Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal (Wedding) Pains - or - Stupid Rich People

Cover of "Royal Wedding"Cover of Royal WeddingLet's be clear about this: I have not been one of those obsessed with the Royal Wedding over the past few weeks, on either side of the argument. Like most people (at least, I hope like most people), I have found it exceedingly difficult to care in the least either way. Despite the news media's endless attempts to make this overwhelmingly non-event the major focus of every conceivable news cycle, I have remained blissfully unaware of much of the details, include the actual date of the event.

But then, this morning, I stumble downstairs and find my way to the coffee pot blocked by widescreen coverage of Will and Kate (wasn't that a sitcom?) riding around massive groups of spectators in a horse drawn carriage while Joe Scarborough and Mika Whatever whore themselves out with some of the most inane and pointless voice-over news commentary imaginable. "Every shot you see, every camera angle, has been specifically planned out far in advance." What's this you say? A wedding ceremony that was planned in advance? I am shocked, shocked I say, to find out that some sort of preparation was involved in a wedding that was being hyped as a major media event months in advance. Listening to these simpering pseudo-journalists strain themselves to fill the dead air behind endless footage of a boring carriage ride, even for the five minutes it took me to get my coffee and toast, was mind-numbing to say the least.

So now I'm pissed. Not at pointless news coverage; I'd have to be dense to expect anything actually newsworthy on a Friday Morning Show. But suddenly this whole concept of the Royal Wedding being an event to celebrate and feel all warm and squishy about inside fills me with contempt. Between America, still dealing with prolonged unemployment and an increasing income gap between the wealthy and working class as corporations continue to rake in record profits during the ongoing recession, and Britain, with its populace facing yet another round of severe Austerity Measures, you would think the idea of sitting around watching disgustingly rich people showing off with an extravagant elitist wedding would be met with a bit more resistance.

I can't blame the rich people too much. They are notoriously out of touch to begin with. Throw a rock (and be sure you throw it hard) and you'll hit some rich prick so lost in their own wealth that they can't even begin to comprehend the problems and concerns of ordinary people, let alone understand why they get so upset when their financial concerns are dismissed as trivial, or complain about paying taxes when they are currently paying the lowest tax rates in decades. Actually, I take it back. I can blame them.

But stupid, arrogant rich bastards aside, I would like to think that our news media would have just a tad more respect for their viewing audiences than what they are currently displaying. I'd like to think that I could turn on the news today just in time to hear an announcer say "In other news today, the offspring of an antiquated form of governmental rule held a lavish wedding ceremony in the face of worldwide economic woes. We would cut to video and show you more, but frankly this sort of pointless extravagance is a waste of time and effort to even assemble, let alone cover, so we're going to give you more coverage about government officials attempting to eradicate labor laws specifically designed to protect the working class, followed by advertisements for luxury vehicles and gold speculation."

That's what I'd like to believe is possible, that is at least an option considered by someone, somewhere within what was once an essential watchdog in service to the people. But then I look back at the weeks of news coverage of Donald Trump, and the endless hours spent by newscasters and commentators discussing Trump's actions and decelerations as if he wasn't a slightly retarded imbecile with enough business smarts to keep him solvent and out of jail, and realize that when it comes right down to it, the media would rather run around documenting the inane and ineffectual lives of stupid rich people instead of reporting anything substantial and meaningful. Because, after all, where are the advertising dollars in something like that? They're just giving us what the public wants, and since people are still tuning in, they seem to be right. I'm watching stupid rich doing back-flips for media attention because that's what my fellow working-class citizens want to see.

This is not a good way to start the weekend.
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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fireside Chat

Here's some video footage of my recent appearance at Warren County Community College, reading an excerpt from my short story, "Fireside Chat."

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rejection Junction

Classical ideal feedback model. The feedback i...Image via WikipediaI received a rejection notice this morning for a short story I've been shopping around. It's the sixth rejection for this piece, and I have been fortunate to receive personal feedback with all of them. Unfortunately, the feedback has not been unanimous.

Why do I say unfortunately? It all comes down to the problem of deciding which feedback to consider, and which feedback to ignore. This topic came up a couple of time in the creative nonfiction workshop I was involved with last fall, as many of the younger students were facing this dilemma for the first time. Primarily used to receiving critical analysis from one or two authority figures (teachers, professors) and general encouragement from less critical audiences (friends, family members), they now found themselves on the receiving end of often contradictory opinions and advice from a room full of people not only intimately familiar with the written word, but the creative process as well. It's one thing to have your friends read your work and either "like" it or "not get" it, but something completely different to be receiving in-depth critiques from a dozen or so fellow writers.

So the question would come up now and then, especially after a certain piece was rejected by some, but well received or praised by others in the same session. Which input do you listen to? In the case of my short story, exactly half of them have complained about the story's structure or format, while the other half have expressed interest and instead rejected it do to thematic differences with their publication's content (horror covers such a broad scope of fiction). So who is right, and who is wrong? The temptation, of course, is to side with my defenders. They must be right; I am a genius after all. They obviously don't "get" it. Then again, maybe the critical responses were right, and the editors that responded positively were just being nice to avoid hurting my feelings?

