Friday, January 30, 2009

Step One

An essay I wrote for a composition theory class concerning my personal methods of how the fuck to write an essay. It got an A.

Step one: ensure you have a hard copy of the assignment in a condition that can be easily read. This is also step two and step three, and is of critical importance – it doesn't matter if there's a copy of it available online, or if you know for a fact that you've got a copy of it sitting in your email. Ensuring that, at the very least, you're capable of beginning work on the assignment is one of the few aspects of writing that shouldn't be procrastinated upon – in my experience, there are few things nearly so terrible as sitting down the night before an eight-page paper is due to write it and realizing that you don't have and cannot access a copy of the actual assignment. During the week leading up to a written assignment of any length, I'm likely to check and make sure I've got the document in my bag at least once each day. This has the added benefit of planting and replanting the raw concept of a due paper into my mind each day, as it's difficult to resist the compulsion to quickly read over the assignment sheet each time it's pulled out. The over-awareness of the looming due date combined with the constant reminder of topic creates an urgency and thought process that I find to be nearly essential in composition.

The second component in my process is the collation of data, whether it be in the form of hard research, stupid anecdotes or critical segments of fiction. This is the first phase where a steno pad becomes critical, both for the recording of relevant quotes and pages numbers, but also as a method of forcefully extracting from my brain ideas and the phrases that they could be used in. I find that hand-writing at least this segment makes for a more natural flow to the prose, and I find it easier to connect and introduce quotations when I can hurriedly sketch out two or three or fifteen versions and see each of them before me. Although this can be done on a computer, automatic formatting and space restrictions limit the amount of digital real estate that you can dedicate to it.

This second area of pre-writing focus is also important as it allows for time specifically devoted to gaining a thorough understanding not only of the various works that will be included in the paper, but how to structure my interpretation of those works in the context of the assignment. Although my interpretations of works, particularly those that fall under the category of fiction, tend to be wild stabs in the dark that occasionally find their mark, I find that it elevates my level of confidence sufficiently so that I can complete the assignment. We'll return to this concept later, but for now self-assuredness is assured.

Thus we, or I, move into the structuralization/development phase of the essay. This is where a series of physical items non-related to the subject matter become critical; cigarettes, an ample supply of coffee, a steno pad, and a Pilot Precise v5 RT (black) ensure comfort and the immediate satisfaction of physical urges that would otherwise drive me away from the craft. The creation of a thesis and major talking points is also established during this period. Although not always succesful, I've found that if I can establish even two or three major ideas to work into the paper then I've already completed half of the work. Generally, the remainder of ideas will be generated during the actual writing process and done electronically.

Sometimes, after the first, black-ink-written draft of the thesis statement is complete, I will immediately jump into typing what will become the sword of the first draft. I'm also prone to, on occasion, write ten to fifteen pages of prose on the steno pad before proceeding to this. I've found that this isn't really something that I can plan and is directly related to my level of confidence with the material at hand – if I know my game well enough, then I can burn through the grunt work of writing the essay quickly, whereas if I am unsure then I can and have spent hours slaving over individual sentences. This phase is also where cheap beer can become hugely beneficial, provided I take care to clean up the style when sobriety returns.

Writing free from a planned structure is a double-edged sword. When I'm sure of what my major ideas are going to be and have them planned out, it becomes a mere matter of filling in the colored lines with the right color of crayon until completion. The unfortunate aspect of the pre-structured essay, for me, is that I have a more difficult time connecting the points together, and I often myself writing three to four sentence paragraphs just to connect the two ideas when a closing sentence should have been sufficient. This issue is entirely sidestepped when the majority of the prose is undecided and is written as the paper develops; the flexibility of being able to place major ideas where I find they integrate the best allows me to write a far more fluid essay than the former method.

I've found that the freehand, write-it-as-you-think-it sort of crafting is more suitable towards essays of this nature which require personal reflection and independent analysis of fiction or poetry. I've also found that the structured approach tends to work more in favor of rigid, data-interpretation-style essays, and those works where the presentation of the right information was more important than the presentation of the right prose.

Throughout the actual hammering process, I will pause after every couple of sentences and after every paragraph and read the previous few lines aloud; I find this to help immensely when determining not only whether or not the sentence works, but also for the tone that it conveys. Too snarky, too ambiguous, too elitist? I have a tendency to glaze entirely over accidental tone shifts when merely reading, and speaking the words aloud helps me to identify problem areas and correct them.

