Archive for April, 2009
One concept that shows up constantly in the martial arts is the idea of the stance. A stance is a posture that you assume in order to practice a technique: a student practicing his punches will assume a horse-riding stance, a student practicing front-leg kicks may assume a reverse cat stance, and so forth.
Practitioners in the mixed martial arts often criticize this kind of practice, saying it is “dead”: the stances of a martial arts class seldom translate directly to anything one does in combat. They’re too formal, too broad, too stable to react to the ever-shifting conditions of a fight. But more traditional martial artists who know what they’re doing know they don’t train stances for combat, really: they train to build an instinctive sense of weight distribution that they can rely upon when they don’t have the luxury of time to check or adjust their weight. A traditional martial artist can learn a lot from a stance; however, if he tries to use these stances in combat without knowing how to make them live, he’ll only get kicked in the face.
I’ve been reading John Gardner’s excellent “On Becoming a Novelist” recently on commutes to and from the airport. For those who don’t know Gardner, he’s an excellent novelist (the writer of Grendel, which many of you may have read in a high school class at some point, among other things), as well as — even rarer — an excellent teacher of writing.
At one point in the book, Gardner cautions against two common habits in writing description. The first is what he calls “Pollyanna” diction: excessive use of phrases like “his broad shoulders” or “with a merry twinkle in her eye” or “friendly lopsided smile.” These phrases, he says, smack of an easy sentimentalism, and more to the point of a borrowed sentimentalism.
The second common habit is what Gardner calls the “disPolyanna.” This is the tendency to use language emphasizing how much life is shit. To quote directly:
Sunny optimism, with its fondness for italics, gives way to an ill-founded cynicism, also supported by italics, and “broad shoulders” give way to “gut level things” or worse.
Beware of Spider Jersualem’s instinctive gut-rage as much as we beware the flower church sermon, in other words.
Gardner’s point, I think, is that one should beware of dead writing: writing that stems entirely from a “stance” that may have once been useful in developing an authoritative voice, rather than from the truth of the situation being described. The difference between martial arts and writing, though, is that writers preparing work for publication are always in combat. There’s room for stance work in exercises and sketches, but the final product must have vision beyond a rough knee-jerk instinct to optimism or cynicism if it’s to be successful.
So what does this have to do with fantastic fiction, and with my writing? I think the fantastic genres are at extreme risk of both Pollyanna and disPollyanna style: writers glorying in the romance of the genre may fall into the first trap and writers recoiling from that trap may fall into the other. It is, maybe, so hard to come up with a whole world for one’s characters to inhabit that we often take up simple stances as a reflex, without inhabiting the worlds of our characters enough to describe them accurately. A risk indeed!
And for me: I write fast, and in the speed of my writing I often skirt around the frank vision necessary to avoid falling into a set stance. Fortunately, one always has the chance to edit. Now if only I could get myself to be excited about that as I am about finishing the next thousand words! More on that in my next post, maybe.
My first post here, and it’s late! Thank goodness Max e-mailed me earlier today to remind me that I’d promised to do a blog post.
When Max first pitched the name Substrate, I had no idea what it meant. I did some searching and found a link to the stuff that goes on the bottom of aquariums. (And while you could get philosophical about being underwater and the nature of the Jungian unconscious, I admit, I was thinking about fish poo.) Then Websters helped me out, and I got the idea of palimpsest, and steered away from the fish.
To tell the truth, it didn’t really matter to me what we were calling the writing group, what mattered was that, for the first time, I was going to *have* one. A real, local group with people who also turned in work on a regular schedule and who would push me and critique me and make me do my best was going to meet in real life. I was going to be a part of something bigger than just myself in my writing. And I was going to have people to hold me accountable for the writing I said I’d do.
So, to carry on from Max’s Sgt. Pepper, Substrate to me is all about getting by with a little help from my friends. Writing’s a lonely profession, and it helps tremendously to get an e-mail from Vlad trying to schedule our next meeting, or a note from Max about the query letters he’s writing, or tea with Michelle discussing a serial I’m working on, or a comment from Sarah on my lj talking about some project or another. Feeling like I’m writing in a community, rather than writing all alone, drives me to be a better writer — and, I hope, a better friend!
Whenever I learn a new computer programming language, the very first step is always to get the program to output, “Hello, world!” Since this is my first time blogging ever, I figure it isn’t a bad way to start off.
Hello, world. I’m a writer, first and foremost: while other kids doodled in class in high school, I wrote poems in the back of my notebook. Through almost every class, I’d be writing short stories, or working on that novel I’m going to get published someday. The only one who ever caught me at it was my sharp-eyed Pre-Calc teacher; the others always thought I was taking notes.
I’m also a gamer, an undergraduate computer science major, an artist, and probably a wide number of other things. I enjoy inventing myself. When I was 4, I was a magical princess trying to save her fantastical kingdom in the sky. When I was 12, I was a sorceress destined to save a planet full of dragons. When I was 13, I was an assassin living on the edge, who ultimately did save the universe. Nowadays, I’m still deciding which of my identities I want to embrace…but when I choose, you’ll be the first to know.
I write fantasy primarily, and while I’m focusing on short stories the poems tend to spring out. I’m hoping to finish that novel someday. I write because I love writing, and though I hope to be published one of these days, I mostly want to have fun with the stories I write. There are few things more amusing than having a full cast of characters traipsing through your head, telling you where your story ought to go. The best is when they declare that they’re going to go do -this- now, and your precious plot outline is just going to have to get over itself and get out of their way.
But enough about me. There’s plenty of other fine folks, waiting to introduce themselves to you…
One of my favorite Beatles moments is from the intro to Sgt. Pepper’s: “The singer’s going to sing a song, and he wants you all to sing along, so let me introduce to you, the one and only Billy Shears and Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band!”
I’m hardly Paul McCartney, but I’m here to introduce the band anyway. It’s been suggested that I talk for a moment about where the name “Substrate” comes from.