Friday, March 4, 2011

A "Public" Challenge to Myself

Ten days of unbroken creative productivity stretch before me this morning, with no plans to travel, tackle household projects, or work in the conventional sense of fulfilling obligations having to do with my job. My plan instead, much as it would be if I were traveling to a writers' compound, is to generate creativity in all the manifold varieties that have interested me of late, from revising existing short- and long fiction, to generating new stories, to uploading movie reviews to YouTube, to finishing the mock-up copy of a new board game.

The problem is, I haven't in the past been all that adept at leveraging large blocks of un-competed-for time, into the things I'd like to do -- it's always been easier when the act of creating meant that some sort of icky-work was being given the finger. It's a very real concern, though heaven help a person if he tries to articulate it to the five-day-a-week crowd, whose retinas are likely to detach from the force of the involuntary eye-roll. Creative aspirations mostly don't inhabit enough authority to permit leaden concerns about low-productivity but -- here's the thing about that -- it's only because most creative aspirations never translate into production. At all events, what galls me already on this very first morning of the ten days, is the prospect of waking up next Monday having wasted them.

What should the goals be?

Well, it might be worthwhile to start with what they *shouldn't* be: I'd love to say, "upload ten movie reviews and re-write ten short-stories," but, c'mon, we both know that isn't going to happen. Clearly the permission I've recently given myself to flit from one, quarter-finished project to another, with utter self-indulgence, has helped to generate a lot of new material. But, equally clearly, the more ambitious things I'd like to do aren't going to wear well in the absence of an ability to sit down and tune everything else out. A happy medium between the permission to flit and the need to get "serious" would yield the most satisfying results. If only it could be found.

There are always short-stories. There are good ones and bad ones, new and old, experimental and linear. None of them will ever find their ways into even the most lightly circulated, all-on-line literary journals, if I don't polish and mail them, at some point. Moreover, in one of the creative arts' most personally frustrating paradoxes, it turns out that having a small assortment of successfully published short-stories is all but essential to those seeking introductory credibility in *completely* *different* *fora*, such as full-length fiction, narrative non-fiction, and literary criticism. Just what it is about a person who has proven that he can write a 3,000 word story about a girl being pushed around by her father, that merits the reading of his 110,000-word travel narrative through eastern Europe, I won't presume to ask. Any more than I have already. At all events, getting a few stories to the point where they might not embarrass me from someone else's slush-pile is an outlet that carries the potential of two-for-one progress.

I also want very much to continue to review movies on YouTube and, more specifically, to hone my still-clunky approach to the point that a full review can be devised, written, filmed, and uploaded in a single day. (At the moment each review takes between three and five times that much time -- a tempo that will devour everything else I'm trying to do and leave only a tiny and lightly watched YouTube filmography in its place.

I've lately been thinking about another "series" of blog columns, not unlike the countdown of my hundred favorite movies from two summers ago, this time ranking various travel destinations I've either seen, or plan to see. This is a bigger project than it sounds, though, as the countless thousands of you-must-see-this-before-you-die places out there would have to be archived more-or-less exhaustively, then somehow ranked despite the fact that I haven't seen them all, then photo-documented (largely using google images), and then, of course, written about. It's a fact I mention far too often to my ever-shrinking circle of friends that the list of my hundred favorite movies ran out to 135,000 words -- roughly twice the length of a standard trade paperback. A big commitment to make in service of something unlikely to be read even by most of the personal support network who dutifully plow through all the rest of the crap with which I've been so cavalier about cluttering-up their minds.

The full-length manuscripts are harder to face, of course, and even more so because there's more than one of them. Should a person who has in his possession a fractious first-draft of two different travel narratives, two different novels, a full-length historical commentary, *and* a textbook, really be giving himself permission to spend the next ten days flitting from genre to genre, from medium to medium? Or does such a person risk waking up fifty-five years old at the end of those ten days, and no closer to the unwavering macro-goal of conventional publication? For that matter -- with the recent news that Border's, too, will be largely disappearing over the next few months -- does the goal of conventional publication even make sense anymore, if it ever did? Will there even *be* conventional publication, by the time any of these full-length documents are truly ready for the healthy skepticism of a double-blind audience? I wish I knew: The eye-roll factor isn't small here, either, but the fact of the matter is that a decision in either direction, with respect to working on the full-length stuff, could result in a deep regret at having squandered the window.

