Wherein the Author explains his return to
dry-marker exhibitionism in four tentative acts . . .
Can't you hear me talkin' to you
I'm callin' you one more time
All night operator, dial me a better line
--Bryan Ferry, "All Night Operator"
My mind is an antique room
There's overstuffed chairs and carpets too
Where nobody ever comes
It's a good place to run away from
And I'm runnin' from a love
With every step I take
And if I can fall for you then
From the last one I am saved
And it's a cold, grey, wet December
Shitty, shitty day
And I'm waitin' for another friend
Calling long distance again . . .
--Iggy Pop, "Long Distance"
Tap-Tap. Is this on? Testing . . . Testing . . . Can you hear me back there? How about over at the edge of The InterWeb? Give a wave if you can hear . . . Someone bring up the lights. Okay, a show of hands one more time . . . Good. Then let's get started . . .
Welcome back, friends, to the show that just won't end (though not for a lack of trying). However, don't expect too much--I'm still getting my cyber-legs back. The whole speed-lashed, one-draft-only, improvisational dictate of this place is so not what I've been doing for the past year. Which, on reflection, is probably one of the reasons I've wandered back here: A need to blow-out my screedy carburetor; to sporadically step back from the cooly meticulous prose I've been distilling during the past 12 months. To let 'er rip and wail strange music in the online equivalent of an after-hours club. Thankfully, the odd wisdom of Jim Steinman remains carved above the virtual entrance: Everything Is Permitted. (Speaking of which, did you catch what I did up there? Screedy. After so long, minting recombinant words with impunity feels so good.)
My book is in its Power Plant Reactor Phase--that unavoidable stage in any piece of writing. Go ahead and call it revision, but it's more like carefully adjusting nuclear fission control rods. At this juncture, the price of larking about with the novel is narrative meltdown--or worse. I've been working at an insanely granular level: Worrying about a word's syllabic stress in the context of its entire paragraph has sadly become business-as-usual.
What began with more creativity than craft (witness the early-draft excerpts originally posted here), has inevitably become a surgical exercise. Could it have evolved in any other way? Initially there were What and Why; now it's all about the How. I'm long past those heady moments where I surprised myself; where a character might suddenly say or do something that made me catch my breath. And, too, the swirling motivations and themes have all been neatly isolated and duly mapped. These days what happens is less problematic than how it occurs. But the real difficulty is that once again I'd like to be astonished . . .
But evolutionary arcs aside, How has also moved to fore because I'm an unapologetic structuralist. French culture is not my favorite by any stretch, but somehow Franco-Structuralism slipped into my Irish / Hungarian DNA. I can only imagine the genetic bouncer at Club Sheridan must have been momentarily distracted.
In the book, structure is as important as character--maybe more so; it's the place where most of the meaning resides. Arguably, the novel's been "built" from a nexus of patterns in the same way one can construct a song on top of a rhythm track. If the author/songwriter is skilled, a memorable narrative/melody emerges; one needn't start with a plot/tune. Not surprisingly, then, most of the novel's writing has progressed in the manner of multitrack recording: The outlines and visualizations that keep the book on course closely resemble the mixing charts of pop songs. It's this rigorous structuralism that further increases the already considerable time I spend sweating the How of the narrative.
But I'd have it no other way: This novel may wind up my only book and its potential perfection is inextricably linked to prose mechanics. However, at this micro level, quality control paradoxically depends on not getting too close to the writing. It's therefore essential to engineer some disengagement into the process. Which--finally--brings us back around to why I'm dusting-off this exercise in vanity broadcasting: On occasion, I need a place in which to go free-associative and free-range. A place for self-indulgence that might otherwise turn the novel into a mushroom cloud. On occasion, I need to not know what the next sentence is going to be. Like right now,
for instance . . .
A return to blogging was not my original plan. For a time I worked on a parallel writing project. Conceptually this was a good idea, but in practice it became problematic: Ultimately, there was too much thematic cross-talk between the two projects--which undermined the goal of creating a busman's holiday for myself.
And so here I am--working out aches in authorial muscles I've had little opportunity to use for almost a year. As noted, the self-imposed aesthetic remains in place: No preparation, one draft, cursory (and therefore inherently imperfect) spell-checking and then fearless-cum-foolish posting. In short, prose-as-live-jazz-solo. Miscalculation means embarrassing myself in public. But on the other hand, the glory of any real-time success belongs to inherent skill and not cautious, intermediating craft. I freely admit there's an aspect of my writing self that needs this artistic danger. And a blog--or, rather, my off-center version of a blog--is perfect for this sort of self-challenge.
And yes, compared to the consequences of 1500 words going awry, of course the book presents a far greater, ego-crushing threat. But it's currently a deferred risk: The necessary time lapse between writing and book publication makes it uncomfortably similar to my magazine work: One makes a joke in, say, the beginning of February and finds out if it gets a laugh from readers in mid-March. (This also succinctly explains the dearth of satellite-delayed stand-up comedy.) In one sense, writing the novel is a magazine column plotted on a significantly longer timeline: Make the joke in 2006, get the laugh somewhere in 2009. Or not--to the harsh accompaniment of shattering self-confidence.
