Category : creative process

Experiments in Word Alchemy

Words, words, words. I love playing with words, mixing up words, mashing up words, making up words. Despite some persistent, pounding insecurities, I love sharing what I do with words. (Or maybe it’s that I don’t know how to not share what I do. I dream out loud.) For a change of pace, I’m going to share how I play with words when it comes to poetry. It seems like a good time for it, since I’ve been doing some different things behind the curtains lately.

IMG_0006For most of my life I’ve written poems the same way: I have some words and images and emotions bouncing around in my head, I grab some paper and a pen, I start writing, making it up as I go, until I feel like the poem is done. Then I make changes (some small, some big) before I write out the final version of the poem. Most of the changes come from reading it out loud and tweaking it so that it sounds better aloud. But the process has always started with writing by hand (as opposed to prose, which is almost always composed entirely through typing.)

After all these years, I’ve started feeling stuck in a rut and fearful of getting locked into repeating the same kind of poem over and over again. I’ve tried some different techniques in the past, but never came up with anything I felt comfortable sharing. For the past few weeks, though, I’ve been shaking my own things up and I’ve been happy with the results. Happy enough to post online and share with the world. It’s not just a fear of rut-trapped-ness that’s led me to do this. I’ve also had some particular social/political topics I’ve wanted to speak up on, but I didn’t want to write poems that were just me directly ranting about things that are upsetting me. That’s the kind of thing I leave for Twitter and Facebook.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very influenced by the Dada and Surrealist movements. Thinking about how the Dadas used their techniques as well as the words in their works to criticize modern warfare and other social/political problems, I’ve been using the Cut-Up Machine app on the website Language Is a Virus, plugging in my own writing and other sources, taking the random cut-up results (which come out as one long, unbroken stream of words), breaking the results up into lines and stanzas, and finally applying some non-Dada tweaking until it became a poem that I felt sounded good aloud and satisfied me overall.

Por exemplo, “America, You Know Such Glory” was written my usual way, then plugged into the Cut-Up Machine, then tweaked a lot, adding the phrase “america, you know” to the beginning of every stanza. “Crow Masque Barbeque” was a bunch of clichés about the American Dream and various words I just like the sound of, plugged into the Cut-Up Machine, then tweaked (less than “America, You Know Such Glory”). “I Call Shotgun, Bernadette!” came from an anti-gun control article posted on the NRA website, copied and pasted into the Cut-Up Machine, pretty much taken as is (with only some repeated words dropped), broken into lines and stanzas, and then a few words changed on a whim. None of these poems were written by hand first, which was pushing myself out of my comfort zone and has taken some getting used to. On the other hand, “Hymn Autumnal” was written by hand first, tweaked a lot, then run through the Cut-Up Machine, then tweaked a lot more. It began as the lyrics from the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” but with the words altered for summer turning into autumn instead of winter turning into spring. I messed with it a lot to make it less of a straight rewrite of the song. But after typing it out, I found I was still not happy with it, so into the Cut-Up Machine it went. I took what came out and reworked it back into a song lyric-ish structure, but altered enough that it didn’t seem so blatant to me as to what it had started out as. (I do wonder if anyone who’s read it picked up on its original source. Is it still obvious? Or not so much?)

Despite feeling nervous about doing things differently, I’m very happy with how these poems turned out and I want to keep experimenting with techniques. Because ruts are no fun to be stuck in and always doing things the same way is boooooooring…and pretty much the opposite of creativity.

And there you go!

Notes on “The Game of Puppets and Devils”

I wrote this piece of flash fiction for Chuck Wendig’s regular Friday flash fic challenge. It was heavily inspired by a short short story by Robert Sheckley, “Zirn Left Unguarded, The Jenghik Palace In Flames, Jon Westerley Dead”, which I read in an anthology, The Space Opera Renaissance, some years ago. Although Sheckley’s story is meant more as a satire of space opera, I wanted to do something similar that earnestly captured the epic far-out-ness of my favorite space opera books, comics, movies, and TV series. If my piece is short on character depth and focused more on spectacle and flavor…that was purely intentional.

The Kid With the Candlestick in the Colosseum of Dreams

I have things inside my head that are bursting to come out. This has been true for as long as I can remember. Words, images, characters, scenes, cities, cave systems, forests, circuses, libraries, labyrinths, wolves, moons, stars, planets, galaxies. Memories of things that have happened. Memories of things that have never happened. Ponderings of things that could happen. Fears, desires, regrets, mysteries, wonders. Also, cats.

