Laying Awake Part 1

Jill rolled over several times in her sleep, the blankets wrapping around her more tightly with each successive rotation. Her body was a flower-print cocoon while Jason, who had fallen asleep to a more-or-less equal division of blankets, was left uncovered and exposed. Now awake, he felt naked: Even with his flannel pajamas on.

Through a combination of pushing and pulling and tugging and shoving, he managed to free a tiny corner of a sheet that he could now stretch all the way across to the far-side of his navel. The way the black triangle sat on his red shirt reminded him of a flag which he couldn’t quite place. If Jill were awake she would have made him feel stupid for not knowing.  He couldn’t help but resent her for her unconscious, blanket-stealing selfishness. The room was absolutely freezing. Jason was positive he could see his breath if he tried:

Haugh!

Perhaps not, but it was cold.

Her muscles pulsated, clenching and unclenching at regular intervals. She had never been terribly musical, but Jason saw a sloppy rhythm in the way her body moved. His dog used to do the same thing when it slept. Jason’s Mother always said that it was dreaming of chasing a giant bone, but he never quite believed her. How could she know?

Jill once told him, speaking without a conscious sense of time or space, of her childhood love of horses. She would pull her brush through their manes until, caught on an invisible knot or clump of dirt, it would suddenly stop. But she would take it out and run it through, again. Again and again and again. Until it ran smoothly all the way through, each tiny clump and obstruction having worked itself out.

Jill turned over and faced back towards Jason, her upturned cheek a topographic map of her pillow’s many contours.

There was also Mr. Pettington, the owner of the stables A man who had always smelled faintly of manure and whose hands moved in a way that made Jill uncomfortable. She had brushed him too. Not his hair or his body, but his memory. Brushing and brushing and brushing until only the vaguest sense of the man remained.

Quick Addition to Joke Ownership

I wanted to add a few quick points to my Jokes as a Commodity post. While they don’t really change anything I said before, they’re at least interesting. Read the other post first!

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After reading what I wrote, a friend brought up Greg Fitzsimmons’ Bill Cosby routine to me.

Cosby’s comedic output is currently in a weird place: removed from recent public revelations about Cosby’s despicable behavior, his work remains highly influential and full of undeniably classic bits. Yet, enjoying it now seems almost impossible given what the artist is now famous for. Fitzsimmons has taken it upon himself to both honor the material and disrespect the comedian that created it.

In the middle of his sets, Fitzsimmons inserts classic Cosby bits. He doesn’t do a goofy Cosby impression or immediately explain what he is doing; he performs the material as if it were his own. He robs Cosby of his material and reclaims it as his own in a sort of fuck you to the comedian, while still getting some laughs out of the jokes themselves. The added tension felt by those aware of what’s going on forces the audience to confront the material as an entity separate from the man who wrote it. While not an example of how old work can respectfully be commented upon, this is a cool example of how a joke can be retold with a different intention and how that can change the audience’s reaction… all while retaining the joke itself.

Another thing I wanted to post was a pair of fun riffs on the classic Abbott and Costello Who’s On First? routine. This bit is so famous that no one would mistake any performance of it as being anything other than a loving tribute and these reworkings rely on your knowledge of that. Still, it’s fun to see how an old joke can be remixed and performed by others in new ways.

The original routine:

Jimmy Fallon’s take:

I’m not sure that this Fallon piece quite works. They might have had something if they had based the whole routine around Seinfield’s simple explanation, making it an anti-comedy piece where the humour came from how easily the original 8 minute routine could have been resolved. They also might have had something if they just did a straightforward retelling of the original with the added wrinkle of the players showing up. It wouldn’t have really provided much of a comment on the original but would have a nice tribute. But combining the two things didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Seinfield’s bit at the end is too brief to mine any humour out of the deliberate deflation of the premise and doesn’t add anything to their other changes. All it does is awkwardly rub up against them. The bit isn’t bad by any stretch, but its not great either.

I also hate how much of Fallon’s show is putting celebrities in sketches or getting them to rap or do something they’re not know for and acting like there is something inherently funny about a celebrity being in a thing. They always milk it as if we should be impressed that a famous person is performing something on TV.

