The More Things Change…More on Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.

There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.

There is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind–in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure–and a talented writer. However, despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s time frame. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.

For example, take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Rather than consider how to best approach their wives and resolve these problems, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive their wives. Thus making the men’s lives easier. Because men are people, and women are…inconvenient appendages?

How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy? They wonder. The options on the table include:

Sleeping powder = unethical.

Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.

Seriously?

The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to some family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).

The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even worth a mention.

Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.

Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.

I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.

All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a reasonable story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive one’s spouse.

I don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?

Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.

I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.

With the 50s-style depiction of the future, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in some of the stories in The Illustrated Man. But I consider Marionettes, Inc proof such miscalculations about the future don’t have to ruin a story. And Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.

Maybe the greatest compliment for a sci-fi author is that their stories persists long enough to be made fun of in light of reality. If anyone is reading my writing far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, awesome.

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Stories That Stick: The 11:59

You know the stories you read as a kid that stick in your brain forever? You might go years without thinking about them, then some little trigger pops up and suddenly you not only remember the story, but where you were sitting when you read it, or what shirt you were wearing. Since I began writing, these stories slip to the surface of my consciousness more and more easily. One of the strongest recurring story memories for me is The 11:59.

The 11:59 is from a short story collection called The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1992). It’s the story of a retired train porter, Lester, who’s telling the young porters the tale of the Death Train that will take them all one day.

“Any porter who hears the whistle of the 11:59 has got exactly twenty-four hours to clear up earthly matters.  He better be ready when the train comes the next night…”

I don’t remember how I got my hands on the book, whether it was from the bookshelf at home or the school library, but I distinctly remember sitting on my bed reading it. I’m not sure what shirt I was wearing, but there was probably a Blue Jays ball cap on my head or somewhere nearby. I also remember that for quite some time afterward (years maybe) I couldn’t help but check my watch if I heard a train whistle after dark, just to make sure it wasn’t 11:59—on at least one occasion, it was. I told myself my watch must be off by a few minutes to stave off a panic attack (and obviously lived to tell about it).

I’m not sure if it was this story that left me with the indelible impression that trains are magic, or if this belief was already there to enhance the chill it gave me (my reading of The Polar Express might have come first), but I still think of The 11:59 when I hear a train after dark. Though, I no longer check my watch. I swear.

Recently, I was compelled to track down The 11:59 (gotta love Google). It was tugging at my memory to the point that I just had to confirm the story was how I remembered it, and not some jumble of other stories mixed together by my all-too-human memory over two decades. Sure enough, the plot was almost exactly how I remembered it.

Reading it again as an adult, I was more aware of the simplicity of the storyline (intended for a young audience) and a typo jumped out at me that I’m sure I would neither have noticed nor cared about when I was ten or eleven. Even reading it in elementary school, I remember finding the story predictable. When Lester hears the 11:59’s whistle, he’s taken over by panic and a mission to accident-proof himself for the next twenty-four hours in hopes he will survive. All the while ignoring the pain in his chest and tingling in his left arm—duh.

But knowing where the roller coaster was going didn’t lessen the thrill of the drops and turns. And years later, the final scenes haven’t lost their magic.

The Obvious Unexpected Pairing

What do these two women have in common?

Amanda Palmer: punk-cabaret musician/songwriter/artist.

Brené Brown: researcher/storyteller/academic.

They are both awesome, but I can’t say I ever considered them a pair. Until now.

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk was recommended to me by my friend Cate. Back when we still lived in the same city (sigh) we used to get together on a semi-regular basis to write together. A lot of our ‘writing’ time was spent talking and watching TED talks. Before we started watching this video, Cate commented that there was something unusual about Amanda’s eyebrows. Consequently, I spent most of the talk trying to figure out if they were makeup or tattoos, but that didn’t stop me from finding her speech amazing. 

I also discovered Brené Brown via her TED talk. I have read her book The Gifts of Imperfection and I’m working on another, Daring Greatly. I recommend them both, but this post is actually about Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking (in which, to my delight, she answers the eyebrow question).