They’re all bursting to come out.

Sometimes the things in my head are so jumbled and mashed up, I don’t know where and how to start letting them out. And by sometimes, I mean most of the time. It doesn’t help that the stories and songs in my head are intertwined with the dusty webs of anxiety and depression and pulled down by the gravity of adulthood. Every day is a struggle between energy, enthusiasm, imagination and fear, inertia, weight.

When I was a kid, the books, the movies, the TV shows, the comics I loved overwhelmed me with joy and awe, sparking my imagination. The only way I knew how to deal with my love for them was to steal liberally from them and use what I stole, expanding and mixing them with my own dreams, to make stories of my own. What I created was a tribute, an expression of adoration for the things I loved. I wanted to share these with other people, share my enthusiasm and love.

It was all so easy when I was younger. I wasn’t self-conscious about my writing. I didn’t worry about my writing being “original” or “sophisticated.” Writing wasn’t something I felt like I had to do, it was just what I did. Creating stories was a natural extension of consuming stories. It’s something that’s generally, tragically abandoned by our schools and authority figures as we get older. By the time I got to high school, there were teachers who actively discouraged me from creating. It was a “waste of time” or it “didn’t fit with the lesson.” I laughed at their scolding and disdain. I knew they were full of shit. But as you get older, school and jobs devour your time with work. Creative play is something you have to make time for instead of something you naturally do all the time.

But that kid I was still lives inside of me and he demands I play. He gets so excited about books, comics, movies, TV shows, plays, music, poetry, games. He races around with an intense smile on his face, his hands full of words, images, characters, scenes, castles, skyscrapers, candles, masks, skulls, trains, clocks, oubliettes, thunder and rain and mist. He grabs for pencils and pens and paper, he throws himself at the computer keyboard, and he begs me to write. He wants me to create stories and poems. He doesn’t care if they’re original. He doesn’t care if they’re sophisticated or clever. He just wants to express his love, share it with people, and hope they see something they love in it. He’s armed to the teeth with dreams, he’s kicking his feet out at the kneecaps of time and work and anxiety and depression and gravity, and he’s bursting to get out.

And this, this is why I write.

Summer Vacation

I woke up this morning, after a fine night’s sleep, feeling cranky, listless, and altogether unmotivated to do much of anything. Since the year began, I’ve been pretty consistently posting content here 2-3 times a week, but I only posted one poem last week, didn’t post anything yesterday, and couldn’t bring myself to care when I woke up today. I was solidly on the “meh” side of things.

Here’s a thing about brain meds: they don’t completely eliminate your wonky brain chemistry, they just even it out and make it easier to deal with. Crazy people are always crazy, we’re just not as crazy on our meds. So when I woke up feeling tired and fitful and apathetic, I quickly realized I was experiencing depression, which led to the larger realization that summer is starting, and summer is when my depression is generally at its worst. Most people I know who suffer from seasonal depression get it in the darker, colder months in winter. Not yours truly. I thrive in autumn, winter, and spring, but I lag in summer like a chemically-depressed…laggy thing. (Do sloths suffer from depression? Do sloths write fiction and poetry? Do sloths occasionally get mad at themselves for being so slothy? Is that sloth-loathing?)

So while I can’t completely stop the depression, I can at least recognize it and work with it and be kind to myself while it’s going on. Which means I’m taking a vacation from blogging this summer. I’ll still write as much as I can, but I’m not expecting that to be a lot, and I’m not going to push myself to post what I write publicly. If I really like something or am super inspired by something, I’ll blog it, but I’m not sticking to my standard schedule and I might go weeks without posting a good goddamn thing.

(Fun Josh Fact: one summer in college, long before I was medicated or thought I needed to be medicated, my summer depression was bad enough that focusing on words and following linear trains of thought were very, very difficult. The only book I was able to read all the way through from the start and make any sense of was William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.)

This is nothing for anyone to worry about. I’ll be fine. I just need to allow myself to back off from regularly writing and posting. And I’ll be back in full force when autumn comes around and my brain chemistry swings back up to fun levels.

A Peek Inside

The finale of the first season of The Flash was last night and I loved it so much, I was Kermit flailing for hours after it ended. The episode write-up on io9 pretty much nails why it was so amazing. In the wake of the episode, fueled by my excitement over it, I made some extremely rough…well, “notes” seems too generous. Abstract brainstorming is probably a better description. In the interest and enthusiasm of sharing my work, here is a page in my notebook with my abstract brainstorming:

idea cluster