But this mode of working is (theoretically) immediate. And the potential makes me happy.
So yeah--welcome back to the show that seemingly won't end. Even though I'm not sure how to proceed (and reveling in my bewilderment). In the past, this has been the David Bowie of blogs--entire raison d'etres have been shed without hesitation or warning.
CultureHack was originally a weblog about what blogs might be. Unfortunately years later there still aren't many interesting answers to my questions about virtual vox populi. Back then, I frequently wondered why blogs weren't seen as more than 'personal printing presses' or "citizen journalism" or Loathsome Teen Diaries. I asked why weblogs were constrained by previous, pre-digital communication models and suggested there was nothing stopping radical experimentation: Blogs as performance art; blogs as mediums for new kinds of hyper-fiction and--importantly--blogs as online white boards. Perhaps three decades in writing and publishing had simply left me unexcited and unimpressed by the prospect of People Actually Reading My Stuff Just Like I Was A Real Author.
Then followed a year when I was off elsewhere, writing a technology blog that allowed me to see if tech tips and Gonzo style could be productively combined. By the time I returned here, however, I was far less optimistic about the weblog format and less interested in pondering its future.
So I heeded my own pontifications--I decided CultureHack was actually a vast Gregory House White Board for temporarily thinking aloud in public. After all, persistent content is a cardinal blog rule merely to guarantee the continued viability of links. But if I'm thinking out loud for my own benefit, why do I care and--more intriguing--who's going to stop me from reaching for an eraser? Blog Cops? Loathsome Teenage Diarists operating as vigilantes?
Public discourse and intellectual generosity are often conflated in cyberspace, but here's a clue--they're not the same. Screw online heresy: One can passionately opine without any obligation to become (or join) a community. In a virtual world besotted with the marketer's wet dream of "conversations," there are still monologists. And I've always been a Spalding Gray kind of guy.
So I wiped away CultureHack (the Meta-Blog) and sketched-in CultureHack (the Societal/Cultural Rant). And natch, people did email to bemoan now-dead links to my posts--links mostly established without asking permission. But after 10 seconds of unconvincing, fake empathy, I somehow managed to live with myself.
Then, a few months later, it became a good time to begin the novel I had promised myself I'd write. Iggy Pop puts it best, "It was in the winter of my fiftieth year / When it hit me / . . . there wasn't a hell a lot of time left."
(And if I thought the sands of time were running swiftly back then, well, imagine their speed five years later; right now I seem to be in the midst of a veritable desert storm. But in retrospect, I made the right choice--art was the place to make my Theoretical Last Stand. After all, it was either write a book or have some sort of mid-life crisis, where I would feel a melodramatic need to locate my seemingly misplaced Bad Self. And at this stage, I'm so-not-into younger women only a little less than I'm so-not-into candy-apple red sports cars or swanning about Europe, smoking Balkan Sobranies and being Deeply Existential in my carefully engineered foreignness. Literally been there, literally done that---and perhaps I even had the tee-shirt at one time; due to my advancing age, I tend to forget . . . Where was I? Clearly, I've gotten rusty regarding this whole Sudden Tangent thing . . . Oh, yeah--writing the book: A good idea that's only gotten better. Art's been a fortress of Rampant and Unrepentant Peter Pan-ism, keeping me energized and creative, if not laid. But that's okay; I persist in thinking that I'm saving myself for Tilda Swinton. And, of course, once the book's published there will be the gaggles of lit-fic groupies--and I've always greatly appreciated older, bookish women. Personal To Tilda: Call me before it's too late . . . )
And so once again I reached for the White Board Option, using this blog to search for the voice of my protagonist. (After experimenting with every tone of voice imaginable, I finally realized the problem was the first-person perspective. And trust me, it was better to discover that here--instead of 100,000 words into a first draft. Ultimately, however, I did overhaul the view point at the third draft, opting for the more appropriately jarring second-person POV, but that's another story for another post.)
This pretty much brings us to the present. Until I wandered away to the Land of Massive Revisions, CultureHack had once more been repurposed--this time as a place where working drafts of the book could be presented and ongoing news of the book conveyed.
But now what? Well, for one thing, all the early-draft excerpts have been taken down, soon to be replaced with three near-final pieces: the opening of the novel, a section from the first installment of Tony's after-hours project and an episode describing Tony visiting Beatrice. With the book now close to final draft, these new excerpts will more accurately represent the larger work. See them as a kind of pre-emptive anti-marketing: If the near-final shards don't intrigue, it's almost certain the book won't be Your Kind of Thing. So in a way, I'm saving you $24.95--and yes, you're welcome. (The new excerpts will be posted over the next few weeks, my revision progress permitting.)
And that's it. For the moment I've got nothing else, but given time to think (and a few more claustrophobic days of Careful Narrative Tweaking), odds are I'll again need to improvisationally vent about something that will only become clear as the words tumble out. In the absence of consistency, change has become this blog's brand. CultureHack has always been about Making It Up As Needed, but it's only now that I understand the real driver is my need to make it up--to lay tracks milliseconds before a train of thought rolls through. And while this is no way to write a novel, it can be a much-needed counterbalance to the editing of one . . .