A Jersey Boy in the Hamptons

Beach Shoes by Doug88888 from FlickrI spent last weekend in the Hamptons.  This is not a phrase I have ever said before in my life. I’ve been a Jersey Shore person since I was born. To take someone like me, a guy in his thirties who has experienced basically one type of beach his entire life, and drop them into a place as microcosm rich as the Hamptons…well there was some culture shock.

I should point out that my hosts were amazing and I had a great time over the weekend. When I talk about the people here I’m talking about the overall feel. It’s vibe. It’s denizens. The outliers who manage to define the image of the place in lieu of the larger crowd.

There were an astounding number of guys wearing headbands and linen jackets. At the bar we went to it was honestly like someone had offered a very sought after prize for the person who wore the biggest headband and the most carefully weathered jacket. Mirrored sunglasses were also everywhere, as if Top Gun had just come out in theaters.

And there was a hierarchy. There were guys who exuded headbandedness that had people flocking to them in order to say hello. I was chatting with someone who suddenly caught sight of one of the Kings of the Headbands, and they broke away mid-sentence in order to run after him.

Then again maybe I was being a boring conversationalist.

I was chuckling a lot. It was amazing people-watching and, aside from one or two horribly invasive assholes, it was all just something to look at while my friends and I hung out and drank beers.

But then I got to thinking. It was different, yes. And it seemed more pronounced, this costume of the Hamptons. But was it really that different from my haunt, the Jersey Shore? I mean lets be honest, it’s not like the Jersey Shore is known for its understated clothing and attitude. The shore I grew up visiting is a small family town with an ice cream parlor and a pizza place. Yet that town is on the same island as Seaside Heights, the den of Snooki and The Situation. When I go out to a bar, there are plenty of people wearing clothes that fit into that summer’s fashion nightmare of choice. And, in the end, they tend to be window dressing outside of one or two obtrusive jerks. I just hang out with my friends and people watch and have fun.

Are people everywhere just people?

I do think the Hamptons feel is more prominent, and I honestly think that is due to the geographic isolation of the area. It’s a hike to get out there and, while still more built up than many places in the middle of the country, it has a rural feel. I imagine this has a lot to do with the wealth of the area and the ability of people to be able to hold large pieces of land intact instead of parceling them out. And if some old-time family does have to sell, there is no lack of buyers willing to part with absurd amounts of money for a house in the Hamptons. Plus, unlike the Jersey shore, the landscape is largely wooded. The house I stayed at could have been anywhere in the country, the only difference being that it was a short drive to towns where everything was horribly overpriced and headbands were sold as fashion statements. The dark woods and the high trees creates a seclusion in the Hamptons. It is possible to go there and to forget that the world exists. Or maybe, it is possible to go there and have that small chunk of land become your world.

At the Jersey shore you have a series of barrier islands that run along the coast. You don’t really drive out to a point. They are small and isolated and, again, have grown their own subculture, but you also get Philadelphia influencing things and the entire Northeast Corridor has more access, so I think cultures and norms get shaken up more, as well as more often.

Also in the Hamptons, due perhaps to its foreign nature to me, I was dying to know the origins of some of the fashions. I saw a lot of tennis courts, and I imagine this explains the headbands in some way. But the people I saw had not come fresh from the court to have a drink. They were wearing headbands independent of any activity. They were wearing them to wear them, to have that look that other people had.

I have to wonder if it didn’t evolve naturally. Maybe some guy was running late and he felt his hair was too sweaty and he had nothing but his jacket because he had come from work and so he showed up for a date in a headband and jacket. And someone looked him over and said, “Yes. I think I’ll try that.”

Sure.

And maybe some guido on the Jersey Shore accidentally fell head first into a tub of hair gel and his locks hardened into concrete and he was in a rush so he just went to the bar like that after a steroid induced workout. And someone looked him over and said, “Yes. I think I’ll try that.”

Sure.

 

Pondering Air Conditioners and Writing

Friedrich by michelle thompson from FlickrIt’s been hot recently. I’ve mentioned this a few times on here.

But, seriously, it’s been hot.

It’s been hot to the point that even with the air conditioner on, it’s still hot.

