuss the syllabus and book choice with the chair. So far I’m hoping to use a few stories by Poe, one by Hawthorne, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Stephen King’s Night Shift and Different Seasons collection (for my money, the finest collections ever published, in any language), and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I think this will work. I know Gatsby will fly, and I saw a few other syllabi include both A Thousand Splendid Suns and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, both of which are rather contemporary and the former of which is decidedly popular (if not exactly genre), but I have a good feeling.

I have a great feeling, in fact. This is gonna be fun.

Edit to add: All books approved. Also given a big book of short stories I can select from. So there’s my week/end.

Overlooking Montego Bay. Will probably upload more at some point.

What a difficult list to compile. Especially since, glancing down at my iTunes running, there are 33,773 songs in my library. According to iTunes, it will take me more than 100 days of continuous listening (with no sleep, now I realize) to listen to them all. It’s rather extensive, and it’s the sort of collection that makes my taste in music suspect at best, beginning as it does with A-Ha (because any collection without “Take On Me” is incomplete) and ending (before it reaches songs without proper ID3 tags and lumps them all) with “Skin Up Pin Up” by 808 State/Mansun from Spawn: The Album (iTunes is the first organization system I’ve seen that puts numbers after letters, rather than before; if it did, the first songs would be by 1 Giant Leap or 12 Rounds). In between those few, there’s everything from Rick Astley, Belinda Carlisle, and Bon Jovi to all of Clapton, the Beatles, and Sinatra.

So it’s pretty expansive.

But expansive as it is, I tend to stick to some favorites. Lately it’s been a lot of Wolfmother (and Jet; what is it about Australia that inspires such great rock music from its bands?), Vanessa Mae, and, as always, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. Also, Adam Lambert and Matt Wertz.

So there’s a lot. But I winnowed. I winnowed after I kept reading other lists that fawned over, like, Radiohead and such. I mean, has Radiohead ever managed to be as good as Pablo, Honey? They’re like Pearl Jam and Matchbox Twenty, with fantastic debut CDs but output that has gotten subsequently less terrific with each title. For me, anyway. Your listening may vary. Also, dear Rolling Stone: The Strokes and Wilco in number 2 and number 3 spots, respectively. No offense, but seriously? No wonder people debate the continued relevance of the magazine. I mean, how safe.

Why not stretch a bit? Why not reach for some choices few people would expect? Then again, this from a guy who doesn’t really enjoy any of those three bands. I know lots of reviewers fell over themselves to heap a lot of praise on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but there wasn’t a single song on it that made me want to listen to the CD again. I get the impression it’s all just, like, hey, everyone else likes it, so we should, too, but to cite one of the artists who earned a spot on my list by way of a great CD, “You don’t know what love is, you just do as you’re told.”

So, suspect taste noted, shall we? My top ten albums of the last ten years, in order:

Continue reading

This past decade may have been the one that most changed music, both as an industry and in general (will we even have albums anymore, at the close of our new decade?). Apple introduced its iPod in 2001 and then its iPhone in 2007, both of which helped the Cupertino-based company located at One Infinite Loop become the largest music retailer in the industry. Before we go on, let that sink in a moment: iTunes Store is a larger retailer of music than Wal-Mart or Amazon. Part of it is convenience—the iPod dominates the digital music player category, while the iPhone continues to grow as a cell phone—but there’s more to it than simply that people just want something to plug in and forget. It’s changed browsing, publishing, and exclusivity, not to mention access; more musicians have more access to put up their music. It no longer takes the likes of Sony and BMG to reach an audience; now, anyone with a microphone and a guitar can record their music in their basement and charge a buck a track to anyone who wants them.

Which is not to say that anyone with a microphone and a guitar should (although at times it’s sounds like many have and still are); as with movies and books, few people ever want to believe they’re just not that good at what they want to do. Most publishers, be they of music, movies, or books, want the general public to believe they act something like gatekeepers, which may be one of the biggest PR con jobs in the history of people making stuff up for other people to enjoy.

But the past ten years have been really good to music. Spectacular, even, with introductions to fantastic new bands and new releases from ones we hadn’t heard from in a lot of years. So good a top-ten list is tough, and again, filled with lots of CDs that very nearly make it but either way certainly deserve a mention as elevens. In no particular order:

Continue reading

30th Street Station, Philadelphia, PA. Close to, anyway.