Brené Brown’s books (to over simplify) are about connecting with people, and the importance of being vulnerable and genuine in order to obtain that connection (and about how most of us are not very good at this). If Brené’s books are guides toward connecting with people, Amanda Palmer’s book is the practical embodiment of this philosophy. Perhaps then, it is perfectly natural that Brené Brown wrote the forward for The Art of Asking. There are also excerpts from Brené’s writing scattered throughout the book, and they fit perfectly.

Even so, I was a little surprised to find The Art of Asking categorized in the self-help section of the bookstore. I certainly learned a lot from it, so I guess it belongs there. It could also be at home in the biography/memoir section. Amanda expands on her TED talk, and then some, explaining through honest and detailed accounts of her own experiences how to do that thing we all must do from time to time: ask for help, support, payment we’ve earned, etc. How to express our needs, admit our fallibilities, and cope with hate that comes our way. Also, how to get more comfortable doing these things, because most of us loath the vulnerability with every fiber of our being. We’re so afraid of being an inconvenience to, or judged by, one another that we forget we are meant to connect and cooperate (a number of scientific disciplines agree with me on this). We are a social species. Most people not only don’t mind helping, but actually derive pleasure from it. Still, we all go around thinking we’re not deserving of the help and doing everything we can to avoid asking for it.

Perfect example: Two days ago, my neighbour locked herself out of her house. She knocked on my door, totally embarrassed, and asked to hang out with me while she waited for her spouse to get home. Of course, I said yes. We had a really good chat and I was glad for her company. That said, if it weren’t for the prospect of her four-year-old son getting home from school before she could get back into her house, I think she seriously considered just waiting outside (in -8°C) for two hours rather than confess to the error of locking herself out–a mistake most of us have made at least once and some, like me, multiple times–and risk some kind of rejection in my response.

I think every room I occupied in university required creative entering at least once. The funny thing is, as I was sharing this with my neighbour I also had to confess that I too would have debated whether looking like an idiot to another person was better or worse than freezing my ass off in private. Without a child to worry about, I’m not even sure which side of the fence I would have landed on. A close friend of mine (with whom I can comfortably share my moments of stupidity) has a key to my house to avoid this very scenario (and so she can check on my cats when I’m away). God help me if I’m ever locked out while she’s at work.

I think my favorite example in The Art of Asking of the self doubt we all share is the brain surgeon: 

For real? I dropped my cell phone in a puddle this morning, couldn’t find my keys, can’t hold down a relationship, and here I am clutching a sharp knife about to cut someone’s head open. And they could die. Who is letting me do this? This is bullshit.

(If you happen to find yourself in need of a brain surgeon’s services, relax. I’m sure your brain surgeon is a super hero.)

The first example Amanda gives in the book is a little more gender specific: WHO’S GOT A TAMPON? I JUST GOT MY PERIOD. I don’t think I’m the only one who cringes at the idea of having to shout that out in a public bathroom, but wouldn’t give a second thought to reaching into my purse and handing one over to someone else, without an ounce of judgement because I’ll be thinking: totally been thereAmanda points out that there are other things–pens, paper, quarters–we all give and take without keeping score, assured the karma will balance out eventually. 

She uses the story of the Indian Giver to illustrate the point:

A Native American tribal chief welcomes an Englishman into his lodge and shares a pipe of tobacco with his guest, then offers the pipe as a gift. The valuable object is a symbolic peace offering that is continually re-gifted from tribe to tribe, ‘belonging’ to no one. The Englishman doesn’t understand this and thus sees the gifted pipe as his property. He is completely confused when the next tribal leader comes to his house and, after they share a smoke, looks expectantly at the Englishman waiting to receive the pipe. She calls the opposite of the Indian Giver the White Man Keeper. The one who removes the property from circulation.