This is a weird concept to me. It is also an awful concept to me. I work at home, if my home air conditioner can’t keep up, then I’m working in a hot room.

But even friends in offices told tales last week of how the mega-crazy air conditioners in mid-down Manhattan were unable to effectively keep the air inside the buildings chilled.

This is one of those details that, for various reasons, I’d never have thought to write: “It was so hot outside that the air conditioners of the city couldn’t keep the buildings cool.”

See, in my mind air conditioners just work. The notion that one might be unable to remove heat fast enough from a room to offset the amount of heat dumped into the room is so granular that it sounds silly to me. It’s an air conditioner! Of course it makes your room cold. Otherwise it’s broken.

I had never bothered to think it through before.

Plus, there are things I can do, like insulate around the open window where my air conditioner is installed, or hang things in my windows to keep my cool air inside and the hot air outside.

But, no. I never pondered air conditioners on more than a general level.

Now, I’m sure this isn’t groundbreaking news I’m delivering about how air conditioners do (or don’t) work.

My point is that things become lumped together and simplified in our heads; an air conditioner cools the room. But when that happens, the chance to capture something like a hot summer day in words gets lost.

Don’t get me wrong, you can describe how hot it is, that can get you very far. But imagine writing a scene in a room where the air conditioner is humming but everybody is still hot? Maybe someone glances over and there’s a makeshift attempt at insulation surrounding the air conditioner, like duct tape and packing foam, a slapdash offering to the air conditioner gods in hopes that it will allow the heat wave demons to be defeated?

Details like that, details that crop up once you stop simplifying the things around you and actually learn about them, those details are what will bore holes into your readers’ heads.

The more you unpack what an air conditioner does, the better you can write one into a scene to produce a desired effect.

Now…if only all my current scenes weren’t set in 17th century Transylvania…

On Outlines and Books

Outline Complete by BionicBotanist from FlickrI can remember, sort of, writing my first book back in college and how in awe I was when the structure finally revealed itself to me. I became very enamored with structure at that point.

I can remember, pretty well, writing my second book, and how the structure was one hundred percent laid out ahead of time. That book, which is not currently available, was almost a tribute to structure. The sections were named and framed before the first word was written. There were a lot of surprises along the way, but I knew what I was going to write about when I sat down each night. I didn’t realize how much of a luxury that was.

The book after that I became scared of writing without a structure, and even though there wasn’t a very firm idea from the outset, I attempted to outline the hell out of it because of that fear. I outlined sections and specific scenes and character reactions. When it came time to write it, because I had zero space to breathe lest I abandon my structure, I felt like I was jamming action figures into stories they didn’t fit into. It was horrible. That was, in my experience, the absolute worst method of creating a book.

After that I was afraid of outlines.

That’s why I did the Twenty-Six Stories project. I wanted to shake loose from the crutch of outlining and see what I could do if I just forced myself to write. The result of that was a list of short-stories that I love as well as Probability Angels, the first book of mine most people have ever read.

Then came Persistent Illusions, which I can’t remember in the slightest because it still feels like I just finished it a week ago. I have no perspective on what it was like writing that except that nothing made sense and then suddenly it all made sense.

Through all of this I’ve come to view my role in the writing process as almost passive, which is good. I feel calmer and like I’m creating the way I want to without pressuring out work that will only get cut anyway. On the other hand there’s still…I mean…I talk about this in phrases like “the structure revealed itself to me” and “it all fell together” and it sort of sounds like something else does the work, like some outside force comes along at night, book gnomes maybe, and works the kinks out of my book for me.

But that doesn’t happen. I’ve created this very Zen-esque approach to writing where I try to stay calm and let it happen as it’s going to happen, but sometimes I act like an idiot because I still need to exert force in order for something happen.

It’s like one of those Play-Doh extruding machines. All the skills you build up in yourself practicing writing is like perfecting the leverage and the molds you can use for extrusion.

Extruder

But in order to employ those, you do need to just push out some freaking Play-Doh.

Play-Doh is a weird word.

