3 Questions for Zach Braff

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Or anyone else who might be interested.

In his recent interview with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s The Treatment, actor-writer-director Zach Braff (Scrubs, Garden State) talked about his new film, Wish I Was Here, which Braff described as a story of a man “searching for himself in a quirky, funny way….struggling to find his own spirituality.” Zach no longer professes the Jewish faith in which he was raised and claims not to believe in any “higher power.” Braff’s intriguing interview raises three questions:

1. Why should human beings feel a spiritual void if there is no higher power to begin with? Is this a mere residue of a religious upbringing (Cf. “Catholic guilt”), or do human beings possess some kind of natural desire for the spiritual?

2. How is it possible that a human being would have to go in “search of the self”? What is the self that it is something that can be lost? And how does the search for the self relate to the struggle to find a spirituality? Is it the same struggle?

In the interview Mr. Braff states: “When you don’t believe in a higher power per se, what my spirituality is is finding some way of dealing with the, I don’t want to say ‘curse,’ but the mind-f@!# of living on a spinning rock in the middle of infinity. What my spirituality is is the science of it all, the earth, the elements, the fact that we’re evolved from cells and looking into nature. You know, I see God in little things, I mean I feel cheesy saying this but it’s the truth, in an orchid…I see that as my higher power…or you go online and see some bizarre-looking animal that lives a zillion miles under the sea and I see some higher power in that….”

3. The poet William Blake talked about the ability “To see a World in a grain of sand,/And Heaven in a wildflower….” Is that what you find, too, Mr. Braff, in the zygote and the orchid and the bizarre sea creature? If so, then this is an interesting kind of spirituality or transcendence, a transcendence based upon “the science of it all” in which you stand in what the novelist Walker Percy called “a posture of objectivity over against the world, a world which he [the scientist] sees as a series of specimens or exemplars, and interactions, energy exchanges, secondary causes….” From this godlike vantage point, the world indeed looks pretty spectacular, but also ultimately reducible to material actions and reactions of finite duration. Question: how is it possible to sustain transcendence or spiritual uplift when the object of one’s privileged vision, beautiful as it is, is also as prone to decay as you and I are?

The Jane Austen Racket

The Jane Austen Racket

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The Jane Austen Racket is a hard temptation for the writer to resist. It is only the iron-willed craftsman who has not lain awake into the small hours mentally tinkering with a plot that would bring the now middle-aged Knightleys, Darcys, and Captain Wentworths together for a house party at Pemberley, during which the Darcy’s daughter Imogen falls madly in love with Freddie Poots, the rascally ward of Captain Wentworth. I mean, if the formidable P.D. James cannot resist writing a murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, where does that leave the rest of us weak-willed types?

What is it exactly, that is so tempting to the writer in the Jane Austen Racket? Is it the allure of romance? But a romance writer can easily pursue 50 shades (and more!) of steamy romance by using a contemporary setting. I suppose to us workaholic westerners the leisureliness of a day that begins with a long healthy walk before a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and marmalade is also an attraction. But does the thought of writing English breakfast passages provide sufficient fuel to get a writer through 80,000+ words?

I would like to suggest another reason for the attraction of the Jane Austen Racket. Perhaps it is only my way of justifying my weakness, but I believe we writers like to return to the world of Jane Austen because we believe there is something in that world that we are desperately missing in our own. Romance is part of it to be sure, but not just any notion of romance. Leisure and opulence are part of it, too, but not just wealth for the sake of further wealth. Walker Percy once wrote that when “people already know who they are, their literature celebrates and affirms the already existing relationships and hierarchies of society.” This is what Austen’s own books do. And in desiring to revisit and re-imagine her world–even to the point, as I did in my short story, “The Bureau of Myths,” of transplanting her world, or something very much like it, to the arid desert of a post-American dystopia–I believe we are, whether we are quite conscious of it or not, attempting to rediscover who we are. Romance in the context of courtship and aimed at marriage, the fairy tale ending by which a new family enters into the community whose task is to nourish it–these are the deeper elements in Austen that we cannot resist because we instinctively know they are integral to who we are as human beings.

That, at any rate, is why I am happy to succumb to the Jane Austen Racket.

“The Bureau of Myths” is available for just 99 cents at Amazon and barnesandnoble.com until the last reel is danced. (Sign up for my free monthly newsletter and receive a free digital copy of “The Bureau of Myths” for Kindle, Nook or iPad. See the email signup form on the homepage of danielmcinerny.com.)

 

The image above is reproduced courtesy of the BBC. 