This is the one place of discord that came up for me while reading this book. I am all for the practice of paying it forward, but I don’t think the Indian Giver is a good depiction of the ever flowing river of gifts, favours, and volunteerism described throughout The Art of Asking. The voluntary aspect of the flow is key. If you are being forced to give something up, it is no longer a gift and the meaning of the gesture is lost.

The story of the Indian Giver gains power because of its historical context. We are predisposed to see the Native American as the victim and the Englishman as the villain. Replace tribal chief with CEO and Englishman with Bill, visitor from out of town. Bill has committed a social faux pas by not taking part in a ritual that, as far as I can tell, he knew nothing about. What’s worse, his error is taken as a deep insight into his character (and the character of all other out-of-towners) rather than simple misunderstanding. Even between the tribal chiefs (or CEOs) who pass on the pipe willingly, I don’t get the sense of goodwill that comes with the natural flow of giving/sharing. Because it’s expected, it’s an obligation not a gift.

Amanda also expresses the importance of voluntary participation in any exchange. She sums it up like this: 

I deserve to ask; and; You are welcome to say no. Because the ask that is conditional cannot be a gift.

I totally agree.

From this I can only assume she interprets the Indian Giver story differently than I do. I guess, that’s one of the great things about any art. Whatever the intent of the storyteller, the listener may hear something else. And interpretations between listeners will be different too, coloured by their own states of mind and needs at the time. 

Final verdict, everyone should read this book. I found myself thinking (maybe blurting out loud once or twice), ‘Holy crap! I sooo get that,’ over and over. If I recounted all the instances here, this post would be seriously out of hand.

Mind Body Green: Good and Bad…or at least funny

There is a site called Mind Body Green that I first came across through an interest in yoga. It’s one of those group-blog-like sites with articles from lots of different people on lots of different topics, mostly in the health-and-wellness genre. It’s definitely a site that requires reading with a critical eye as many of the sources are more anecdote and opinion than rigorous science. But some of the contributors are MD’s and PhD’s. If, like me, you’re looking for some yoga tips or meditation exercises there are worse places you could look. However, some Mind Body Green articles make me cringe.

I’ll start with one I liked:

Don’t Blame Big Food For Our Health Problems, Just Stop Buying Crap: The title is fairly self explanatory.  What I love about this article and others like it is the message regarding personal responsibility.The gist is this: companies can only sell what we are willing to buy. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Change will come with knowledge and choice, not laws and restrictions. Companies want to make money. This is not evil. In fact, it can work in your favour.  

The same goes for non-food items. For example, some years ago, a warning was going around that cheap candles made in china were being found to have lead in them (same is true of some made-in-china chinaware by the way). Even if selling these candles were made illegal immediately (cause, you know, the government works fast like that) who is checking every candle coming out of china for lead in the wick? Personally, I didn’t wait for anyone fix the candles. I just stopped buying cheap, made-in-china candles. So did a lot of other people. When we know better, we do better. Higher quality, locally-made candles are now a lot easier to find than they were 5-10 years ago, because that’s what people are willing to pay for.

Now for some Mind Body Green articles that make me laugh (and roll my eyes):

1) A Raw Chocolate Caramel Pie To Die For

2) 3-Ingredient Vegan Ice Cream Sandwiches

3) This Is The Mother Of All Vegan Mac-N-Cheese Recipes

Before I elaborate let me say, I am not writing this from either a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ stance on veganism, raw foods, paleo, or any other diet/lifestyle. I am in no position to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t eat. If you have found a diet that works for you and it falls into one of these categories (or doesn’t), awesome.

What raises my eyebrows when it comes to these recipes is the names. If you have chosen not to eat a particular food, why go to such great lengths to pretend you are still eating it?

1) Caramel definition: a liquid made by cooking sugar until it changes color, used for coloring and flavoring food. Note the word ‘cooked’ in the definition. There is no such thing as raw caramel. If it is raw, then it is not caramel. In this recipe, the ‘caramel’ layer is made up of macadamias, coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract. That is not to say this pie wouldn’t be delicious; why not call it chocolate coconut pie?  I also feel the need to point out that maple syrup is made by boiling tree sap–not exactly ‘raw’ either. You might as well eat real caramel. They are both cooked sugar. 

