Thursday 11 December
Notes for a Blog Post on Minaj’s “Anaconda” Video that No One Would Care to Read

Filed under music

blg post about anaconda video. the boringest thing that a woman can be is sexy. i don’t say this as a gay man, and I don’t say it as a prude, though I’ve been accused of being both. I say it as a person who for most of his life has been shown women in entertainment being sex objects. this is what the world has been conditioned to expect of women in a video. it’s like seeing jack nicholson grin in a pair of sunglasses. whether it’s on her own terms or the terms of some male exec, the fact is that minaj in her video is giving the market what it demands. the market for female music artists demands they be sexy if they want to sell records. it doesn’t demand that they hold their own behind a mic with the likes of kanye west and jay z. but that’s what minaj can do. no it’s not all she can do but it’s what maybe only she can do. rather than remind a public in maybe constant need of reminding about it, she’s instead, she’s rubbing her whole ass on drake of all people while rapping half-assedly along with a novelty hiphop footnote from my high school days. for whom is this any kind of victory?

(also quote this problematic part of the bitch article: “There are questions and criticisms that the video was shot, directed, and produced by men to satisfy the male gaze, to further perpetuate the commodification of another black female body. But this condemnation ignores and silences Minaj’s voice and ability to make decisions about her own representations as an artist and a business person.”) (also wrestle with this bit from grantland: ” Cutting up a metaphorical dick onscreen makes it even more clear that the “Anaconda” video is about Nicki asserting her power, not as a sexual object but a sexual subject.”)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-11  ::  dave

Wednesday 10 December
Writing So Bad It’s Beautiful – Part 3

Filed under Grammar/Usage Nerdery

[Continued from Part 2.]

Now I’m thinking of Gary Lutz and his Lishian sisters and brothers who see the sentence as the wellspring of creativity. I’m not a Lishian. Assertions about good sentences are bona fide ways to get me paralyzed from creating. But that’s not to mean I don’t like gussying up my sentences when such gussying occurs to me. And lately, when I gussy it’s been more of a gussying down than up. If I can see a way to make my sentence clunkier, or to let it dabble in a bit of redundancy, I want to take it.

For example, last week I wrote an announcement that The Cupboard, the pamphlet series I and my friends have been running in different permutations for oh eight years or so, is getting new editors. We three are stepping down. It’s good news, in that those stepping up have more time to dedicate, and thus The Cupboard should flourish. Here’s the first draft of how it started:

The Cupboard is about to release its 20th volume. This doesn’t necessitate a change, it just happens to happily come with one.

I had two problems:

  1. Twenty volumes might, given some set of circumstances, compel a change. I sure changed after my 20th. So I felt like I needed to say that, while it might necessitate a change, it doesn’t necessarily do so. Such a change isn’t inevitable, is what I felt I wanted to say. Was that the same as compelling change? Yes and no?
  2. It’s fine to split infinitives in English. I know that. Still, I don’t always like to. But to not split “happens to happily” I’d have to have “happens happily to”.

Solving problem 2 gave me the license to solve problem 1. I wanted to use both words and I wanted to put them together because I figured I could and that it would be the kind of sentence a workshopper would stumble and thus pick up his pen over. Again, I saw my opportunity and took it:

The Cupboard is about to release its 20th volume. This doesn’t necessarily necessitate a change, it just happens happily to come with one.

It’s a clunky and ugly sentence, and I love it. As someone who spends so much of his time trying to articulate what’s good and bad about writing, I see that sentence and I see that it’s bad, and I love it.

It’s the best sentence I’ve written all month.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-10  ::  dave

Tuesday 9 December
Writing So Bad It’s Beautiful – Part 2

Filed under Grammar/Usage Nerdery

[Continued from Part 1.]

There’s this episode of American Dad where Francine complains to Roger about how close Stan is getting to his old bootcamp crush who has returned after some time away. Here’s Francine:

Those two are stuck on each other like gum on a hot summer sidewalk on a summer afternoon.

I’m sorry. I’m taking a creative writing class, and I can’t turn it off—like a fire hydrant, gushing onto a hot summer sidewalk. My words cascading, like water onto a hot summer sidewalk. A cat skitters by, each step a relief, cooling its paws from the hot summer sidewalk.

This is such great writing because it so accurately gets at what makes bad short-story writing bad short-story writing: the focus on elevated diction. The belief in words as words and not as things that connote or convey.

Sure, not all great writing is a windowpane you see right through, despite what some old-fashioned teachers and books might tell you. Some great writing calls attention to itself as writing. How, though, does that stuff differ from, say, Matheson? Is it just in terms of freshness?

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-09  ::  dave

Monday 8 December
Writing So Bad It’s Beautiful – Part 1

Filed under Grammar/Usage Nerdery

I don’t want to talk about kitsch or camp. Not anymore.

Last week, I mentioned seeing the Family Guy episode where Peter and his friends track down the source of all dirty jokes. In the credits I saw it was based on a short story by Richard Matheson. A short story? And who?