Both answers are actually false, but only because there is no simple answer. Maybe the editors that didn't like the story did indeed fail to "get" it. But then, one of the primary jobs of the writer is to make the reader "get" what you are trying to do, so their ignorance of the scope of your genius is no excuse. As for the editors lying just to make you feel good? Don't count on it. Editors don't have to be nice, and seldom are. That's not a knock against editors, mind you, that's just the way things are. If an editor thinks your work is a waste of paper, they aren't going to take the time to send you a personal response just to avoid telling you that you suck. That's what form letters are for.

A decade or so ago (God, I'm getting old), I spent a couple of years doing nothing but reading and reviewing screenplays written by other aspiring screenwriters on Zoetrope, and submitting my own work for others to do the same. It took awhile, but by the time I stopped, I had developed a feel for knowing which reviews to take to heart, and which once to ignore. It got to the point where I could tell if the criticism being offered was constructive, destructive, or merely misinformed. It doesn't always fall on the same sides as positive and negative, either. I've received glowing praise that I eventually realized was completely undeserved, and I've been sent intentionally hurtful, mean spirited, destructive criticism that actually exposed some true weaknesses in my work. They aren't always so Black and White, either. Valid feedback can often contain bad suggestions as well, waiting in ambush under the camouflage of good advice. Offering critical feedback also helps hone the writer's criticism survival skills. Give enough feedback on other people's work, and not only will you see others making the same mistakes you are making in your own work, but you'll also see how other people are handling aspects of writing that you are struggling with. But more importantly, you'll learn a lot by how the feedback you give is received by others.

I still remember one screenplay in particular, and thriller about a serial killer. It was bad. I mean... Bad. Not wanting to come off as mean, I took the time to write a seven-page response to the author, explaining not just what didn't work, but citing examples of other ways to do what he was trying to do, and even suggested other films (remember, we're talking screenplays here) that would show him what wasn't working. I put a lot of extra effort into my response, knowing that if I was going to be critical about this person's work, i should really make sure I knew what I was talking about.

The response was apocalyptic. An angry two-page response tore me apart - not my critique, but me personally. I was a bad critic. I was mean and hateful. I was stupid. He did everything short of insult my mother and threaten to beat me up. Other writers had read his novel (I shudder at the thought) which the screenplay was based on, where did I get off being so negative and destructive? I still own a copy of the screenplay, as well as my critique of it and his reply. I revisit them every now, a not-so-gentle reminder of the complexities behind giving and receiving critical feedback.

So which reviews do you listen to: the positive ones, or the negative ones? Listen to all of them. But listen cautiously, because positive praise can still lead you down the wrong path, while negative critiques might actually save your work.

Then again, it never hurts to send that short story out one more time for a tie-breaker.
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Friday, April 8, 2011

But Say a Man Does Know

Cover of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"Cover of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"But say a man does know. He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watches the slow agglutination of capital and power and he sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house... He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted... He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing he sees is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it's as plain as the shining sun—the don't-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can't see it." 

Jake Blount - The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Co-workers Suck

invoice between the plant Minerva and customer...Image via Wikipedia
"You forgot to check the phone number on the order against the one in the system. The one on the order is the client's new home number."

Oh! My mistake, I must have overlooked that. Thanks for letting me know, I'll be sure to keep an eye on that sort of thing when I'm processing invoices. Constructive criticism is important, especially when it leads to preventing future errors.

"If the invoice went out with the old number, and they tried to call the customer from the road tomorrow, they wouldn't be able to get a hold of them."

Is that what happens when someone calls a wrong number? And here I was living under the assumption that if someone dialed an old number, it somehow magically connected through to the person you were trying to reach in some cosmic karma version of call forwarding. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't taken the time to explain how the old phone number becomes noneffective when someone changes it to a new number. Granted, years down the road, with some worldly experience and accumulated wisdom under my belt, I might have eventually come to understand this universal truth on my own. But thankfully, you devoted the extra time, not to mention the precious live-giving breath afforded by your very lungs, to impart this wisdom unto me, increasing my knowledge, and making me a better person overall.

I mean, really? Is there any reason you couldn't simply stop talking after your mouth had already finished delivering all of the useful information it had to offer? Don't get me wrong, I enjoy being treated like fourth-grader with a learning disorder and having the common-sense aspects of cause and effect explained to me like I'm a complete moron because I overlooked a piece of information. It not only makes me feel appreciated, but helps the workday just whiz right along. However, in the future, when you feel the compulsion to talk to a fellow employee in the same manner you no doubt talk to your children, you might want to take a second to consider the scope of your planned monologue, mentally edit the length of your professional discourse, and make a conscious effort to stop fucking talking once all necessary words have left your mouth.
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