Digital Platforms for Writers: A Master Class with J.K. Rowling

Digital Platforms for Writers: A Master Class with J.K. Rowling

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The other day in the New Republic Esther Breger proclaimed J.K Rowling’s latest short story, the first glimpse she has given us of Harry Potter since the publication of Deathly Hallows seven summers ago, a “marketing scam.” This is utterly to misunderstand what savvy authors of fiction are trying to do today in building digital platforms for their writing.

Yes, Rowling has proved that she has a keen marketing sense. Anyone smart enough to retain the digital rights to her books, as she did, deserves an A-double-plus in 21st-century Digital Publishing. But what Berger fails to appreciate is the way in which Rowling’s story–a vignette, really, written from the point of view of gossip columnist Rita Skeeter, about the reunion of members of Dumbledore’s Army at the 2014 Quidditch World Cup–is part of an entire world that Rowling has been building now for at least two years on Pottermore, an immersive, RPG (role-playing game) experience for Potter fans. Rowling has written a good deal of other original material for Pottermore in the past couple of years. The story she published the other day is unique only in that Harry Potter himself features in it. And sure, Rowling looked to exploit as much as possible the buzz such a story would create. But that doesn’t make the story a “marketing scam.” This new story is not an isolated scrap of meat intended to stir the blood of Potter fans and get them to buy more Potter-themed stuff (again, not that selling stuff is not part of Rowling’s equation). It is, rather, one more entry in a much larger online experience.

Pottermore, in fact, sets the gold standard, at least in the children’s market, for digital platforms for writers. Drawing one’s audience deeper into one’s fictional world with short pieces, if only vignettes and backstory, is a key strategy that authors are using both to develop their worlds and meet the demands of their audience. This isn’t scamming anybody; this is actually a fun and useful way to write and to engage with one’s readers.

Any author, traditionally or self-published, should take Pottermore as a master class in how to build a 21st-century digital platform. Those looking for a more introductory lesson should go here.

 

The image above is reproduced courtesy of Pottermore.

The Analogical Imagination

G.K. Chesterton once said that he could never be a novelist because he “liked to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women.” To my mind, this showed an impressive degree of self-knowledge on Chesterton’s part. For as much as I admire his writing in so many other areas, I have always found that his fictional characters often suffer–to torture his metaphor–from being only half-dressed. They are more naked idea than this distinctive person.

The univocal mind, to turn to a theme expounded by William F. Lynch, S.J. (see his Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination), abstracts from particulars in order to grasp what is common to all of them. The equivocal mind does the opposite: it grasps particularity without understanding what is common. The writing of fiction demands an analogical imagination–seeing sameness amidst particularity. Aristotle in the Poetics says that poetry is more universal than history. Yet we cannot forget that it is also more particular than philosophy.

Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” says that the “least common denominator” of fiction is that it is concrete. This is because, O’Connor explains, “human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He [the writer] appeals to the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.”

There is no one else in the world like Francis Marion Tarwater. But then again, there’s a little bit of Tarwater in all of us. Such are the analogies of fiction.

Why, J.J. Abrams, Do You Feel the Need to Titillate?

I wish I could have been there at the script meeting when they discussed the scene between Carol (played by Alice Eve) and Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) when Kirk, although he’s been asked to turn around while she disrobes (no dressing room being available?), nonetheless turns around anyway and gets a load of Carol divulging her very best Victoria’s Secret underwear. I wish I could have been there to ask J.J. Abrams, “What exactly is the point? Why do you feel you need to titillate the men (boys) in your audience? Seeing Carol in her skivvies does absolutely nothing for your plot–absolutely nothing; it doesn’t even serve as prelude to a cheap romance between her and Kirk (at least not in this movie). So why, Mr. Abrams, do you feel the need to titillate? Is it because you think that men (boys), being what they are, need this sort of thing, even in a pretty darn good space adventure (and Star Trek: Into Darkness is a pretty darn good space adventure). Do you feel we can’t endure 120 minutes of your story without a little bit of soft porn thrown in? Why do you feel the need to pander in this way? Or do you think this is part of your “art”? Or did you feel you had to cave to some producer higher up in the food chain? What was it? I’d really like to know. Because you’re a good filmmaker, Mr. Abrams, and your film would have lost nothing if this scene had been completely rewritten. In any event, please know that I asked my 13 year-old son to look away while I forwarded past this scene. (Yes, that’s easy enough to do. But it sure disrupts the experience of watching your film.)

I also wish I could have been there at rehearsals to ask Alice Eve: “Really? Is soft porn really why you went into acting? Is it because you feel your acting talent can’t carry a scene that you allow yourself to be used in this way?”