The episode’s title is “The Splendid Source” which is also the title of Matheson’s story. I found it online. Here, after an epigraph from Balzac that gives Matheson his title, is how it starts:

It was the one that Uncle Lyman told in the summer house that did it. Talbert was just coming up the path when he heard the punch line: “’My God!’ cried the actress, ‘I thought you said sarsaparilla!’”

Guffaws exploded in the little house. Talbert stood motionless, looking through the rose trellis at the laughing guests. Inside his contour sandals his toes flexed ruminatively. He thought.

Later he took a walk around Lake Bean and watched the crystal surf fold over and observed the gliding sands and stared at the goldfish and thought.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said that night.

“No,” said Uncle Lyman, haplessly. He did not commit himself further. He waited for the blow.

Which fell. “Dirty jokes,” said Talbert Bean III.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-08  ::  dave

Friday 5 December
Rosie O’Donnell + Dave Eggers

Filed under Books + Comedy + Endorsements + queers

Reading O’Donnell’s Find Me (2002) for research. Here’s a bit from the book’s brief Acknowledgements:

Anne Lamott, Nora Ephron, Dave Eggers, Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, and Anne Rice for writing as they do.

Take that, McSweeney’s generation.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-05  ::  dave

Thursday 4 December
And Sometimes You Love the Internet Forever

Filed under music

My favorite band is Camper Van Beethoven. And I’ve long been a nostalgist for The Comedy Channel, particular early-season MST3K, The Higgins Boys and Gruber, and Rich Hall’s Onion World. Rich Hall had a weird influence on me and my pal Clay growing up. We’d both get Sniglet page-a-day calendars, for instance. Also: Rich Hall was a big Camper Van Beethoven fan.

Last night I saw the Family Guy episode where they hunt for the origin of dirty jokes. (Stay tuned for more on this one.) There’s a bit where they talk about who heard the joke from whom, which gets them to an R.E.O. Speedwagon “Heard It From A Friend” joke. It reminded me of a story I heard about Camper Van Beethoven back when they were opening for R.E.M. on the Pageant tour, I think it was. CVB pissed their elders off, reportedly, because they kept putting R.E.O. Speedwagon stickers on their equipment.

This is exactly why I love Camper Van Beethoven. They’re a punk band that decided instead to sound like a eastern-European ska band. They were smart brats at a time when I enjoyed being a smart brat.

Also, they were on Onion World once, I’ll always remember. The Internet couldn’t possibly have a clip of it, though, could it?

Best part is Greg Lisher (who, it only now occurs to me, looks a lot like my friend Chris Farrell) singing along to the words at the beginning.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-04  ::  dave

Wednesday 3 December
Coming Back to Twitter

Filed under Announcements

hashtagThere are days that I miss it, because I have friends I care about in my life and this for so long was how I kept in touch with them. Plus most of them are funny and write entertaining tweets. I miss those. I don’t miss them as much as I miss them, my friends, but I miss them.

Ever since I took Twitter off my pinned tabs, deleted the phone app, and set up WordPress to auto-tweet my blog posts, I log on maybe once a week to check for any messages or things. Sometimes I need to see what Margaret Cho is up to. Every time, I start scrolling and reading tweets, scrolling and reading, and I think about jumping back in to the fray.

But then I’m always stopped by some feeling of mild despair. Here’s how it went this morning. I logged in to reply to a DM I got from a fellow essayist I’ve never met in person, about which of the Andy Kaufman[1] biographies was best[2], and then started reading some of the tweets in my feed. Here’s one that another fellow essayist I’ve never met in person retweeted:

“Stories do not begin with ideas or themes or outlines so much as with images and obsessions.” #obsessed

This is precisely the kind of passion-centric writerly claptrap that turns my heart to murderousness. I opened up a tab and started hunting for evidence of any of the hundreds of classic stories that began with an outline or theme. It’s so flat and certain of a claim that I knew it would be easy to disprove. But before I found anything I thought: What the hell are you doing? How can any of this ever really matter? Don’t you understand you’ve got real work to do?

I can turn off retweets. I can follow the “right” people. There exist with Twitter fixes for this kind of feed experience. No one likes a tweeter of exclusively his own blog content. I hear tell of writers successfully using Twitter as a networking tool. The problem I need, I think, the interterm break to think over is this: How can tweeting and interacting with one’s feed be a creative act without becoming an exercise in self-absorption, and are those mutually exclusive?

We can’t use the Internet to discover who we are can we? I, too, am not a fan of iTunes 12. Few things are as vainglorious as the term superuser, but if you ask me the problem with Apple is that it keeps continually saying fuck you to its superusers with each successive OS and app upgrade. Good thing I’m teaching McPhee’s Oranges tonight. Otherwise, I’d be even less full of faith.