After the bulk of the essay is completed (which may or may not include the introductory paragraph – it can be a personal wild card for me when I find that I'm prepared to write this), I read over it twice in it's entirely, correcting grammatical and structural errors while attempting to clean up the prose. After this, I find something else to occupy my mind for a short while. This is inevitably one violent video game or another, and the pulverization of digital people into digital bloody pulp provides exactly the sort of release that I need to focus on the final, and arguably most challenging, part of the essay: reading through the damn thing again and again until enough errors are repaired to convince myself that there is little more than can be done with it.

Which is exactly when it gets printed, another cigarette lit, and read again. After I've decided that I'm content with essay, I complete my final adjustments and begin formatting. Since high school, I've preferred to save this part of the craft for last. I despise the way that double-spaced typing appears and find that formatting as I write distracts me, and I've come to enjoy the final formatting process – it feels like finally striking the death blow on an internet dragon, and it's almost as rewarding.

At a certain point during this process, music becomes integral, and must come in the form of enclosed-style studio headphones. Typically, the draft stages tend to have music focused around a beat and certain varieties of hip hop work excellently for this; for example, the initial writing process of this essay was done to Viktor Vaughn's Vaudeville Villain. As the essay developed and my typing grew quicker and more confident, the music changed into the substantially more aggressive and suitable death-metal stylings of Wolfchant. This path is rarely deviated from; although the bands change, the tempo and type of music rarely does. Slow, steady music is excellent for laying down foundations and creating bricks, whereas purposefully angry and fast music is great for essentially filling up space. The other wonderful function that it serves is a bolster of confidence; it's quite easy for me to lose steam midway if I've got nothing to listen to, but by allowing myself to get heavily into the music keeps my spirits quite high. This is high point is, of course, completely destroyed when I decide that the paper is complete and submit it for grading, but I've yet to find anything that can allay that trauma.

Drug Addicts, Con-Artists, Thieves and Liars: The Modern Writer

Essay I wrote for a composition class concerning the mass-media representations of writers-at-large. It got an A.

Drug Addicts, Con-Artists, Thieves and Liars: The Modern Writer

Every word an implement in a vicious, pitched battle, chosen carefully and placed optimally to ensure optimal effectiveness, I write not to establish concept but rather defend idea and notion. The front is ever-present and watchful – the mind and mentality of the audience, accepting for nothing as given, is a force that must be compelled in one direction over another. I find few things so engrossing and entertaining as the persuasion of other people through the written word, and it is by the road of the written word that I intend to make my career. There are multiple paths to achieve this end, and, with that in mind, I chose five films that I felt effectively demonstrated five separate branches of my chosen road.

Although Nick Naylor, the central character of Thank You for Smoking, spends little time either composing or delivering pre-written speeches, his career is entirely focused on the persuasion of targeted groups of people. As the Vice President and chief spokesperson of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a special interest group whose mission it is to determine whether or not a link exists between cigarette smoke and lung cancer and funded by large tobacco businesses, it is his job to ensure that the public gets the “correct” information that cigarettes are perfectly safe. Regardless of the quality of the information or the methods by which it's presented against him, Naylor is able to effectively spin the story so that it directly benefits the cause of his company instead of damaging it. Slick, crafty and clever, Naylor – and his job function – appear to be nearly as beloved as they are despised. That what appear to be one of the most gifted rhetoricians of the world in which Thank You for Smoking takes place works for a blatantly evil corporation speaks to common misconceptions that the real world has about those that can cleverly tell lies and twist words into distorted half-truths; slippery at best and morally bankrupt at worse, lawyers, politicians and charismatic businessmen are viewed with a healthy skepticism.

Thank You also tends to emphasize the masculinity of the position. Naylor's closest friends, both male and in the employment of equally evil companies, are chauvinistic. The female counterpart to the fast-talking Naylor is Heather Holloway, who plays a reporter that's actively working to achieve a fair story of the chief spokesperson. In order to manipulate her way into as much information as possible from Naylor, she begins to sleep with him, suggesting that she couldn't intellectually compel him to provide it – suggesting, even, that her most effective weapon, perhaps as a woman, was not how bloody clever she could be but rather that she had no issue with objectifying her body. Although the film doesn't otherwise actively suggest that women are inferior to men in this capacity, it's important to note that charismatic business people, politicians and lawyers are predominantly male.

