Drawing a Blank

I’m on the road again today, so none of my usual handy-dandy visual aids.

That’s okay, though, because today is actually all about coming up blank.  As in white, empty, unmarred, nil; lights-on-but-no-one-home writing failure.

It happens to all of us.  Every once in a while the spigot just won’t turn.  A few stiff drinks can sometimes loosen the pipes, but that just lends itself to all sorts of other negative trends in life, so skip it.

So instead we have all these hokey little brain-jogger exercises floating around the internet.  I suspect some of them have their origins in primary school classrooms.  Take, for example, the wrenchingly cheesey yet almost elegant “drawing a blank” method, a literalist twist on the actual problem wherein you draw a blank square (or other shape, I suppose) on a piece of paper.  As in create boundaries for your frustration.

All got it?  Have we done it yet?  Take your time — I want you all ready for the next part.

Now fill that shit in.  Doesn’t matter with what.  Words out of your head if you can get ’em.  Random squiggles that you just like the shape of if you can’t.  Make the blank space not blank.

I can’t tell if the sneaky part is reducing your writing-related goal for the day to an exercise a very small child can manage (thereby tanking away the fear and frustration of literary impotence) or creating such a literal metaphor that your brain can’t help but be convinced that it has, in fact, stopped drawing a blank.  But either way it works much better than something so cutsey should.

Your own favorite drawing-a-blank solutions?  Two or three good blog topics went into my head and right back out of it as I was driving and therefore unable to scribble them down, so I could sure use a good brain-jogger.

Remember Remember, or, How Writing Has the Power to Make People Get Their Shit Really Wrong

Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta has a lot to answer for.

If you live in a major metro the odds are you saw someone wearing one of those smiley masks on Saturday?  That’s because Saturday was Guy Fawkes Day, which up until recently most of us Americans thought of as some sort of weird early-Thanksgiving-in-England, and the black-and-white mask is a “Guy Fawkes mask,” with the ugly little ‘stache and goatee of the eponymous terrorist.

This guy. Get it? "Guy"?

This year it was also apparently “bank transfer day,” a Facebook-page-organized protest movement urging people to withdraw their money from large commercial banks and transfer it into credit unions or local banks.  The goal, according to their Facebook page, is to “ensure that these banking institutions will always remember the 5th of November!!” [punctuation sic.]

Their logo.

My only explanation for the Guy Fawkes imagery-and-association is V for Vendetta.  The comic — and, more importantly, the movie it spawned — feature a protagonist who wears the Guy Fawkes mask, and is also a reasonably big fan of blowing up buildings, which your average liberal-on-the-street finds kinda heart-warming when it’s born of some kind of romantic notion of an anarchic state where we can all wear goofy masks and just plain get along rather than, say, ushering in a papally-dominated Catholic monarchy even more repressive than the existing one.

Which, y’know, is what Guy Fawkes was actually all about, and is why they still burn him in effigy on Nov. 5th in England. Sometimes along with a little Pope in a pointy hat.

So this is the power of literature, here.  Were it not for a comic book (turned major motion picture) about a radical anarchist in an imagined, oppressive future-state, we would not have protesters (to say nothing of hackers) currently wearing goofy masks to symbolize a genericized rage against the machine that has nothing to do with blowing up buildings for a religiously radical cause.

Or maybe that is what they’re all about, deep down inside.  Who knows.  Maybe next year it’ll be Osama bin Laden masks.

Too soon?

So write — but write carefully.  The history you re-interpret may just be the history a howling mob re-interprets, some day.  If you’re very, very lucky.  I’ll just leave the comments page for people upset by the Guy Fawkes/bin Laden joke, shall I?

The McRib is for Weenies

I guess my thesis statement is pretty clear today?

I’ve been on the road the last couple days (dropping O Best Beloved off in Chicago and then driving back, a process that saves something like $300 in almost-guaranteed-to-become-beer-money even after gas and food and is therefore worth the extra hassle) and as a result I’ve been eating fast food, something I almost never do.  But when I do do it, I like to go all-out.