Andy and Dino on Jimmy Kimmel:

I think this totally works, taking the anti-comedy approach that Fallon’s sketch flirted with at the end. The hard turns in Andy Dick’s performance are great each time, starting out with his open hatred towards Dino Stamantopolus, shifting into a jokey overacting sketch persona (after elevating the conflict enough to make this ring false), and then becoming suddenly violent in a strange merger of his in-sketch duties and out-of-sketch anger. He clearly hits Dino pretty hard too, making his actions feel like they’re not part of the sketch and making Dino’s visible fear as he continues through the original routine seem genuinely believable. The remainder of the sketch is in this weird nebulous place where they’re going through the motions of the routine but Andy is unhinged in way that is separate than how we’re lead to believe the sketch is structured.  The explanation of how the third base man is named Steve Idontknow not Idontreallyknow is absolutely hilarious too, drawing attention to the absurdity of the original premise while juxtaposing it with the dangerous intensity of Andy’s violence. Fantastic stuff.

My Writing is Bad

You may tell me its not, but it is.

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It’s far easier to be clever than it is to be good. The trap of being clever is one that most immature and unrefined art inevitably falls into and usually results in something that is interesting, but not exactly compelling. I find myself getting excited by the big ideas rattling around in my head and hurriedly cram them all into my work, but do so without taking the time to surround them with good writing.  I’ll craft a sentence and smugly think, “Oh, Ross!  You’re so dang witty!” while completely ignoring how poorly my supposed wit works in context.

Yesterday I wrote a short story about depression and being unable to get out of bed in the morning, the idea being that the narrator’s body refused to follow through on his requests. I wrote this paragraph in the middle of it:

There was no doubt about it: His whole body (if he could even still lay claim to it) was actively conspiring against him. All of his muscles were involved in a grand conspiracy with the sole goal of fucking him over and leaving him forever bedridden. It was an outright strike, with only a single healing wound willing to cross the picket lines…and no one likes a scab.

I think this paragraph is perfectly fine. The trouble was that it didn’t really fit the tone of anything else in the piece. Rather than simply deleting my cute pun, I tried to rework everything else around it and the result was…bad. I need to move my focus away from things like this and try to improve the rest of my writing: The actual writing part of my writing. My constant attempts to be cute are akin to spending my days painting beams without learning how to actually build a structure.

My writing at once requires a great deal of editing a great deal of fleshing out. On a per-sentence basis I tend to overwrite and put in lots of needless words that don’t need to be there. Chief among these are unneeded joining words (words like “however”, “therefore”, “surely”, and the completely unconfident “A sort of”). I use these as a cheap crutch to make my thoughts seem more connected than they really are when I should really just be reworking the sentences which these words are lazily bringing together.

Looking at full pages and paragraphs, my writing is too sparse. Characters serve as mechanisms  to deliver ideas and themes, but never feel real (this probably also has something to do with my desire to be clever). Nothing is given room to breathe. No one ever says or does anything that doesn’t directly relate to some vague theme. Even the writers I like who are criticized for not having real characters take the time to establish some more detail, to craft a moment, to do more than just move from point A to point B. I need to work on creating passages that are less action-oriented and let the reader sit back for a minute.

But I’m in no way discouraged! If I could see no room for improvement and couldn’t identify any areas that needed work…now THAT would be discouraging. So I’d like to ask that you, dear reader, try and be critical of me as well. Tell me what you don’t like! Tell me when things suck! If you think something is good by all means let me know, but try to branch out and tell me what could be better too.

And never forget:

Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.

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Leaks and Why You Shouldn’t Always Listen to Them

There is always a push and pull as to what content a creative person should and should not release to the public. Some people, taking a more punk-rock approach, release almost everything they make and let their audience choose what is worthwhile. Others prefer to be more selective, only letting their fans see the works they are most proud of. This blog is an attempt for me to move more towards the former. My perfectionist mentalities often prevent me from creating at all, so I’m forcing myself into being less afraid and push more things out the door. I want to produce content and not fall into old traps of reworking a single sentence for days. But what if there was a chance that every draft I made would somehow get out there? If that was the case, I probably wouldn’t even try to write on many topics I hope to eventually cover.