While exhibiting his characteristic crazed and somehow ultra-lucid charisma, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was credited with the invention of gonzo journalism, which can best be described as entirely subjective, ground-level journalism. The biopic Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson tells the story of the development of his craft, and follows him through encounters with Hell's Angels, the infamous California-based biker gang, the lead up to the 1972 election, and a series of sports reporting for Rolling Stone. Abandoning objectivity long before he began being published, Thompson wrote with clear intention in mind, tailoring his word choices and structure to convey specific ideas and influence his audience. Although his credibility as a reporter was questionable at best, his ability to persuade, argue and write his way into the minds of his readers was and is striking. Thompson, however, did little to allay a common conception of the writer; drug-addled, anti-authoritative, and only occasionally coherent, he displayed to the world the raving voice of a lunatic. This, coupled with other Beatnik-era writers from the previous decades like William S. Burroughs, created the popular image of the ink-stained and half-crazed author.

Jack Torrance of The Shining amplified the level of madness portrayed by Thompson tenfold; not content to merely be eclectic and outspoken, Jack Nicholson's character instead becomes completely delusional and, by film's end, filled with an incredible and murderous rage. Trapped inside of what seems to be a haunted luxury hotel for an extended winter with no company aside from his (boring and whiny) family and nothing to do but work on his novel, Jack Torrance goes completely batshit insane. His madness culminates in the last segment of the film, as his wife, Wendy, finds the manuscript that he's been slaving over for months. Instead of words, she finds a mantra, repeated in various formats throughout the manuscript, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Following this is the infamous scene in which Nicholson hacks down the bedroom door with his axe and growls, “Heeeeere's Johnny!”

For better or worse, the vast majority of writers don't go insane. At least, not homicidally insane – some, like Steven King, might write about killing people a great deal, but it's rare that they actually start doing so. Just the same, the notion of a writer dealing with cabin fever and severe writer's block tends to be slightly creepy and being around a writer in this state is understandably off-putting to just about anybody. Writer's block has become nearly synonymous with the creative writer, especially in film and television. It's a bizarre occurrence when an author found in the media is actually producing something, and this tends to be flatly contradictory to people in that field in real life. Writer's block can be a terrible thing, but the majority of novelists and poets have long-since established methods of breaking blocks and even avoiding them entirely.

A young Will Shakespeare, working on the comedy-turned-tragedy that will soon by Romeo and Juliet, begins Shakespeare in Love in a similar situation to Jack Torrance. It is not so much the crazy-murdering-psychopath aspect, but very much the writer's-block – at least, until he meets the cleverly named Viola de Lesseps, whom he quickly falls in love with. As a result of this love, the young Shakespeare is overcome with inspiration and begins to work feverishly on what will become one of his most widely-known works. The young Shakespeare, characterized by idle daydreaming and easily overcome by idealism, represents another key aspect of the craft - the poet - the writer dedicated to ensuring that not only should language convey ideas and sway minds, but also that it should be beautiful.

Although Will fits the mold of the archetypal poet, actual generalizations of poets tend to be somewhat inaccurate due to their wildly varying nature in real life. From personal experience alone, I've encountered the typical melancholy, somber-always-serious sorts, the happy-go-lucky and painfully chipper ones, and the professional, pretentious and ever-sort-of-smiling folks. The universal truth to media representations of writers, particularly creative ones, is the universal fun made of them; irrelevant and antiquated relics of a dead age, they often bear the brunt of jokes directed at English majors. Except for the now-clich├ęd question asked of all English majors: “What in the world are you going to do with an English degree, lol?” The greatest inaccuracy of Shakespeare in Love's presentation of this archetype is that it actually gets an audience.

While poets in popular culture have the tendency to be seen as pointless, another field of writing receives nearly as much mocking; that of the critic. The possibly-unfortunate truth of the role of the critic, however, is that of audience; typically reaching, in a modern setting, far more people than the poets, critics often end up being outright despised by far greater numbers than creative types. As it turns out, people generally don't like being told that their work, whether it be in film, music, theater or gaming, sucks, and fans of those works don't particularly enjoy being told that their beloved Twilight sucks. In the animated television show The Critic, Jon Lovitz provides the voice – and more than a little personality – for Jay Sherman, “New York's third most popular early-morning cable-TV film critic." 1 Jay represents the film/art-elitist critic that people read even though they despise; even his physical bearing, diminutive and unattractive, is unpleasant. Unfortunately, Jay also demonstrates that terrible aspect of criticism in which nothing is analyzed and gut reaction is his only guide; “It stinks!” is not a criticism of the movie, it's a bland statement of opinion with no support structure behind it – it's worthless. Although there are certainly critics that fall into the oversimplification camp, there are yet still many that will spend five hundred words examining the peculiarities of the cinematography of the film. While some people enjoy archaic and off-kilter references, ivory-tower elitism, and the evisceration of works of poor quality, others tend to absolutely despise these.