2) Ice Cream definition: a frozen food containing cream or milk and butterfat, sugar, flavoring,and sometimes eggs.The only thing that could make ice cream less vegan would be if it was steak flavoured. The three ingredients in this recipe are: bananas, strawberries, and oats. All good things, but it’s a fruit-ice sandwich not an ice cream sandwich.

3) Cheese definition: the curd of milk separated from the whey and prepared in many ways as a food. And to make the mac-‘n-cheese sauce creamy one traditionally adds milk, cream, and/or butter. Need I say more?

(Definitions from dictionary.com)

As for this one:

A Kale Smoothie That Tastes Like Ice Cream

I call bullshit 😉

Thoughts on: The Problem of Susan – Neil Gaiman

Where many may have become Neil Gaiman fans through Sandman or Coraline, I first took note of his story telling as a result of an episode he wrote for Doctor Who. Later, I saw his now-famous commencement speech, Make Good Art. This was around the time I was really getting interested in writing, and I thought I could learn a lot from the way this guy approaches work, writing—where they meet—and life.

Recently, I picked up an anthology of short stories, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction. Aside from my amusement at seeing religion and science fiction side by side, I noticed Neil Gaiman listed as one of the authors. I skipped ahead and read his story, The Problem of Susan, first. I loved it. To get to why I loved it, I have to back up a bit. Continue reading

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).

Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.

I digress.

Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.

Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.

Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.

I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.

Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:

1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.

In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.

2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.

Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.

3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.

In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.

I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.

None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.

My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.

How Not to Write a Novel – Review

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To all aspiring novelists out there—to all writers period—I highly recommend reading How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Between them, these two authors have lots of experience with writing, editing, teaching, and reviewing. They’ve seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go.

Rather than try to explain what makes good writing good, as most writing how-to books do, this book explains instead what makes bad writing bad. Going through the major points of plot, character, and style, it gives detailed examples demonstrating the various traps most new writers fall into, send their precious manuscripts to the trash can—sorry, recycle bin.

Some of the tips you will have seen before, though probably worded somewhat differently, if you’ve ever read anything on writing. And yet, you probably still make these mistakes from time to time, and another reminder wouldn’t hurt. For example: “Fuck You!” He Said Profanely: Where the author uses adverbs to no purpose.

Others will be new, at least they were to me, like: The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special: Where clothing is given too much prominence.

Though written with the novel in mind, the majority of these blunders are not unique to novel writing. The examples are often woefully exaggerated for humour’s sake, but also clearly make their point. As essential as examples of the ‘right thing’ are, examples of the ‘wrong thing’ are valuable too. It’s a lot easier to find mistakes in your writing when you know what the mistakes look like.

Also, the book was simply fun to read. Not a hint of textbookiness to be found. I will warn you, however, unless you are most impeccable writer in existence (in which case, what are you doing on my blog?) it will at times be painful when you see hints of your own writing peeking out from the what‑not‑to-do pile.

Though I’d like to think none of my writing is quite as bad as the comical passages in this book depict, there was lots of ‘yeah, ok, I might do that sometimes.’, and ‘Crap, I’ve definitely done that.’, going through my mind as I came across the traps most applicable to me. I’d list them all, but there are too many (feel free to read any of my writing and I’m sure you’ll find a few on your own).

Here and there, I got to think ‘Phew, I know I’ve never done that.’ Usually when the error described in no way applied to the kind of writing I do, like: Gibberish for Art’s Sake: Wherein indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader. I have been accused of confusing my readers in the past (Dosterra Chapter one), but certainly not with lyricism.

How Not to Write a Novel also includes: The Crepitating Parasol; The Whatchamcallit; and “Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?”, to name a few more intriguing subtitles that make it impossible not to wonder, ‘What’s that about?’ If you’d like to know, pay a visit to Amazon, or your local Chapters.