Feminism is fraught with all sorts of problems, but one wishes that by now it would have succeeded at least in giving female actresses the courage not to allow themselves to be objectified by (predominantly male?) filmmakers–or by their own ambition.

Alas, this seems too much to wish.

On Dickens and the Dickensian

On Dickens and the Dickensian

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By way of preparing to write a brief review of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, a novel which many reviewers have referred to as “Dickensian,” I have returned to some things that Chesterton says about Dickens, in order to get a sharper sense of just what is meant when we say “Dickensian.”

If anything, the word “Dickensian” would seem to refer to any sprawling work of fiction set in a modern, urban center involving multiple characters and an overall comic arc. But upon hearing such a description, I think Chesterton would only chuckle and reply, “While this may be a fitting definition of “Dickensian,” it fails to do justice to what is at the heart of Dickens.”

For the heart of Dickens, Chesterton would go on to say, is first of all a large and democratic heart, that penetrates into the grandeur of even the most miserable human being. “Wherever humanity is he would have us face it and make something of it, swallow it with a holy cannibalism, and assimilate it with the digestion of a giant” (“The Dickensian”).

The heart of Dickens is also a mythologizing heart, a maker of god- or fairy-like comic characters who live “statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves.” Dickens’ aim, avers Chesterton, “is another aim altogether to those of the modern novelists who trace the alchemy of experience and the autumn tints of character. He is there, like the common people of all ages, to make deities; he is there…to exaggerate life in the direction of life” (from Charles Dickens).

Tom Stoppard on the Power of Comedy

Here is a interesting snippet from an interview with playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard in which he answers a question about why comedy seems to work better than drama at communicating important ideas.

Let me know what you think about it. I find intriguing his golf analogy, and his description of  a joke as an invitation for an audience to do a little work and meet the ideas of a play “halfway.”

You can access the entire interview here.

Writing Goals and Writing Tasks

As opposed to a set of vague and far-reaching goals and ambitions (“I’d like to write a novel that will sell a gajillion copies!”), good execution depends upon linking goals to a small set of highly-specific, well-defined tasks with a clear idea of the means necessary to accomplish them (“I’m going to write 1,000 words today on the train in my moleskine notebook because I’m going to be away from my laptop.”).

Thus as I look ahead into the second half of 2014 I’m going to resist making a list of all the things I would love to write in the coming months. Of course I would love to write a novel, a screenplay, a stage play, short audio plays, a new Patria novel, etc. etc. It’s all too easy to make such lists, and even easier to forget all about them. So I’m going to concentrate simply on this month of July in which I would like to finish 1 literary short story as well as write no less than 20,000 words toward the next Kingdom of Patria novel. Breaking these goals down into daily tasks looks like:

  • no less than 500 words per writing day toward a literary short story, working every other writing day until the draft is done; then into revision mode
  • no less than 800 words per day toward next Kingdom of Patria novel

On any given day, of course, these tasks will have to be broken down into even smaller ones: “Given that I finished the draft of the short story yesterday, I’m going to let it “cool” for a few days while I devote 1,000+ words per day to the Patria novel.” (I hope this day comes soon!)

How, then, are you distinguishing between writing goals and writing tasks?

Halftime! So How is My Writing Year Going?

On January 1st of this year I published this post with my writing resolutions for 2014. Today is June 30, the halfway point in the year, so it’s a good time to assess how well I’m doing following through on my resolutions.

Where I’ve Failed

In the January 1 post I listed several projects I aimed to pursue. My Number 1 goal was to create more content. The first item on the list was a trio of comic mysteries based upon characters in my novel, High Concepts. I spent a lot of time working on these stories in the first and second quarters of the year, completing drafts of the first two and parts of two different approaches to the third story. In the end, and for more than one reason, I just wasn’t happy with how things were going and ultimately decided not to go forward with them. Such dead-ends are natural enough, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling frustrated with all the (apparently) wasted time and effort. Sometimes I think I depend too much on feeling in assessing whether a story is working or not. Yet at the same time, I felt there was something forced in my approach to these stories. Maybe in time I will return to them but I have no plans to do so at present.

In other project abandonment news, I also decided to abandon a prequel to my Kingdom of Patria children’s series which I spent a good deal of effort on in 2013. It was a good decision in the end, but again, I’m frustrated by the time and energy lost.

I further dabbled in writing a one-act play for audio but did not commit to it decisively enough.

