Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, December 07, 2007

Barnes & Noble

So there I was, sitting at my desk pondering a discount coupon from Barnes & Noble. (Okay, so it's not really a desk. It's a cheap folding table that I bought at Office Depot years ago. Emphasis on the word "cheap".) It was offering me 25% off of any item I buy from them. It came in the mail a few weeks ago, and it has to be used by Dec. 9. That's two days after Pearl Harbor Day, and just one after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Does that freight it with particular significance? Am I going to get dive-bombed or sent to hell if I don't use it?

Whatever, but I will undoubtedly let the coupon expire. I was excited when a Barnes & Noble store opened just a couple of miles from my house a few years ago. Yeah, I knew it was one of those chain stores that were managed like supermarkets, but it was a bookstore, and the only one even remotely close to my house. I should have known better though. It's not that I have a problem with the way Barnes & Noble puts the best sellers on that little table at the front of the store. Nor do I begrudge them the annoying special displays for the latest hot titles. They're in the business of making money after all. No, what really bothers me is the paucity of good books anywhere in the store. There was a time when you just might run across a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Wittgenstein's Tractatus in a run-of-the-mill bookstore. There used to be a section for fiction, and another for pop fiction. Browsing used to be fun. Not anymore though. The fiction is now all grouped together and, if I go looking for a novel to read, I have to pick through copy after copy of the likes of John Grisham, Stephen King, and Patricia Cornwell, to find anything I might even consider reading. It makes for a tedious browsing experience, and it's no longer any fun. It's much like stepping into a bar, only to find out that they only serve non-alcoholic beer. What's the point?

I guess I shouldn't complain about the inevitable though. Prior to the twentieth century and the invention of media like radio, television and the cinema, the only way you could get information was by word of mouth or by reading. That led to a privileged position for books. They became the repository of all culture. Things are different now. TV and movies are the preferred entertainments. Judging from the habits of some people I know, the cable channels are their source of knowledge about history, politics, and science. Hell, surveys show that a large segment of the young get their news from the Comedy Channel's Daily Show, which is nothing but a send-up of real news shows. It's no wonder then that books have come to assume a less important role in our lives. Those cozy little independent stores are unlikely to ever return. As for me, when I want a book that I can't find in the library, I now buy it from Amazon. For each book, they provide links to similar books, and to books bought by those who purchased the book you've chosen. It doesn't come up to browsing, but it's preferable to working my way down the spacious, well-lit aisles of Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Letting It Flow

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell isn't much of a book. His thesis is a simple one. Gut feeling or instinct, whatever you want to call it, can often be a very reliable guide to action. However, this instinct must be trained. Big whoop. Given this book and Gladwell's previous one, The Tipping Point, I get the impression that he trawls the social psychology journals for a topic and, when he finds one that strikes him, he goes looking for an angle on it. Fair enough, but he tends to be one-sided. He doesn't present any studies that might disagree with the point he's making. But, what the hell, this is pop science, not the real thing. I guess I shouldn't begrudge the guy for trying to make a buck.

There are a few interesting things in the book though. One of them involves improvisation. As Gladwell points out, improv actors don't go at it cold. It's not all spontaneity and quick wit. There are techniques involved and they are rehearsed. One of the most important is this. Accept all offers made. Here's what is meant by that. Consider the following hypothetical scene improvised by a pair of comedic actors. A: I'm having trouble with my leg. B: I'm afraid I'll have to amputate. A: You can't do that, Doctor. B: Why not? Notice that when "A" responds negatively to "B", he kills the forward energy of the scene. He's refused the offer. By asking "why not", B is essentially passing the ball back to A, in the hope that his response will get things going again. Here's a possible alternative, one where the offer is accepted. A: I'm having trouble with my leg. B: I'm afraid I'll have to amputate. A: It's the one you amputated last time, Doctor. B: You mean you've got a pain in your wooden leg? You get the picture. This time A took B's offer and ran with it. The scene rolls forward.

There's a lesson here for the writer, though the two actors are internal in his case. One is the imagination, the unconscious mind, that which generates the narratives with all their kinks and twists. The other is the critical facility or superego, that which passes judgement. This other frowns a lot and, when he intervenes to refuse an offer, it can mean an end to the flow of ideas. Then you've got writer's block. It doesn't really matter why the critical facility refuses the offer. It could revolve around a question of grammar or language. The imagination could have come up with something that the writer considers immoral or perverse. (To some of us that would be a big plus!) It all comes down to the same thing though. The critical facility is stepping in to say, this isn't proper.

I sometimes have to trick myself in order to give my imagination full play, and I've come up with a technique for doing that. Here's how it works. There are two aspects to creating a scene. One is to actually imagine the scene. You have to know what the characters are doing and why. You have to know where they are, what the key aspects of the scene are, etc. The second thing you need to do is to actually write about the scene that you've imagined. Some people can do these things at the same time. Not this cowboy. If I'm going to keep those dogies moving, I have to imagine a scene, and then, in a separate session, write about it. In the first session, I write in sentence fragments. I drop articles and mix tenses. I make deliberate grammatical errors. In effect, I'm so overwhelming the internal editor that it shuts down and lets the good times roll. Later on, I come back and actually write the scene. It seems to make a big difference if some time passes between these two tasks. A nap seems to have even more of a beneficial effect. In the first session, when the ideas come, it's like inviting a troop of ragamuffins into my house. In the second, my critical facility is like my haughty, English butler looking down his nose at them and saying, well, they're here, so I guess I'll have to try to make something of them.