Deconstructing Urban Fantasy

The fantasy genre is something of a mystery to those who aren’t familiar with it. A lot of people dismiss it as nothing but wizards and dragons, but to do so is to oversimplify something that is incredibly complex. While, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit function as a sort of standard-bearer for the genre as a whole, they are flanked by an army of stories that are no less worthy of our attention.

Departing from the traditional forms of fantasy has taken a long time, and has resulted in rich subgenres that stretch the boundaries of what magic in fiction can achieve. From Alice in Wonderland and schools for the magically gifted (a la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) to urban fantasies such as Sandman Slim and the Anita Blake series, there’s literally no end to the variety. There are even zombie and Steampunk works that would qualify as fantasy, provided that they have an element of the supernatural in them, such as Probability Angels, which features ghosts and zombies.

It's not just about fighting dragons anymore.

It’s not just about fighting dragons anymore.

Urban fantasy is a particularly up and coming sub-genre that has recently garnered a growing following. But what exactly is urban fantasy? The common denominator here is that it usually takes place in an urban or semi-urban setting, often in the present day (though not always), and has fantastical qualities. In other words, if there are ghosts or vampires in New York City in a story, chances are the work would qualify as an urban fantasy. A good example of a popular urban fantasy is the Dresden Files, a noir-inspired series by Jim Butcher, which details Harry Dresden’s investigations into supernatural crimes that take place in modern-day Chicago.

While many of these works of fiction lack the lofty tones and formality of Tolkien and his many enamored imitators — most of whom sound really unnatural spouting his dramatic language — they make up for that with engaging storytelling, interesting characters, and general readability that some of the most “literary” works usually lack.

With a large number of fresh readers exploring the fantasy genre, aspiring authors will rise up to meet the growing demand. Additionally, the emergence of the Internet as a means of reading, distributing, and selling works will only make access to these new voices more convenient. Readers who are looking to see how the genre and its sub-genres will evolve next can keep an eye out online, in bookstores and on movie screens to see the far-reaching influence of this new world of fantasy.

Writing a Snowball in Hell

Melting by AP&F from FlickrAt the moment it is, roughly, forty-kajillion degrees outside. With the air conditioner on in my apartment I manage to cool things off to the point where water only reaches a slow boil while sitting on my desk. Around one o’clock I can actually feel the heat beating in through the rather imposing blinds which cover my windows. Shirts are worn primarily as devices to move sweat around so you don’t feel too sticky. Upon stepping outside, one’s first reaction is to squint from the sun, one’s second reaction is to grimace and turn your face away from the street where the blacktop is radiating heat like a blast furnace.

And, yet, amidst all of this, I have to create ice. I have to create snow. I have to create cold.

Why?

Because the current sequence of scenes that I’m writing takes place during winter, and winter is cold.

Sounds like a simple enough concept, but it contains every aspect of this weird task called “writing” thing that I love. Or maybe every aspect that I love to ponder.

Here it is, swelteringly hot, and I’m trying to make my reader feel cold. How is this done?

Is it enough to just say that it’s winter and move on? I doubt that.

Will the correct adjectives sprinkled in give enough of a tone to the scenes? Instead of someone “smelling the air,” if they, “smell the cold air,” will winter become present?

What about the characters? Don’t their very actions help dictate that it’s cold? Being in a cold environment produces an effect on the human body. Thus, humans standing in the cold should experience those effects. Having someone shiver, or someone wince when their ears start to freeze can accomplish quite a lot.

And what if we mix all of these? What if we have someone “wince as the cold wind bites at their uncovered ears?” Adjectives and physiology can be a powerful combination.

But what does this accomplish? Does this actually convey cold weather to the reader? Or does it only remind the reader of the times they themselves have been cold?

Is it possible to write a paragraph that will let someone who has only lived in the hottest regions of earth experience what I know as cold?

Can I actually transmit thoughts to other people by putting the right combination of words together?

What exactly occurs between me having a thought then writing it down, and you reading my words and forming a thought? This is some very mystical stuff.

It is hot outside. It is cold in my story.

And sometimes I get giddy about what I do.

A Shokunin of Words

Sushi Sashimi bridge by Pedro Moura Pinheiro from FlickrOver the weekend I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was one of the more enjoyable hour-and-a-halfs that I’ve spent in front of my television recently.