At the other end of the legacy-vs-immediacy spectrum, what of the political blog commentaries? There has rarely been a more fallow time in which to write about the grave and rapidly deteriorating state of the political narrative in this country, but on no small level is this also the problem: I haven't written hardly any political pieces over the past -- what, year? -- precisely because the genre is so fallow with pulsating outrages that to write about any of them would cripple my humor for the rest of the subsequent day. On the other hand, of all the writing I've ever tried to do, this is the one area where, when I was doing it, there actually was an anonymous, not-doing-me-any-favors following. If ten days' creative efforts were instead to lead to ten days' copious production, and zero audience, would it really be production, or just masturbation?

This is a non-rhetorical question, and one for which I think both potential answers have merit. Creative effort for the sake of itself can be thought of as the only "true" creative effort (and the only motive that leads to good work, since it isn't hamstrung by pointless nods to some unseen "market"). The analogy that often gets made is to playing the guitar -- in that the owner of a guitar can derive rather a lot of personal satisfaction from playing only in his own company. Hence the movie-reviews on YouTube. Nobody's looking at them, and I can honestly say that I don't care: Their one-man audience likes the way they're coming out. On the other hand, few among us can say with total self-honesty that they would find themselves fulfilled after-the-fact by a creative resume that had never enjoyed the validation of a formal third party. In this respect is writing far closer to composing music than it is to playing. Sure, if I compose a symphony that no one else ever takes sufficient interest in to play, I've still made something -- at least on paper. But have I really fulfilled the goal with which I set out to ruin a hundred and twenty pages of score? Probably not.

None of these various possibilities are actually being tackled either by angsting about them, or by typing these very words of angst, of course. (Just thought I'd beat someone else to it, thanks.) Without further ado, then, here is what I consider to be a realistic, sufficiently multifaceted, and yet weighty enough set of goals, that fulfilling all or most of them over the next ten days would leave me satisfied that I'd proven to myself once again that I can, in fact, sit still and make something.

1. Final revisions of four existing short-stories. Make no mistake: That's a lot. Indeed I have often felt that the job of revising a short-story is, if anything, more taxing than the job of revising a full-length document -- since any single word that doesn't belong in a short story, or belongs but needs a synonym, or jars in any other way, will call disproportionate attention to itself. If a really good novel is a cathedral to the writer's talents, then a really good short-story is a Faberge egg. Still, they're not going to revise themselves, and I have specific-enough ideas for how to fix, and where subsequently to market, four specific titles of mine (Cat-Bus Bill, A Walking Tour of Downtown Chicago, Swisstime, and Tripticks), that dropping four-dozen envelopes in the mail on March 14 would leave me feeling like the week had been an unqualified success, even if I hadn't done so much as a load of laundry in the meantime.

2. Four new YouTube movie reviews, uploaded.
The question of whether there will ever be a YouTube subscriber following for my pretentious, synopsis-heavy dronings -- about *existing* movies, you understand -- is probably at this point a settled one. But you know, I can't help myself: I just love talking about the movies I love. There's another benefit, too, quite aside from the palette-cleanse this radically different activity offers when the sound of my own short-story voice becomes more strident company than I can bear, in that it's one of the few activities chronicled on this list that is emotionally *POSITIVE*.

Most writing is dire, even when it's not being written by someone who is mostly dire in his real-world interactions, the way I am. By protecting some space over the coming days for an activity that celebrates my deep and abiding respect for the world's great filmmakers, I'll be giving myself the chance to think optimistically about all the human race might be capable of, even after destroying the Wisconsin teachers' union.

3. Completion of the board-game prototype.
Only a few close friends know of the idea I recently devised for a board game -- because, of course, this is the outlet that carries with it the highest smirk-quotient. It's not quite as bad as inventing an alternative-fuel car engine in my basement, but then again I don't own a basement. Still, one of those close friends is improbably well-connected to some folks who've made a lot of money on a board game of their own devising, and anyway the chance to step away from the computer all together and play with tag-board and an exacto knife carries the thrilling appeal of a total gear-shift, *and* the chance to take for a spin my insurance policy's emergency-room deductible, at the same time.