The Mountain Goats are a band who never seemed afraid to release content. Since their 1994 studio debut they have released close to 20 full-length albums and just as many EPs. Despite this approach, they chose not to release their 1995 album Hail and Farewell, Gothemberg: They simply weren’t happy with it. In 2006, this album leaked and is now available to the general public on many file-sharing networks. John Darnielle, the band’s leader and songwriter, had this to say on the topic:

I’m just kinda touchy about this subject, since it does seem like people often say, ‘Hey, if you didn’t want people to hear it, you shouldn’t have even recorded it,’ which is, as I say, pretty limiting to one’s creativity.

I couldn’t agree more.

A released Mountain Goats song.

After Elliott Smith’s tragic death in 2003, he had several posthumous releases. His family and those in charge of his estate put together his remaining material as best they could,  releasing some amazing stuff in the process. There were, however, several songs that they chose not to release. These too went on to be readily available on the internet to anyone who cared to look for them. I don’t know the content of these songs or why they weren’t released and I don’t care to ever investigate. It was not my choice to decide whether or not those songs were to be heard, and to act as though they are mine feels like a great disrespect to the artist’s family. However, this raises the question of whether some sort of statute of limitations exists in regards to death. What about when everyone who ever knew Elliott is dead? At that point is it still harmful to listen to his lost songs? If we found some 16th century poet’s diary we would likely be comfortable paging through it: This may be an extreme example, but it does illustrate a point. What about the comically vulgar and deeply personal love letters of James Joyce (1882-1941)? Has enough time passed to make the reading of these acceptable? I can’t say I felt bad about looking some of them over, even though his death was only 74 years ago. But, then again, I’ve never felt an overwhelming respect for the dead. In Elliott Smith’s case it’s really more his family I’m concerned about honoring. They are the new owners of his work, and I think it is their choice to decide what is allowable. For the time being, I intend to fully respect their withes. Perhaps my theoretical children (who I have no intention of creating: sorry, mom!) will be able listen with a more clear conscience than I can at the present time.

An Elliott Smith song released with his family’s consent.

Let’s turn our attention back to artists who are alive and kicking, as I feel far more confident in these matters: Many people take to blaming the victim in these situations. Just like when a nude photo turns up or someone digs up a sex tape, people say that it’s the creator’s fault. That they simply shouldn’t have recorded the songs or taken the photos if they didn’t want people to consume them. This is, in my mind, pretty fucking horrible. People have the right to express themselves however they want in their personal lives. They can record a song or take a photo, and then decide if they want you to have it, maybe even changing their mind several times in the process. By downloading it without their consent you are complicit in a breach of privacy and trust, and are performing an act akin to breaking into someone’s home and stealing their diary which they had considered one day turning into a memoir.

A middle ground also once existed where artists could try things out on stage and see how a test audience reacted. Comedians still generally test out new material on stage but, even in clubs with strict policies on recording the performance, videos still often get out. It only takes one person with a phone, not realizing the implications of what they are doing. Thus, performers now need to play it safer when debuting new material, knowing that it already needs to be at a level where they can accept the possibility of a larger portion of the public seeing it.

Go watch the 2002 documentary Comedian if you want a look at the process of comedians writing new material.

(Ignore the bits with Bill Cosby. I know they are unfortunate in 2015)

Since the Mountain Goats leak, John Darnielle has taken to destroying all masters he doesn’t like for fear of them getting out, and this experience surely stays with him whenever he wants to go into the studio to try something new. Perhaps he now records music which he is unsure of with more trepidation, knowing that it may one day make it out to the public.

I would like to kindly ask all of you to think twice before downloading a lost album or an abandoned project. It may not be in your right to decide if you should be allowed to experience it. To act as though it’s all there for the taking puts unnecessary constraints on future creativity and is a peak into someone else’s life that they never gave you permission to take.

And, in closing, here is beautiful reading of one of Joyce’s letters. Consider your position on such matters before watching:
Swooooon!