Escapism

The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.

From Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was phenomenal.

Kavalier and Clay amazed me for all the reasons it will amaze you, but it also spoke to me as a writer who is beginning to discover that writing often serves as an escape.

Strong senses of observation and empathy are necessary for writing, but they’re also pretty excellent at making one notice what a stupid and depressing world we can live in, at times. Creating a world on the page has become therapeutic.

I’ve begun to find that I still enjoy the “escapist” books I read when young. Particularly I’ve been enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson lately, and I’ve been wondering why it is so difficult to find new stories of adventure such as Stevenson wrote. I don’t know why, and I think we need more. Kavalier and Clay is a good start.

Robot Butlers are Lame

Yeah yeah yeah, it’s been forever. Sue me.

I recently became very disappointed with science fiction writers when I read an article on robots learning language to describe their spatial surroundings. The article (a short, non-fiction one in Discover magazine) ended by saying that robots learning to build their own spatial awareness could be the first step in allowing them to navigate our environments better and act as servants or butlers.

Which is how robots are most often imagined in science fiction, to which I say: is that the best we can do? We write these stories about the most advanced mechanical system every created, indeed, we write about the creation of artificial life itself and all we can think for that created machine to do is make us coffee?

It’s not that hard to make coffee! What a phenomenal waste of technology, not to mention pretty lamentable lapse in imagination. To be fair, science fiction as a field is broad enough that someone, somewhere, has created a fictional robot to do just about everything. Still, science fiction writers are in some ways responsible for people’s ideas of robotics, and I don’t think I’m stretching to say that one of the most immediate images in the average person for a robot is that of a servant bringing us a snack (either that or the image of a war-bot killing people indiscriminately). This is sad, not only because we already do both of those things very well ourselves.

In real life, the highest calling for robots is currently doing things mankind cannot do, like exploring space or the deep ocean, tasks which require robotic traits, not human ones. The fact that we can build doohickeys to do these things is pretty phenomenal. Maybe because they already happen, though, they’re just less interesting to creators of fiction. Fine, OK, but science fiction writers, from here on out I expect your robots to at least be built to do things humans cannot do well. Say, balancing a national budget.

Bits from Books

There is some rhyme to the spelling of English words, though I find it hard to believe whenever I try to spell “rhyme” itself. The Great Typo Hunt informed me that double consonants make the preceding vowel short.  Hence scallions. Hence occasions. The double consonant means it’s NOT pronounced scale-ions, and the long “a” in occAsions points you towards the fact that there is no double “s.”

Also, the vast majority of US soldiers in Vietnam who were opiate users were able to quit their habit. Though causes could be multifarious, Cop in the Hood points this out to contrast it to the lack of success in stateside rehab programs. Neuroscience backs this up by pointing out the salience of environment when considering habits in human action. You’re not going to keep people off drugs if they return to the same drug-infested neighborhoods.

And lastly, a nice turn of phrase from a book that has plenty of opiates in it itself, The Honourable Schoolboy: “The crowd’s roar had gathered throat.”

Thinking about Typos

I’ve just finished two books that have me thinking hard about the world. Both were non-fiction. The first was The Great Typo Hunt, in which two friends travel the United States correcting typos.

The second was Cop in the Hood. Written by a sociologist who worked as a Baltimore City Police officer, Cop in the Hood is a heavy meal of well-researched stats and personal experience relating to being a cop and specifically to the war on drugs.

There’s much more to say about Cop in the Hood, but perhaps because I read The Great Typo Hunt immediately beforehand, I got to wondering about the quality of copyediting today. Leaving aside online writing, I would argue that books today are less well edited. Cop in the Hood featured five or six glaring typos in its 200 page length. I don’t think these were the author’s errors. Moskos wrote clearly, and in large part the typos were what The Great Typo Hunt called true typos: errors made while typing. (For instance, typing the word “is” when you wanted to type the word “in.”)

If I were Princeton Press, publisher of Cop in the Hood, I’d be embarrassed. In contrast, I also recently read a 1934 copy of Seven Gothic Tales. I did not notice a typo until 300 pages into the book.

So, my readers are generally very well read. Do you all notice a difference in quality of copyediting these days? Has our collective skill truly diminished? Is it just certain books, or certain publishing houses?

Year Old Flash

I prepped a story for the Pratt Contemporaries’ upcoming fiction contest without checking the word count. Rookie mistake. So, I’ve now set aside my 3000-words-over-the-limit story and have begun looking back through my old flash pieces for something briefer. I thought you all might like this little one:

Sue graduated high school at sixteen and college two years later, so when her daughter became the youngest woman to win Wimbledon (at 14), it was no surprise. Likewise, when Sue’s granddaughter lifted her head and spoke her first word just days after delivery, no one was surprised. Now when Sue’s granddaughter got pregnant at thirteen, that was a surprise.

Sold!

I write ad copy for a pretty cool company. I’m encouraged to be creative and it is, for the most part, fun. However, my word-geek does occasionally revolt, most often at the nauseating contradiction “saving while spending.” You cannot save while spending. They are mutually exclusive. That is like saying you ate while vomiting.

This is a disgusting image, yes, but the holy aura of spending could use a little tarnish anyway. Spending money isn’t your civic duty, as companies like to pretend. Voting is your civic duty. Spending is not our job, though it is often made to sound that we’re bad people if we live simply and limit spending.

Speaking of vomiting, I recently read an article about a woman who was so coupon-obsessed she bought dozens of bottles of mustard, even though her family doesn’t use mustard. That made me a little nauseous. She was saving 70 cents per bottle, but she was still spending 30 cents on what was, to her family, trash. Apparently this was on TLC, so maybe you saw it. So here you have a case of a woman so confused she’s not saving or spending properly, but twitching around in a disturbingly medical fashion like an overstimulated lab animal, another victim to the power of words. They should be careful with what they ask us writers to do.

The Literary Ludacris

The Literary Ludacris

No wonder the Inner Harbor smells.

Let me tell you something that blows my mind. In Baltimore, I see teenage kids do this all the time: they walk from the stoop they are sitting on or the bus stop they’re waiting at and deposit their empty soda bottle or candy wrapper in the gutter.

It is not the littering that dismantles my comprehension. If these kids were just dropping the trash where they stood, they’d be littering jerks – an annoying but easy to understand breed. But no, these kids walk over to the gutter, as if a small part of their brain said “I must find an appropriate location to place this trash.” And then another small part of their brain says “That trash can ten feet away will never work. The gutter is the best and most appropriate of locations.”

The fact that this is a thought process that occurs in the real world depresses me.

Food Writing

If you eat, or know someone who does, you should check out my food writing, which is now appearing once a week or so at BaltimoreEats.com. It is delicious.

The Blank Page! Horrors!

I’ve been doing some professional development lately since it’s a slow time in grant writing, and while reading a grant writing book came across a brief discussion about how to deal with fear of the blank page.

The book suggests creating an outline to deal with “that dread of the blank page that we all experience.”

Except I don’t experience it. Do you? I want to hear from my fellow writers. I think this is a legitimate fear I’ve simply trained myself out of. I’ve certainly find blank pages daunting at times, since they’re clear indications of how far I have to travel, but I feel like the aquarium driver who no longer fears sharks. They’re just part of the workday.

So, fellow writer folks, do you fear the blank page, or have you grown beyond this? Are we all steely-nerved professionals, able to stare unblinking into the white void that terrifies so many mere mortals, or is it just the caffeine and booze that gets us through?