4. Re-outline All-American Town.
Of all the full-length documents I've ever created, this experimental fiction manuscript wins the contest for Most-Likely-to-be-Published, going away. There's only one small problem with that observation: In its current form, it is a self-humiliating *mess*. It needs a new plot, new attention to characterization, new characters, basically it needs to be re-written from the ground up. To do so over the next ten days would be impracticable all by itself, but to map out the plan for doing so is by no means out of reach, and best of all this too can be done without the use of a computer.

5. Final revisions to the first chapter of both travel narratives.
No one who doesn't already know me will probably ever see either of my travel narratives; the genre was one of the first casualties -- at least commercially speaking -- of the internet revolution. Why would anyone pay fourteen bucks to read my bland, dishwatery descriptions of the un-exotic places I've been, when they could read someone else' s for free? Well, I don't know the answer to that one. But I can't help thinking that there is one.

Over and above those same, affirmative reasons for wanting to write about travel as with movies, both of the travel manuscripts happened quite by accident to feature prominent and intensely personal through-lines. Each of them is, in other words, the one thing that travel narrative so often isn't: A story. And if almost no travel narrative is being published anymore, the same cannot be said about narrative memoir that tells a good story. Just as revising the short-stories affords the chance to force-multiply the same time by creating something *and* advancing my bibliography, so does working on the travel narratives afford a double-whammy of scratching the itch to talk about those experiences, while simultaneously bucking a bad trend in what used to be a scrumptiously enthralling genre.

6. Final draft for my inaugural "moth" submission.
A local friend of mine approached me recently about co-founding a Gainesville-area installment of "the moth" -- in which people from the community gather to read and listen to short, non-fiction accounts from their own lives, in the spirit of, say, David Sedaris. I am of course deeply honored to have been asked to share in the administrative duties of such an undertaking (indeed one could argue that nothing on this list is as potentially fulfilling as carrying-off such an event and then watching the whole thing from the front row). But over and above this honor is the prospect of dragging out from the dark recesses of my own hard-drive a series of narrative shorts I've written over the past several years for an out-of-town equivalent called "Lip Service," and seeing if a slightly less restrictive word-count might render them a little less fractious and unreadable. I'd like, specifically, to have my own selection for our as-yet-unscheduled first show, buttoned-up and in the can by the time I go back to work.

What to make of such a list? Well of course the first thing to make is a pretty-big laugh, since there's no real way that all of this could even remotely be tackled in a mere ten days. But as those who harbor equally insistent compulsions to make things outta nothing would know, a funny thing happens when one makes lists like this with an explicit awareness at the outset of just how impossible it will all be: It ends up not mattering, as long as the list serves as a continual reminder that, as ever, the clock on the wall is ticking.

I've never been good at losing track of time; indeed the inability to do so often gets squarely in the way of... well, everything else. But lists like this one offer another of the happy media this column seems now to have really been all about. Yes, there are all these things that I'd like to do, the list reminds. Yes, there is less and less time to do them in, even now. But no, that is not itself sufficient reason to waste any more, spinning in the sand about how much has passed and how little is left. After all, nothing will get crossed-off by fretting over how it could possibly already be eleven o'clock on the morning of the first day. Or, by the time I've spell-checked this, eleven-thirty. Nothing will get crossed-off by fretting over that, either.

Wish me luck, everybody.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

5 comments:

roy said...

Do we get to vote? If so, I would choose #5--the travelogues. They are great--or were--until they were edited to death. I think that getting something actually published would be the highest peak of self-esteem that could be generated in a mere 10 days--given that there probably will have to be some laundry done.

The Key Grip said...

Have a good time in The Galapagos, *roy*. :-)

"roy" said...

okay, so I got "made"

Nokaj said...

Hello: You left the following comment on my blog about a month ago.

"May I make a suggestion? Your spreadsheet showing the complete tables of contents of all previous editions of BASS would be *invaluable* to people trying to determine to which short-story market to send their stories, if the journals in which these stories first appeared were also listed next to the authors' names."

I have followed your suggestion and the journals now appear in the database. You can sort the "publication" column and the journals will be grouped together. Thanks for the suggestion. - BTW, it looks like The New Yorker and The Atlantic take the #1 and #2 spots.

The Key Grip said...

Wow, *thanks*!