Author Archives: Wes Pierce

About Wes Pierce

Wes is a writer and editor, as well as a fifth generation Northern Californian.

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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Neglect of a Different Sort

Some years ago Philip Roth despaired at the dwindling number of what he called ‘real’ readers left in the United States, readers committed to reading serious books written by serious writers.

Back in the Day

Back in the Day

By some arcane system of his own devising Roth came up with an exact figure, one which I forget, but by his calculations there were only somewhere around five thousand of these ‘real’ readers left in the country.

Roth was reaching a point in his career where he was finding it harder and harder to see the point in writing books anymore. He also was mourning the loss, I think, in the importance of books and literature in American cultural life. But then Philip Roth has gone through several periods throughout his long and storied career (the awards he has received by themselves take up one full page on his bio sheet) when he was in despair over the nature of the book business.

Who could blame him?

Depending on who’s doing the telling, serious literature has been in serious decline for pretty much ever, a victim of benign neglect or communal and/or commercial indifference. And as many now know, Roth finally gave up writing altogether a couple years ago, and recently gave up (or so he says) reading, too.

Philip Roth threw this ‘five thousand readers’ number around for some time until a friend pointed out to him that while five thousand might not seem like a lot, if he was to line up all those people and have them pass one at a time through his living room, while he shook each of them by the hand, that by the time he got to the end of that line, Roth — any writer, for that matter — likely would be reduced to tears.

Neglect, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading

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They Probably Have a Very Long Word for It in German

Scientists in Germany recently have discovered that creative writing involves using various parts of our brains, your correspondents at the Dogpatch are not the first to report.

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Researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany strapped willing participants into MRI scanners to track their brain activity while writing creatively. And this new research into the neuroscience of creative writing discovered that a broad network of regions in the brain all worked together when people are turning out a piece of fiction, which may not be news to discerning readers of the Dogpatch.

But what may come as news is that the inner workings of professionally trained writers showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions like music or sports.

 

Magnetic Fields 

The researchers at the University of Greifswald could not let their subjects use a laptop to write with because the magnetic field generated by an MRI scanner would have hurled it across the room. So subjects had to lie flat on their backs, while their writing arm rested on a desk nearby, as they scribbled on a piece of paper clipped to a board set at an incline beside them. A system of mirrors let them see what they were writing while their heads remained cocooned inside the scanner.

Some of you may be asking how creatively a person can be expected to write while lying flat on her back, her head strapped into an enormous, humming metal tube, but what perhaps cannot be in question is the elaborate nature of the protocols employed by the scientists at the University of Greifswald.

Before having their subjects attempt creative fiction, the researchers first had them simply copy out some text, giving them a baseline reading of the subjects’ brain activity during writing.

They then had their volunteers simply think about what they were planning to write. During these ‘brainstorming’ sessions, some vision-processing regions of the brain became active, suggesting that the subjects were, in effect, seeing the scenes they intended to write.

Finally they had their subjects write creative fiction, and here the researchers found that other regions of the brain were called into play, including the hippocampus, that part of the brain which retrieves factual information.

There was also activity noted in a region near the front of the brain that is crucial to holding several pieces of information in mind at once, suggesting that juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

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But the researchers at University of Greifswald recognized a big limit to their study: none of the participants had prior experience writing fiction.

Would the brains of full-time writers respond differently? Continue reading

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Every Story Needs a Villain, Part Two

Last time, some of you may remember, we were discussing the lack of villains in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Hopefully by now you even may have seen some of these films for yourself.

But as a refresher let us review the stock Miyazaki storyline: A bratty young woman on the cusp of adolescence is cut off from her parents or her family situation and must find her way back home. Along the way she will come into contact with a boy about her own age, an ambitious dreamer, usually an orphan, who will help our heroine find her way back. And while our young heroine will appear unchanged on the outside to both family and friends, on the inside she will have grown as a person and become stronger and more able to handle whatever life has to throw at her; though by story’s end she will also be saddened, even a little disillusioned, by the outsize effort that has been required of her.

Now I would like to discuss the most recent novel by Richard Ford, Canada, and the ways in which one artist’s approach to ‘bad guys’ in his story can be so very different from another’s.

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In the story that it tells, Canada is remarkably similar to many of the films of Hayao Miyazaki: a teenaged boy is cut off from his family situation and tries to find his way home—only in his case there is no home to return to. However, and in contrast to Miyazaki’s work, there is a very clear bad guy who drives the second half of the narrative, and who brings about the requisite change in our hero that allows him to complete the journey that is the plot of the novel, as well as his life.

Like any good story, the stakes for the protagonist have to be high, as well as clearly stated, and Ford achieves all this in his opening paragraph:

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first…. Continue reading

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Every Story Needs a Villain

It’s an old saying: Every story needs a villain. But if you are a parent to a newly minted child, or even a not so newly minted one, then you are probably aware of the work of the Japanese filmmaker and illustrator Hayao Miyazaki.

The Man Himself

The Man Himself

And one of the more striking aspects of Miyazaki’s work is the (almost) complete absence of villains in his movies. The characters in his films come into violent conflict with one another and (frequently) with their natural environment; but regardless of the depth or violence of the conflict — and it is often visceral and intense — within the story, what is clear by movie’s end is that, though it might have seemed otherwise at the start, there are no clear-cut villains here. Why?

Because everybody has their reasons.

Even characters that lie, cheat, steal — even kill wantonly — by movie’s end will have been shown to be acting for reasons that make sense to them, and for that reason alone are in a way justified in their actions. And the final justification for any, and all, of these character’s actions seems to be that our environment, both natural and social, requires balance in order to operate properly.

An attempt by the end of each story to strike balance, both between the human characters, and between humanity and the natural world, seems to be a hallmark of all Miyazaki’s films.

The only obvious villain that comes to mind in the entire film oeuvre is the murderously efficient government operative Colonel Muska, from the film ‘Castle in the Sky,’ who by movie’s end — and quite unusual for any Miyazaki movie — is destroyed, killed off by his own plans. And what makes Muska so different from most characters in the filmmaker’s catalogue is that he openly works to pursue his own selfish goals of power and dominance at the expense of family and clan interests. Continue reading

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A View From the Inside

Click on the following…

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…to discover either an essential tool for any writer, or possibly one of the more damnable time-wasters yet devised.

Continue reading

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“A Work in Progress” – The Writer Responds

Hello from the Dogpatch. In a previous post, members of the pack commented on “A Work in Progress.” Here’s my response to that feedback. To see an excerpt and the original comments, you can scroll down or go to: https://dogpatchwriterscollective.com/2013/04/11/dogfight-a-work-in-progress-by-wes-pierce/

I have wrestled with story length throughout the entire gestation period of ‘work in progress’: too little content for a novella, too much for a short story. Yet the main thrust of your comments seems to be that you want to know more about these characters; want to see further development in the relationship between my feckless narrator and the fearsome convict, Shoehorn. And so, as always, it comes down again to that ceaseless battle for any writer of having to decide what to include and what to discard. James Joyce said (I’m paraphrasing here) it’s not what you leave in that makes a story great, but what you leave out.

And wasn’t it Donald Rumsfeld who said, ‘Revision is the soul of art’? Continue reading

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