Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Few Thoughts About Charlie

A protest sign — both very Gallic and oddly charming — spotted at the massive unity rally in Paris earlier this month to protest the recent terror attacks there, read, in effect (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation, but I’m out here marching anyway.’

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And one thing you can say about the French: they know how to put on a protest.

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But now that all the dust has settled, and after it seems the entire world has paid tribute to the murdered writers and artists at the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo — I, too, like any writer or artist, would like to pay tribute to the lives of those poor, unfortunate staff members who worked there and died there.

And yet I too have very conflicted feelings about this very complicated situation.

I feel like I may be stepping into it by even bringing this up; but as the nation of France rushes with political unanimity into ‘war with the Arabs’ — as some of the French themselves are calling it — in response to the recent terrorist attacks, I can’t help but feel like we’ve seen this movie before.

And I thought perhaps now might be a good time to discuss the real-world, political ramifications of any writing, fiction or non-fiction.

 

I currently am at work on a novel with a small subplot involving a commune in 1970s California. This part of my story involves some rather sanctimonious individuals, the type of know-it-all, kale-eating Lefty liberals that people on the political right love to hate. If you grew up in Northern California, like I did, you know people like this. They are the humorless, holier-than-thou types that naturally lend themselves to satire.

Yet I find myself struggling to establish the right tone; I struggle to extend these characters some small modicum of respect — so that they will live and breath like any character on the page ideally should — and yet still let them do the same stupid, self-serving things that my narrative warrants and demands. I’ve been struggling with the tone of this section for months now.

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is, satire in freaking hard to do right.

Now my feeling on the subject is that if you’re doing satire right, you are upsetting the powerful, not the powerless. And when a publication like Charlie Hebdo, which prides itself on satirizing everybody and everything, goes after the sacred cows of Islam, the real targets for their abrasive brand of satire are, naturally, the radical imams and mullahs, the humorless ayatollahs, who deserve to be mocked.

Yet, in practice, the slings and arrows of Charlie Hebdo’s particular brand of outrageousness do not land that far afield. They land — with some real force — on the heads of much closer targets, those Muslims immigrants who live in the miserable, squalid banlieues that surround most major French cities. And anyone who thinks the French Muslim population has any genuine cultural or economic power hasn’t spent much time in France.

So when Charlie Hebdo publishes an image of the Prophet on its cover, they are hardly going after what real power there is in the Muslim world — say, the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

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Nobody Will Die, Maybe—Scaling El Capitan

The flickering headlamps halfway up the wall of El Capitan caught our attention as we stopped to look at the full moon shining across a meadow in Yosemite Valley. It was Saturday, January 3rd, 2015, and the climbers appeared to have covered about a third of the 3,000 foot wall since they started eight days ago.

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If you haven’t been following the story in the New York Times, two climbers have been planning and practicing the free climb ascent of El Capitan for the past ten+ years. This is now the real thing. If you’d like a better perspective of the size of this monolith and their undertaking, the NYTimes article provides a terrifying composite image showing the climbers on the wall.

Anyone see a parallel between this ascent and writing a book? Our advantage over climbers?

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We can’t see the size of the wall in front of us.

We’ve planned and practiced and tried and failed on numerous attempts. We’ve achieved smaller goals. We’ve said that if we don’t make it this time, there won’t be another. We’ve faced odds that would make a grizzly bear shudder, and still we are on that wall, refusing to give up. OK, so maybe we’re not facing death should we make mistakes with our climbing harnesses. For we climb WITHOUT harnesses.

We’ve got shredded fingers reminiscent of carcasses put through the meat grinder. We’re swaying in gusty winds. We’re facing the uncertainty of our uncertainties in the blackness of bitter, star-filled skies.

The night we saw the climbers, the moon underscored just how insignificant their goal was to the universe.

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But it was important to THEM.

So that’s what I take away from this effort. A refusal to give up. A determination to do something that leaves others shaking their heads in disbelief.

Why climb the wall? Because it’s important to ME. When it’s no longer important, I’ll stop.

Until that happens, you can find me taping my fingers, casting a shadow, tapping away, and laughing at the man in the moon and his distorted sense of reality.

That’s MY new year’s resolution.

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Leave No Character Behind

You know that thing about not putting characters by themselves too often because then it’s harder to have an antag in that protag v. antag equation?

Yeah, that’s not what this is really about, but I was thinking about how people always say that. Don’t put that character in that room by themself unless there’s a Bengal tiger in there for them to tame. That would be cool, having a friend who’s a Bengal tiger, but in the wild, where it could run free and maybe bring you a present of a fish now and then since there probably isn’t a Safeway.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThen there’s that thing about wanting to know more about the mother, or knowing too much about the mother. If it’s my mother, then god love her, you would have a dilemma, or I would have the dilemma, not to project this onto you. The point is that you could talk to her for a while and you’d know a lot about her but you wouldn’t really know anything about her. Interesting to try to capture that on the page. That’s also not really what this is about.

MeOr that one about how good fiction should read like it’s true. That’s always been a harder one for me to get my head around. I can be gullible, but I knew that Lilliput was a made-up place. And Tom and Becky in the cave? Come on! But there are those stories where we think, yeah, that could be true. I never related that question of the reader wondering about true-ness or lie-ness to my own work so much until I recited part of a story I wrote at an open mic. The story’s about this kid who’s trying to earn money to visit her dead mother’s grave site. She’s afraid of this mysterious guy in town, and she can bake. I know, good luck with that.

Anyway, at this open mic, my recitation went well, and despite being slightly older than my character, I successfully projected eleven-ish and people were touched. Afterward, this woman said how much she liked the story, and that she was from Minnesota and familiar with the setting. Cool. Then she asked if the story was true.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s made up.”

Her face fell. If I was writing this into a story, I’d write it that way without embellishment: Her face fell. She looked seriously disappointed, like she wanted to take back everything good she said about the story. Continue reading

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