For what it’s worth, in putting together tonight’s discussion notes, I came across this old McPhee essay in the New Yorker, on structure, which talks about his beginning a story with an outline (ABC/D) and Edgar Allen Poe’s beginning “The Raven”, in a sense, with a theme.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Pittsburgher in me always misspells this Kaufmann.
  2. I’ve read zero of them.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-12-03  ::  dave

Wednesday 26 November
I Try My Hand at Writing a Script

Filed under Uncategorized

Last night we read the script for the 30 Rock pilot and then watched the actual episode. Many differences, many of them instructive. As my students have a script or sketch assignment coming up, I had to go over script formatting, which I’d long since forgotten. Plus I didn’t know the easiest way to go about it if one doesn’t have Final Cut. Do you use lots of tabs? Which margins do you set and when? I decided to practice. I think I’ve got the makings of something here.

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.22.15 PM

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2014-11-26  ::  dave

Tuesday 25 November
Very Good Paragraph: Ian Frazier on Carp and Rednecks

Filed under Very Good Paragraphs

I downloaded an ebook app to my phone now that I’m not flipping through Twitter when I have toilet- and elsewhere-based downtime. These days I’m going through the Mary Roach Best American Essays anthology, and yesterday in my chiropractor’s office I came across this gem, about a carp-catching festival for avowed rednecks in Bath, Illinois:

Tall cottonwoods, ash trees, and maples shaded the shore, which was rutted black mud firmed up in places with heaps of new sand. Crushed blue-and-white Busch beer cans disappeared into the mud, crinkling underfoot. Aluminum johnboats, some camo, some not, lined the riverfront in fleets. Fishing costumes involved headgear: army helmets, football helmets with face guards or antlers or buffalo horns, octopus-tentacle hats, pirate bandannas, Viking helmets with horns and fur, devil hats with upward-pointing horns, a hat like a giant red-and-white fishing bobber, a Burger King crown. Competitors had their faces painted camo colors or gold or red or zebra-striped. Bath, Illinois, was first surveyed by Abraham Lincoln, and on August 16, 1858, while campaigning against Stephen Douglas in the race for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech to a large crowd in Bath. He took as his text the New Testament verse “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” One hundred and fifty-two years later, the Confederate-flag halter tops mingling with the American flags among the tournament crowd would have puzzled him; likewise, the pirate flags.

Would love to make research fire the reader’s mind up like this. And also be funny.

The whole story is here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-11-25  ::  dave

Friday 21 November
Watch Me Steal My Students’ Ideas

Filed under Comedy + teaching

Tuesday night in Uses of Humor in Writing we talked about Larry Wilmore’s notion of dominance as a standup comic. You have to immediately show dominance in front of an audience, but you also need to be self-deprecating. How does this work? How does this translate to our jobs as writers? You show dominance formally—i.e., you establish authority through your skillful use of language, tone, voice, and such—and self-deprecation in your content—i.e., in what you say with that dominant pose.

The schlimazel is a good target persona to adopt, I suggested, and then gave a rundown on these classic vaudeville archetypes, which to render in the shortest of shorthands: the schlemiel spills the soup on the schlimazel, the schmendrik rushes to clean it up, and the schmuck stands back and laughs at them all.

The schlimazel is classic because s/he’s blameless, and because we so often feel as though the world is spilling all its shit on us. Relatable, so. And I mentioned that you see these figures all the time in sitcoms and such, but that the majority of standup comics play the schlimazel.

Then I, not any of my students, but me, there at the head of the classroom, pointed out how the original characters of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia map out precisely to these four:

  • Mac, as a general fuckup, is the schlemiel.
  • Dee, who always gets shit on and, like, her car ruined, is the schlimazel.
  • Charlie, the janitor, so often gladly the butt of jokes, is the schmendrik
  • And Dennis, being Dennis, is the schmuck.

It’s worth noting that Frank wasn’t originally on the show, and that this idea was my own.

For the first time in my 10 years of teaching I taught “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to graduate students Wednesday night. Also, the first time I taught it in San Francisco. Most of the action of the essay takes place three blocks down the hill from our building. You’ll remember that the essay has a fractured, splintered structure. Lots of mini-vignettes of the hippie kids Didion finds to illustrate this culture they’re building in the Haight.

The question is how does Didion make the essay so engaging when her scenes are so choppy and minimal? I flipped through the pages and noted for the students, rather than the other way around, that practically every vignette opens with a person or people, a concrete place or object, and some immediate conflict. “Don and Max want to go out to dinner but Don is only eating macrobiotic so we end up in Japantown again.” “Arthur Lisch is on the telephone in his kitchen, trying to sell VISTA a program for the District.” It’s not every vignette, but pretty much all of them start this way, and another point I had to make to my students—and not that one of my students had to make to us all—was that this approach to economy never felt repetitive or simplistic.

Yeah, I know, I’m a great teacher. Ask Bria, say, or Robert. They’ll tell you.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2014-11-21  ::  dave

2014-11-20 :: dave
2014-11-19 :: dave
Announcements + NF
2014-11-18 :: dave
Very Good Paragraphs
2014-11-17 :: dave
Announcements + NF + Very Good Paragraphs
2014-11-14 :: dave
2014-11-13 :: dave
2014-11-12 :: dave
teaching + Uncategorized
2014-11-11 :: dave
2014-11-10 :: dave
2014-11-04 :: dave