Month: November 2014

Cowboy Bebop

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I promise, I promise: the next post will be about a book.

I’ve never cared for anime. I ate lunch with a bunch of IT/CompSci guys during my first year of college and although they tried to convert me I had no patience for the childish aspects of the form: the jarring jumps between cartoon slapstick and saccharine melodramatic angst, the hyper-femininity and hypersexualization of young female characters, the obsession with classifying and naming levels of strength, attacks and techniques. On the recommendation of a friend I started watching the more recent Soul Eater but gave up, disappointed, five episodes in. I decided to give the medium one more shot before writing it off. There’s nothing that points to a dull mind faster than the casual dismissal of an entire form (don’t ever be the guy who says “I like all kinds of music, except Country/Rap/Metal/Opera”). On paper, Cowboy Bebop didn’t look good. It’s set in the year 2071, following a group of bounty hunters (cowboys) in space, who watch a kitschy cowboy-themed version of America’s Most Wanted produced for bounty hunters. The promotional art leaned heavily on what I could only assume to be more hypersexualized female characters. It was made in the 90’s and the wardrobe/aesthetic seemed to reflect that fact, with lots of turned-up collars and Future-Armani suit jackets.  I watched all 26 episodes, each about 23 minutes long. I fucking loved it.

The show is a love letter to America and Americana, the kind of thing that only works well written in the voice and clear perspective of an outsider. Bebop is visually stunning and it’s impossible to avoid phrases like “beautifully shot” because the animation is so clearly beholden to a fictional camera (one borrowed from the golden age of American cinema). The series is a sendup of Miles Davis, Isaac Asimov, Joan Didion, John Wayne, Raymond Chandler, Steve McQueen, John Coltrane and the immigrant-as-American Bruce Lee. It’s obsessive in it’s imitation and it co-opts the central aesthetic of that inspiration in a manner reminiscent of the Japanese fashion labels that manufacture 1970’s American workwear or slavishly use the same machines as some obscure and now-defunct bourbon distillery. They know their shit and they run with it, but Cowboy Bebop pulls from such disparate themes and influences that the end result is not only unique but compelling.

The stories are fun and engaging; the characters are round, nuanced and compelling. The series ties itself together wonderfully with a deliberate arc that moves forward only as the events of the past are illuminated. It makes great use of themes that persist through narrative arcs (time, existentialism, the obsession with knowing oneself or one’s past, duty, ennui) as well as themes that are constrained to a single episode (the nature of consciousness, filial bonds, the philosophical underpinnings of Bruce Lee, entropy). The juxtaposition of science fiction and Noir provides both a gripping structure and a compelling prism. The world-creation aspect is impressive too; there’s cleary an entire universe  known only to the characters and their creators. While a few aesthetic elements feel a bit dated the show’s look is so much of a throwback affair that it holds up remarkably well. Even the “computer hacker” elements and visuals work, an impressive feat for anything coming out of the ‘90s. The music -created in concert with the show in a back-and forth between the head writer and the composer- is both a perfect companion and fantastic in it’s own right. The show has some problems; it falls back on melodrama sometimes, and it leans so heavily on some references that it breaks the illusion of the vivid, continuous dream. It’s still a great show and it’s clearly been influential. Give it a try. If you’re not a fan after the first five episodes it’s probably not for you.

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Physical Fitness

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I recognize that this may seem a bit off topic, but bear with me. It’s been my experience that most creative people (writers, musicians, visual artist, etc.) rarely have a problem with the creative side of output. That is to say, we generally can come up with at least half-formed ideas without difficulty, but the hangup usually happens because of a lack of discipline. Writers don’t write enough to get an intuitive grasp on their application of prose, musicians don’t want to put in the mind-numbing hours required to perfect their technique or get their performance as a group as tight as it needs to be.  We procrastinate and make up excuses like writers block or creative exhaustion.

Work of any kind is hard if you push yourself to to the limit of your current abilities (which is how one improves). Creative work is no different in this respect. Why should it be? Personal discipline will often be the limiting factor in how good a person gets. When I was teaching guitar in high school I had students who had an unbelievable degree of raw musical talent. One kid was able to play along with songs on the radio and improvise guitar solos with a full band after literally four hours of learning time. He never did anything with it beyond occasionally jamming with friends. I had other students of mediocre natural ability who would practice scales and fingering drills three hours a day with a metronome in addition to their regular hour of practice. Guess which kind of student has their music on movie soundtracks right now.