The film is an understated look at Jiro Ono, who is considered to be one of the greatest sushi chefs in the world. The man is eighty-five years old and has been making sushi for his entire life. I, personally, hate sushi, but I’m fascinated by it and the process of making it. Something about the required details and the pure artistry that goes along with it makes me stop and stare whenever it is discussed. The film manages to be both beautiful and accessible, full of culture yet familiar, deep but funny. And, again, I hate fish. I mean tuna I can get behind, not because of its taste which I still hate, but the beautiful red flesh and the massive creature it comes from are relatable to me. But this movie made me “ooh” and “ahh” over disgusting slimy eel. It’s a powerful piece of work.

The parts I loved most, and I think the reason that cooking in general, and sushi specifically, fascinates me, were the parts where they discussed the craft of sushi. Jiro a few times mentions the word “shokunin” and what it means to be one.

Looking up the word “shokunin,” one finds an almost freakish lack of definitions online. I’m used to punching anything I want more data about into Google and after scanning a few sites, having a grip on what I want to know. “Shokunin,” however, is a bit murky. I think it means “artisan” loosely translated. I’ve also seen “master” or “tradesman” used as definitions. But one gets the sense that there is much more to the word. It conveys an attitude towards one’s work, a mania of sorts, a dedication that exists to create only the best possible result whenever work is done. It also implies constant subservience, a willingness to always be learning, to always want  to learn, as much as possible, in order to create greatness.

But again that doesn’t quite capture it as well as the details of the film do. For example, one apprentice working under Jiro made a certain egg dish for two-hundred days straight until Jiro decided that he had finally made an acceptable version. We visit the fish vendors that Jiro, or at least his son nowadays, visits to shop for ingredients: the shrimp vendor will know, upon looking over the catches in the morning, right away if a shrimp will be good enough to meet Jiro’s standards; the tuna vendor is considered an outsider in the trade and will simply not purchase tuna if there are none that meet his standards; the octopus vendor was quite simply insane (fun fact: to prepare octopus for sushi, it is massaged for forty or fifty minutes before cooking…another apprentice task).

These are people who have no thoughts of anything but their craft. They don’t care what their dedication looks like, they only want to make the best sushi possible, and under Jiro a little society has built up of like-minded people who gather to either learn or appreciate these skills.

One of the strongest feelings I experienced while watching this movie was jealousy. I’ve always felt that writing is a craft that lacks many of the bits and pieces required for anyone who wishes to dedicate their life to it. There’s nowhere you can go and apprentice and write year after year after year under the tutelage of a master. There are no word markets where you can go and pick through the wares of the day with an expert eye. There are no places where constant feedback can be received for your work. The closest thing I can think of is a newspaper, but I’m talking about writing fiction, not news. Plus newspapers have to be large scale; Jiro’s sushi shop seats about eleven people…you never get the feeling that he is just crapping out sushi to meet a huge demand.

Now, granted, even if such a place did exist I have no idea if I’d be up for it. They do talk about how many of Jiro’s apprentices don’t make it, and how a few didn’t even make it through one day. If such a place does exist I doubt I’d have wound up there just because there were certain tracks my life was nailed to for most of my existence. I do know that creative writing courses, the ones I have encountered, are not what I’m talking about. The feedback in those is provided by the rest of the class, which is a tiny subset of readers not at all representative of a larger culture and easily domineered by a loudmouth or two. The amount of work required is kind of light, you can write a hell of a lot more than they demand because most of the time you are required to critique other peoples’ work. Which seems like it would teach critiquing and not writing. It was just critique, write one or two stories, get critiqued, rewrite that story, and get graded by the teacher. There was zero attention given to finding an audience, connecting with an audience, gaining faith in your voice and your own strength as a writer.

These are the things I feel a shokunin of words ought to have. There should be a place where you can sweat out fiction at a level and speed you never thought possible and have it picked over by fans and masters alike. Of course eating a piece of sushi takes about thirty seconds, and reading even a short story can be a twenty minute affair…so I’m not sure how it would work.

But, as always, my imagination turns towards the internet and what writers can perhaps cobble together in this strange new world.

Until then, I’ll always have sushi.

(blech!!)