Generally, I change my mind overmuch about what projects I will pursue. On my January 1 list, for example, was a novel for adults. I flirted with a beginning of such a project but without real commitment. I can see in my datebook for May 23 a fresh list of new projects, a list I had abandoned almost as soon as I had written it down.

So clearly one of my biggest failures is being all over the place in terms of the project(s) I’m absolutely committed to.

In the second quarter of 2014 I also was not as consistent as I would like to have been in writing every day. I need to recommit to that goal today. This postfrom The Daily Beast, “How I Wrote 400K Words in A Year,” as well as this post on my New Year’s Writing Regimen, serve as a good, swift kick in the pants.

Where I’ve Succeeded

a. Works Published

On April 23 I published a play, The Actor. Writing drama was one of chief goals for 2014.

On June 16 I published a post-apocalyptic short story with a comic-romantic twist, “The Bureau of Myths.”

b. Developing My Digital Platform at danielmcinerny.com

On May 12 I committed to blogging at danielmcinerny.com every day. While I haven’t posted absolutely every day since then, I have posted much more regularly and I’m glad to report that the number of page views on the site has doubled from May to June. My email subscriber list has also been increasing more regularly in the last several weeks. The list receives an email newsletter from me once per month. (If you’d like to join the list, just go to the email signup form on the homepage of danielmcinerny.com.) In January I thought I would also develop a podcast but that idea is on hold for the present.

c. Developing My Platform as a Public Speaker

On May 17 I spoke at the IHM Maryland Homeschooling and Parent Conference in Mt. Airy, Maryland: “Children’s Literature, Catholicism, and the Golden World.”

On June 20 I spoke at the IHM National Homeschooling and Parent Conference in Fredericksburg, Virginia: a revised version of the Maryland talk. At both conferences Trojan Tub Entertainment maintained a booth in the vendors’ area. I sold a good number of books at the Fredericksburg conference, especially, which has helped make June 2014 my biggest sales month ever across all my titles.

In 2014 I’ve also appeared on Sheila Liaugminas’s radio program, “A Closer Look,” twice (the first having to do with The Actor and the second having to do with children’s literature and my Kingdom of Patria series), and on my friend Karen Hornsby’s radio program, “Wake Up! Lousiana” twice.

I have one speaking engagement scheduled for October at Villanova University. In the fall I plan on pursuing many more readings at schools and public libraries.

Where I’ve Changed My Mind

In January this site was still called The Comic Muse, but it wasn’t long before I decided that my own name was a better title for my platform and so I changed the name and asked my illustrator, Ted Schluenderfritz, to revise the banner on the site accordingly.

Also, in January I was looking to make what is now danielmcinerny.com the hub of an online community of Catholic writers. Though I am happy to identify myself as a Catholic author and am delighted by the presence of Catholic writers who have joined my subscriber list, I changed my mind about how I want to profile my platform. Now I’m interested in taking an approach to writing that is certainly inspired by the Catholic tradition but which is not exclusively focused on explicitly Catholic things. This is itself a Catholic position. For given a Catholic understanding of the goodness of the natural order, it makes perfect sense that a concern with the natural principles of storytelling will reflect what is ultimately a Catholic understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful. This doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes blog about Catholic things or that my writing doesn’t reflect my beliefs. It’s simply that I want to find as much common ground with non-Catholic writers and even non-religious writers as I can.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know how I plan to proceed in the second half of 2014.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear how your own writing year is going. What are your successes and failures? How have you changed course? What have you learned?

Flannery O’Connor on Fiction, Fact and Mystery

“We Catholics are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction doesn’t have any. It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery.” –Flannery O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”

But for Flannery O’Connor, a renewed sense of mystery is bound up with a commitment to “fact.” Continuing in this same passage in “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” she writes: “St. Gregory wrote that every time that the sacred text describes a fact, it reveals a mystery. This is what the fiction writer, on his lesser level, hopes to do.” But there is a danger in this for the writer who is also a religious believer. “The danger for the writer who is spurred by the religious view of the world is that he will consider this”–i.e., describing a fact that reveals a mystery–”to be two operations instead of one. He will try to enshrine the mystery without the fact, and there will follow a further set of separations which are inimical to art. Judgment will be separated from vision, nature from grace, and reason from imagination.”

So the task for the writer is to dig so deeply into the concrete that mystery, like precious oil, wells up out of the ground. Mystery is hidden within the concrete data of human experience; it is not “sold separately” elsewhere. And so the writer attuned to mystery is someone who sees more of the facts than other writers do. He does not stop at the surfaces of things. He knows that the full complexity of human beings opens us up at least to the possibility of the transcendent.