So color me unimpressed with all the televised fuss about “the return of the McRib!”  Seriously?  Let’s lay all our cards on the table here, kids.  The McRib weighs in at 450 calories and a wimpy 37% of your daily fat requirement.  A third, really?

Pictured: a sandwich for PUSSIES.

I’m sorry.  Your newscaster has lied to you.  This isn’t a fast food phenomenon.  It’s something people feel like they should get excited about because there was a Simpsons episode where all the Simpsons characters were getting worked up about a McRib-type sandwich.  Suggestible much?

So let’s talk real fast food phenomena.  Remember the Double Down from KFC?  That was a respectable self-indulgence.  610 calories and 57% of your daily fat requirement — anything too unhealthy to responsibly eat two of is getting into serious fast food territory.

And then there  was the Loaded Steakhouse burger from Burger King.  Anyone remember that thing?  Baked potato with bacon bits topping, crispy fried onions, bacon, steak sauce; cheese.  970 calories and 85% of your daily fat.

Now that's a sandwich that doesn't fuck around.

But, tragically, it’s been discontinued, with no sign yet of a McRib-like resurrection campaign.  One more reason to hate road trips, I guess.  Or I suppose I could stop searching for excess in its most, well, excessive form — but what’s the point of fast food then, really?

Leave a comment and share your favorite self-indulgence, road-trip-related or otherwise, if you like — or just tell us your opinion of the McRib, if you prefer!  Page is yours ’til Monday, when I’ll be back with more MA101.  And maybe a new favorite sandwich…I do have to drive to Chicago and back again soon.

The Tyrrany of the Résumé

This is a post about jobs.

They’re very nice to have right now, given the state of things.  I’m grateful for mine — and for all the ones I’ve held, actually.  They’ve never been the best-paying work out there, but I’ve always enjoyed myself well enough.

But what struck me the other day (as I was browsing the “writing and editing” section of the local Craigslist, which any good freelancer ought to do at least once in a while) was sort of an odd little self-realization:  I’ve never once landed a job that I submitted a résumé for.  And conversely, I’ve never failed to get a job I applied for without a résumé.  Alternative methods have worked great, ranging from the tried and true to the truly bizarre:

  • A magazine internship secured through shameless family connections and an informal interview.
  • A cooking job — the “Help Needed” sign was up in the window, and I asked what kind of experience they needed.  The man behind the counter said “are you an asshole?” and I said “nah, I’m pretty chill.”  He said “come in tomorrow at 10:00 AM to start.”
  • A consulting job that consisted of “harnessing creative energy” by screening applicants with a bunch of odd problem-solving questions and logic puzzles.  Apparently I aced them.
  • A retail job at a cooking store that consisted of a basic paper application followed by this terrifying interview procedure where the entire staff (of middle-aged women, until I joined and made it middle-aged women plus one) sit in a semi-circle and bombard you with questions from all directions.  Holy shit.
  • Plus a variety of writing jobs that mostly needed a writing sample or some credits listed.

I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that, other than that my life does not reduce well to bullet points (despite my frequent use of them here on MA101).  I do have people look my résumé over; it’s not getting tossed on glaring errors or bad formatting.  Who knows?

But I suspect that, as long as the résumé is the gatekeeper of most corporate jobs, creative-artist types are going to continue spending a lot of time out in the cold.  Or maybe it’s just me?  Let me know how your own job application experiences have gone, down in the comments — I’m curious to know if everyone else is landing them in strange and roundabout ways as well!

How to Google Your Way Into a Murder Trial

I wonder how many murder mystery authors — ones who write more than one, that is; can we call them “serial murder writers?” — rely on a poisoning plot for their first novel.  I haven’t done an exhaustive (or even desultory) study, but I feel like it’s the first-timer’s weapon of choice, for murderers and murder-writers both.

The downside, of course, (again for both murderers and their creators) is that poison requires more research.  We all have at least a general idea of what happens when someone gets shot; poison introduces the messy question of just what a competent coroner could and couldn’t find.  Instead of staying in the nice, clear-cut boundaries of who was hidden where and when you start straying into the murk of medical science that you don’t actually understand very well.

This is potentially relevant in my life, incidentally.

