Saturday, February 23, 2008

South Coast Writers

I did some classes for the South Coast Writer's Conference and I've been letting it settle for a week. There was a fair amount of sleep deprivation and a very long drive; a beautiful sunset and a small town charity fish-fry; a hilariously awful hotel experience and great food and conversation at a heavy-metal cowboy bar and grill. A poet's first autograph. A writer's critique group that will become a long story over beer someday.

I was a bit of an experiment. Most of the presenters were literary types- people who identify themselves as writers. I was more like a thug who happens to have a book coming out. But an attractive subject: Literature is about conflict, right? And you have villains, right? So I was there to talk about violence and villains.

On the good side, only one of the students left the room and only for one segment. A few covered their eyes at the slides. The notebook of photographs that I sometimes pass around never made it all the way around the room, as if a small knot of people were afraid that the pictures would somehow enter their psyches if they touched the cover, and bring on nightmares.

Violence can be awesome, in the old sense of the word- the meaning that brought on kneeling, hoping that if you were small enough the god would not see you and crush you. It can be cathartic, completely changing in an instant how you will view the world. It can even be funny. It is often pathetic and sordid and messy. It is almost never dramatic or entertaining.

If I use force and it is dramatic or entertaining, I am doing it wrong.

So these writers, many of whom impressed me with their intelligence, insight, warmth and compassion got to see a tiny bit of the world that their profession often packages for entertainment. They got to see the rhinoceros that inspired the unicorn that they create.

The murders of Linda Lawrence and Kyle Dinkheller. Excited delirium. How and why women fight differently than men. What happens when an outsider interferes in an in-group's "adjustment session". How a real shooting differs from the range. What bullets and knives and bats and bites do to a human body. What happens when a martial artist tries to break up a bar fight and over-estimates himself.

How bad guys see themselves. How cops see them. How their families see them. How they see each other. How truly aberrant that can be at the extremes. Some of the norms, the "normality" in certain sections of criminal subculture. Why things that seem impossible to polite society make good survival sense in that world.

Prostitutes and the "Bad Date Line". Drugs, inmates and riots. Gangs and molesters. Icky days. Professional good guys and professional bad guys. And scars. We talked about the scars at one point, but only the ones on the skin.

It's always strange to talk to good people about bad things. Do you sensationalize it? But you can't sensationalize Linda Lawrence's murder: it could never be sold as fiction. Too weird, too impossible, too brutal (not her murder, per se, which happened in the space of a few seconds, the fight with her killer afterwards which would seem a bit 'out there' in a werewolf movie.) You can't sensationalize the heroism (and sheer bloody determination) of a Marcus Young. You have to tell them it is rare, but this stuff happens: blood has been used as house paint. Wounds have been raped.

And there is a constant, lower-level buzz of violence: casually abused children, casually beaten wives. Problems solved by boots and weapons as a matter of course... and they glitch hard there because since most people do not know anyone who regularly solves problems with violence they have a hard time accepting that there is a group that considers it an obvious first choice. Obvious. That's the glitch.

It went well. Janet Pretti worked her...erm... very hard to make sure that everyone had a good time. She even got me to do a public reading, though I almost choked when she said to pick something "family friendly". So much for anything out of the book.

And I got great reviews. But what would you expect? No one ever tells the teacher with the gun that he sucks.


Steve Perry said...

I think maybe the use of violence in literature serves much the same purpose as riding a roller coaster does -- there is a cathartic aspect.

Stirring up the emotions and releasing them serves a purpose.You can get the rush without the real danger.

Real violence might not be entertaining, but fiction must be. It's all fantasy by definition, and if it isn't entertaining, you aren't doing your job as a writer. If they don't keep turning the pages or munching the popcorn, you don't get more work.

True enough that entertainment sometimes gets downright silly in it presentations of anything in real life, but you don't go to see Terminator movies to learn how to deal with time-traveling robots who pop up on your way to the Safeway for milk and butter ...

Rory said...

True, Steve- but don't you find the contrast fascinating? There is a world and there is the writing (or film or...) about the world. Something very complex and mystical and fascinating happens between the two, and it doesn't just happen in the head of the artist- artists learn from other artists (on some subjects IMO regrettably) more from other works of art than they do from life.
It's very odd and very cool what happens when you give an ape an advanced ability to juggle symbols.

Terry Finley said...

I like action stories, but I also
like to use my imigination.
As a people we no longer blush; we
are just plain numb to so much sex
and violence.

Terry Finley

Kai Jones said...

Speak for yourself, Terry Finley. I'm not numb to either of those.

The best catharsis doesn't stir up emotions, it allows the release of emotions that had been building in tension for some time.

Steve Perry said...