Jay Sherman, as is typical with media representations of critics, is a male – so too are the journalist, novelist, playwriter, and PR-thug - and it's little wonder; in a world that is dominated by male figures, it comes as little surprise that the general idea of a writer in American culture is almost ever-masculine, particularly when that writing is conducted on the public and/or professional level. Films like Thank You for Smoking do little to alter this stereotype, placing women almost entirely in either subordinate or sexually subversive positions, reinforcing the illusion that men are best suited towards that line of work, and even suggesting that in order for women to attain positions of power and prestige as writers of any kind they must sacrifice their dignity. Although Viola de Lesseps from Shakespeare in Love was absolutely integral to the formation of Will's masterwork, she finds herself in a position approximating that of Heather Halloway in Thank You for Smoking – inspirational and critical to the creation of the work, but never directly involved in the final project and entirely subordinate to Will and his whims. Wendy Torrance plays essentially the same part in The Shining – although her subordinate/inspirational position is labeled as mother/caretaker/loving wife, it serves the same purpose as that of the other leading females mentioned.

Unfortunately, the trend in film to favor the creative prowess of men over women seems to be at least partially reflected in aspects of real-life writing and rhetoric. As mentioned earlier, the majority of publically seen politicians and lawyers are male. Certain genres of literature, particularly that of science fiction, tend to be the near-exclusive domain of men, and although there appear to be more male than female authors in general when perusing the shelves of a local bookstore, the disparity between the two is perhaps not as extreme as tends to be suggested in the media. According to the Borders website, of the 10 best books of 2008 according to “The New York Times Book Review,” three were published by women.2

Representations of writers and speakers in the media tend to be both damned and praised. Will in Shakespeare in Love is a heavily-romanticized image of a playwright/poet; dark, tall, and irresistibly attractive to the women present in the film, he approaches, appropriately, the archetypal bard, able to enchant and delight audiences with little more than the words of his mouth and a sly smile. The slick and clever character of Nick Naylor is impossibly quick on his mind, able to deflect the harshest and most damning criticism of his organization and cite obscure studies without breaking his roguish grin. The true-to-life picture of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson painted by Gonzo is often anything but glamorous, and often seems to be making a caricature of the writer and dissident – the heavy drug use and rampant alcoholism would suggest, to most people, an incapacity to function on any workable level, but Thompson manages with a gritty and half-delirious determination.

Writers tend to be a pretty varied group of people – and only seldomly do they meet the standards of the media. Many of them, particularly the creative types, tend to be tortured sorts, seeming to thrive on misery and trouble. Even on the campus of this school there are dramatically controversial and outspoken members of the press, exhibiting (if they weren't arguing in favor of the status quo) an anti-authoritarian and independent attitude in both writing and personality.

Due to what seems to be an inherent, random quirkiness of personality that comes from the capacity to write well, it’s fairly easy to satirize writers. Due to the broad spectrum, racially and economically, of poets, novelists, essayists and academics, they tend to be a fairly diverse crowd – it's a pretty safe bet that if you throw a knife into the crowd, you're fairly likely to hit somebody with a joke. NPR shows, particularly those on the weekends, seem to delight in poking fun at the field, presumably because a great many of the broadcasters and radio personalities went to school for English and inexplicably found themselves working in public radio. My personal favorite comes from Prairie Home Companion in a recurring skit called P.O.E.M. (Professional Organization of English Majors), where Garrison Kiellor pokes fun at various aspects of the field and all of the futility contained therein.

In personal experience, the writer/rhetorician position as portrayed in the media tends to be more romanticized than anything else. Due to a conflict of interest – that being that pretty much everything seen via the mass media was written by writers – it's difficult to determine if the field gets the same sort of treatment, whether positive or negative, as other fields. Over the next decade, we're likely to see a spat of films with villainous Wall Street executives cruelly gambling away pensions and football players running illegal dogfighting rings. But writing a series of controversial plays, pissing off the royalty, contracting syphilis and engaging in a spectacularly hedonistic lifestyle? Fairly likely, even if it was already done in Libertine. Are we likely to see a film that actively damns a writer, painting him in realistic and negative terms and not fetishizing his drug use and disregard for authority? Citing artificial sources in the New York Times? As unlikely as Hunter Thompson dying a natural death.