But happily your modern writer can just Google that shit.  Which means we can’t be far off from the mystery involving someone’s browser history as part of the evidence/trial, if we’re not there already, and from there it’s only a short hop to the plot where the actually-guilty murderer has Googled a bunch of poisons and then written the draft of a mystery novel as an alibi.  Right?

Because right now my browser history is not looking angelically innocent.  There are legitimate questions people could ask me about search terms like “potassium chloride murder” and “succinylcholine autopsy evidence.”  I feel like I’m Googling my way into a murder trial.

Anyone else got some questionable searches in the old browser history?  Share them here!  Or…at least the ones related to literature.  Your actual unsavory pasttimes you might want to still keep to yourself.

Some Complicated Thoughts about NaNoWriMo

It’s November, and as I expect a lot of you already know that means NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month.

I have sort of complicated mixed-ish feelings about the whole NaNoWriMo thing.  For those that don’t know it’s a free group challenge sort of thing wherein participants try to write a “complete” novel in the 30 days of November, minimum length 50,000 words.

So on the one hand this is a really great program.  People being excited about writing as a trendy, let’s-all-do-it-together thing is awesome.  And participation just goes up and up for NaNoWriMo every year, so there’s no question that people are excited about this.  That’s a pretty cool thing!

With that said, the actual benefits of doing NaNoWriMo, at least for someone who does genuinely want to become a writer (one of those delicate creatures discussed in our Audubon* Field Guide to Unpublished Writers, say!) seem limited.

The program’s main purpose seems calisthenic.  Someone who does not have the experience of needing to write every day will get that practice (if you’ve done the math you’ve already figured out that 50,000 words divided by 30 days gives you 1,667 words a day, rounded up).  And there’s a sort of artificially-created pressure in the having a “goal” that you can fail to achieve.  We’ve talked about word count goals and failure here before.

This, but for your work ethic.

So I feel weird about taking part, or about encouraging other people who are already writing for a living to take part, despite having nothing but positive feelings for NaNoWriMo qua NaNoWriMo.  If you’re already writing more than 1500 words or so a day and you don’t have trouble meeting that goal I’m not sure there’s much there for you.  And at the end of the month the skill you’ve learned is the easy part — it’s the editing, revising, and getting published that forces most people out of the Great Authorship Race, not the “producing a manuscript” part.

Color me confused, right?  But I guess here’s my take on it:  it’s a great publicity program that makes the general public a little bit more interested in and excited about writers (and, hopefully, their products), and I’m all for that.  And if it’s a useful first step for people who are still struggling with the process of writing every day so much the better.

Anyone else thinking about or taking part in NaNoWriMo this November?  Share your thoughts in the comments…I’m always curious why people are taking part (or aren’t).  And good luck if you are!

Saved by the Bell

Some of the best arguments end in fire alarms.

Or at least, the fight (just a little one!) that O Best Beloved and I had gotten into last night ended with one.  Someone apparently pulled the apartment building’s alarm, right around midnight (possibly in a not-very-well-choreographed Halloween prank?), right when we were getting to that “everyone’s had their say but now our emotions are up so we’re going to fight about the details” part of things.  You know the one.

I learned a lot from the experience.  Mostly I learned that:

  • The fire alarm does not actually contact the fire department in any way.
  • It takes the landlord about half an hour to wake up, get his keys, and get over to the building in the middle of the night.
  • It only takes the fire department about ten minutes to get there, once you call 911.
  • It doesn’t matter, because it takes a fireman longer to find the ancient control box than it takes the landlord to get there and open it.
  • Fire alarms startle the cats enough they can be manhandled into a carrier with a minimum of blood drawn.
  • They still won’t forgive me for a while afterward, though.

…what?  You were expecting things I’d learned about relationships?

Friends, if I could write that book I’d be vacationing somewhere equatorial with a whole harem of O Best Beloveds.  The best you’re gonna get out of me is urban apartment survival tips.  Like, hypothetically, if your partner/roommate wears glasses, make sure he/she is wearing them before accepting his/her “all clear” on smoke and fire in the hallway.

Just a thought.

But sometimes the best arguments end in fire alarms.  True story.

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