Sure, I do find the contrast interesting. But we all have our own forms of "reality." I can watch the news, read the paper, talk to folks who lived an event, and if I'm there myself, build a working image of what the real world has to offer. And there is much to be said for it.

But just as much truth about anything can be found in the best fiction, whether the events concern a guy in a red and blue suit who leaps tall buildings or one on a horse who slays dragons.

The most fantastic concept can have at its core the most valuable truth, even if everything in it is purely made up.

I think the ability to imagine things other than they are is what separates people from other critters. And that ability can translate into action that can make fantasy become real.

I remember when the idea of landing a man on the moon, or having a watch that ran on a battery and could do math and square roots were science fiction.

Fiction doesn't have to be real, it merely has to fake real enough to engage a reader or listener or watcher and transport them to places they otherwise couldn't go.

Dragons? Werewolves? Vampires? Little green men?
Yeah, I'm good with them -- done well.

Sure, I laugh at the fight scenes wherein the actors use trampoline-fu, or when somebody knocks a bad guy down at five hundred yards with a snub-nose revolver, after flipping the safety off, because they aren't real enough for me to suspend my sense of disbelief.

That threshold is different for different folks. The more you know about a thing, the harder it is for somebody to fool you into going along with 'em, but it still happens, and it still needs to happen.

I've seen stuff that would make a maggot puke, but before I stick any of it into a novel, I need a good reason, and slapping folks in the face with it to make it "real," that's not enough. For non-fiction, yeah, it is. Not for fiction. Most people don't read fiction to be made violently ill, they are looking for something else.

If they are looking for champagne punch and you drop a turd into the punch bowl, that's a bad career move.

Life imitates art, art imitates life, and art imitates art, all part of the deal. Goes with the territory.

Anonymous said...

Violence is unifying; unity is simplicity, simplicity is easy. Peace allows for divisiveness; diversity is compicated; complexity is hard.

Steve Perry said...

Anon --

I'm pretty sure there's nothing in your statement with which I agree.

Care to expand on it?

Kai Jones said...

Steve--LOL that's just what I thought, too. I started composing a rant but backed off: my rule this month is "don't start a fight in other people's comment sections."

Anonymous said...

Expansion would just increase complexity and confusion - but I would love to hear your rant/comment. I may pout, but never shout.

Kai Jones said...

Nah. Those words are clearly code for complex concepts with unique connotations in your head. Without your personalized context for them I could make up anything to argue against--and that would be more about me than what you mean.

Steve Perry said...

No rant from me, either. As a word-worker, I strive for clarity when I write. I don't always manage this, but it's not for lack of trying.

It is a tricky thing, writing. I haven't mastered it.

None of what you said makes sense to me. It sounds very much like 1984's double-speak -- war is peace, love is hate -- and it offers concepts that -- to me -- come across as some kind of mantra that might be offered up by somebody who wants to sound profound: Life is like a box of chocolates.

Or, not to put too fine a point on it, it sounds like you are blowing smoke.

If there is any fire 'neath the billows, then show it. Otherwise, you have produced neither heat nor light.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's all there - it's the bush everyone like to beat around; few words for reams of content. Not profound; just summarized. But, as my wife is wont to say, I love the sound of my own voice and think I know everything. It is hard to be humble when you're great.

Steve Perry said...

Um. Well, Cassandra could predict the future, after the temple snakes licked her ears clean, but because she pissed-off Apollo, his curse was that nobody would believe her when she told them.

One version of the story has it that she knew the truth, but could only speak in nonsensical riddles that nobody could interpret.

Seems kinda like that one applies here.

If you have something to say, say it, and use language that an audience can more or less understand; otherwise, why bother?

A nine-year-old being coy is cute. Not so much in an adult ...

Matt Withers said...

I had an African Lit professor in college, when discussing why so much of African literature has a strong dose of colonialism as the subject matter, say that, "If you are on a sinking ship, all you can think about is the ship."

I believe his point, that you don't find an African Joan Collins or even Steven King because their day to day existence doesn't lend itself to fantasy fiction, is kind of what's going on here.

Your day to day has violence, its reality, repercussions, applications and so on so deeply ingrained in what's real that it must be nearly impossible to see any sense in sensationalizing it.

For those without your background and experience (most of the world, eh?), violence does not hold the same place. I do not think this makes one realm of experience better or more valid than another as far as fiction goes. Certainly it would be stupid for a fiction writer to argue expertise in violence with you. But how best to use violence in fiction, the writers have as much or more insight.

Even the desire to bring reality to fiction is really in service of bringing a hyperreality to it. Details can make a story that would otherwise ring false, ring true.

Fiction at its best, IMO, is just a way to distill the essential parts so that the ultimately messy or unneeded things don't get in the way of the story being told. Kinda like what you seem to be doing with fighting. To me your stuff reads like violence is a masterpiece you've found, and you've dedicated your life to editing it.