The discipline necessary to build and maintain fitness -which I’m defining as muscular strength, power and endurance, as well as cardiovascular endurance- is the same discipline that keeps me on track when I’m writing or playing a song again and again until I’m happy with it. It’s not forced work, it’s work as a fulfillment of an internal drive. I start craving weight training if I’ve neglected to make time for it after a few days in the same way I crave writing when my head is bursting with ideas and I need to get them down. Discipline is discipline and we’re all a bit too old for the “nerd vs jock” paradigm. A hard workout gets all the monkeys off my back and unlocks both creative drive and single-minded focus. Do some some chin-ups and run sprints in the park. Learn the right way to squat and deadlift. A strong mind and a strong body aren’t incompatible.

Writing, Word Counts, NaNoWriMo and Productivity

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First off, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. I have no problems with it, but it’s not for me, or in line with what I’m trying to do creatively at this point in my life. I am writing a novel, but I’m also writing short stories, essays, music and a blog. One of the best ways I’ve found to break out of a block or slump in anything long-form is to just stop for a while and write something else. When I can’t get my novel to progress or the writing starts to feel unnatural and forced I get up, grab a cup of coffee or tea and start writing an essay on something random like contemporary porn stars or a short story with a wildly different voice. The main idea is to keep writing and just write something else. After a few days I get a clear head and I can come back to the novel or the extended essay and write something decent. If I stop writing because of “block” I just get out of the habit and it becomes much more of an effort to start up again, with results that are often more staid than they would be otherwise.

The one point that all teachers of writing and all books on the subject agree on is simple and generally the least applied: write. Just fucking write. There is nothing that helps train the ability to put words together more than putting words together. Reading might give you a better critical perspective -and lots of aspiring writers need a better critical perspective- but the most perceptive insight isn’t going to do any good unless one has practiced the act of writing itself. There are some mistakes one can only learn by making. One of the main reasons I started this blog (alongside giving myself an onus to organize and record my thoughts on the books I’ve read) was to force myself to write nonfiction consistently, as it’s been one of my weakest expressions for a while now.

Many teachers will mandate that anyone serious about writing do so every day. I’ve found that to be personally impossible, but looking back on the last month or so I find that I’ve written something at least six days out of the week. Some days I might get down 5000 words on the computer; others I might just scrawl a few dozen in a notebook. A daily word count is too constraining for the way I work, but I’ve made it a goal to get in 7-12k words per week. This includes rough drafts, outlines, notes and so forth. A daily word count works well for some, but I find my average daily output actually increases when I’m looking at a weekly goal. More than that, it makes me want to write every day, which has lead to both more and better writing.

Tape Recorder 2014

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My good friend Zeke gave me this a little while ago. I found a power supply in storage and as soon as I can get my hands on some blank tapes I’ll dust it off and give it a test run. I plan on recording directly into it, then playing the tape on a ragged boombox and recording that into Audacity, which will allow me to multitrack some (hopefully) interesting lofi sounds. If that doesn’t work I can still record a tape demo, which might be fun. There are some labels right now that do cassettes exclusively…

Music for Writing

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I usually listen to some kind of background music while I’m writing. Since I play music myself I have to be somewhat particular about what I listen to or I’ll just stop working and zone in. Anything novel is out. Music is only helpful in my writing when it’s something I’ve listened to closely at least a few times. I recently tried to work on something while listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It’s pretty innocuous,  but I kept getting distracted by every little change. This is the biggest problem I’ve had with Eno (who I have the most respect for as a recording artist and producer). His work is invisible enough that I often have a hard time listening to it when I’m not doing something, but too engrossing for me to listen to for the first time while I’m working on something.

Classical music is completely out of the question. I’m got a few nice LPs of the Spanish guitarist Christopher Parkening playing Segovia arrangements of Bach. I know the arrangements very well -I’ve even played some of them- but the stark complexity of the melody makes it so arresting that I’m incapable of doing anything that requires creative thinking (it’s great for cleaning the house or doing dishes though). And much like the melody in a classical piece, lyrics are so at the forefront of most music it’s impossible to avoid being either distracted or polluted by them. Almost anything with a decipherable vocal part is disqualified as “writing music”. Even lyrics I know well enough to recite backward force the part of my brain that should be writing away from its task.

The best thing I’ve found for maintaining a good writing flow is post-rock. Explosions in the Sky, Calm Blue Sea, Mogwai, God is an Astronaut, and some of the less esoteric recordings of Godspeed You: Black Emperor are in heavy rotation. Melodic metal like ISIS (the members of which are probably regretting the name they chose in 1997 right now) and You Will Know Us by Our Trail of Dead can also work, although there are days when that kind of music doesn’t click. I’ve had some decent luck with movie soundtracks too. Anything Hans Zimmer does is in the running, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross have made some pretty impressive work together as well. I usually listen with noise-reducing headphones on, as I’m more easily distracted by unusual sounds than anything else. I’m always looking for new auditory input for writing, so feel free to let me know what your favorite writing soundtrack is.