Category Archives: writing & making stuff

hands up if you’re interested in writhing

Jaquet-Droz-automata-10

Something I’ve only just now found out about, and that may be of interest to NYC-area readers: There’s a Oulipian writing group that “meets weekly to practice and discuss the techniques of constrained writing.” It’s called The Writhing Society and it’s led by Wendy Walker and Tom La Farge. Meetings are Wednesdays at 7 at Proteus Gowanus. Not this coming Wednesday, because of the hurricane, but they’ll be doing something at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday November 10th (yes, tomorrow), and according to an email that went round they may try to find an alternate place to hold their regular meeting this coming week. Their space got some Sandy seepage under its door, and right now they’re planning to reopen November 15th. I suggest contacting Proteus Gowanus via the info on that Writhing Society page if you want more information about their irregular activities in the meantime.

I’ve been working on my own little Oulipo-inspired project for a couple weeks now, actually, when I can find time. It involves Apple’s voice-to-text technology, which to my perpetual delight doesn’t always work all that well. Hopefully it will be finished soon. I’ll post it here when it’s fully cooked. I’m very curious about The Writhing Society, though, and do intend to check it out soon. Getting a Manhattanite out to Gowanus for a meeting can be like pulling tleeth, but in actuality the journey is not a lengthy one.

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Unrelated, but also possibly of interest: the Center for Tactical Magic is holding a bank robbery contest in partnership with Southern Exposure. Not to see who can rob an actual bank the fastest or who can grab more monies, but to see who can come up with the most visionary and well-thought-out proposal. The idea, basically, is that our collective “heightened antagonism towards the big banking establishment deserves a creative outlet,” and that now is the time “to re-visit the romantic representation of bank robbers in relation to the current economic and social crises, including: income disparity, unemployment, housing foreclosures, federal bailouts, the LIBOR scandal, and a wealth of other egregious economic indicators.” The prize is $1,000 in real-life U.S. clams.

bank robbery contest

Click on the poster to see the submission guidelines and FAQs.

I learned about it via Arthur magazine, though their link seems to have gone dead. I’m still in the early stages of working on my own proposal but it’s OK; the deadline isn’t until January 31, 2013.

Years ago my ex-boyfriend and I invented a character called Jerry B’Jerry. We’re still best friends and we still discuss Mr. B’Jerry from time to time, and I think this heist is probably a job for him. He’s definitely got antagonism towards the banking establishment, and he’s a really sketchy guy. He’s never had a life on paper — he has only an oral history — but the promise of cash might be just what’s needed to draw him further out into the world. If you’ve got a character or two casing your own mental joint, I encourage you to enter them in the contest. I have a feeling some of you people have the potential to clean up.

Close-up of Jaquet Droz’s “The Writer” automaton above from A Blog to Watch.

a good kick in the blog-pants

I find my spam comments in-box incredibly inspirational and I’m disappointed in myself for having forgotten to check it for such a long time. Clearly this is the reason for my silence over here! One of them, at least. I’ve been blogging over on my food blog pretty regularly lately but I’ve got a funny problem that’s disproportionately affected this one, apart from the usual moods and illness and day-job stuff: My w on my keyboard is broken. I snipped that one from a recipe for mango pickle I happen to have open in another tab. I’ve become adept at scavenging for this letter. Needing a big one is much more problematic but I incidentally mentioned Edith Wharton on my food blog the other day so at least that’s there if I need it. I could simply buy a replacement keyboard, of course, but I’d like to get a . . . hmm . . . cord-free one that I can use in connection ith shit alongside both my big desktop computer and my iPad, and I’d like to research my options a bit before buying. A tedious little project, as I’m not very interested in shopping for things like this. Then I noticed that blog-friend A beguiled slim alien (that is not really his name) is making lipograms and naturally I thought, suppose I never buy a replacement? At the very least I should give this more time to see if I can use it to my advantage.

My spam comments inevitably push me to reconsider things in this exact same manner. They are consistently inventive in language usage and often very funny too, and I find the combination irresistible and inspiring. Seriously, if you don’t have a blog, think about starting one solely for the purpose of harvesting spam comments. Here are the ones I have at present (after discarding the useless and irredeemably dull ones, the ones that are just links and the ones about SEO something blah blah):

Lunar Camel Co. spam comments

Lunar Camel Co. spam comments part 2

Click either image to enlarge. I’ve blurred the email and IP addresses because even spammers have a reasonable expectation of privacy there.

So many ideas and lessons! The fact that they’re about hard-on pills, escorts, and headphones also, I admit, tickles my blogger parts. They generally are this flavor. I like to think there is a subtle but discernible hint of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll around here and apparently there is. If my spam tilted more in the direction of moms earning $2000 a day at home I’d feel a need to do some inner searching. But back to the ideas.

1. Addled syntax can be super-exciting. It tends to lose something if made intentionally, but that’s all the more reason to practice and to experiment and to learn to cover your tracks. Being nimble, spontaneous-seeming and intentionally playful is damn hard to pull off in part because none of those qualities should be obviously being pulled off.

2. If you’re going to blog about topical topics, bring a fresh perspective to them. Zombie attack jokes are very cheap at the moment. The paranoid edge to the zombie references in my spam here is genuinely off-kilter in a manner that’s hard to fake, and that makes them more intriguing. Alongside the doom and gloom in both of them is a strange vision of something transcendent: “an unexpected getting” and “a good unsuspected becoming.” I believe both are meant to evoke innocent people placidly minding their business, but if so there is a curious sense of transit on their part, a sense of movement amidst their calm, and an implication that the actions being talked about have not stopped occurring. It’s a challenging idea to get one’s mind around and, I think, an interesting one.

3. An under-used bit of vocabulary can pack a big punch if thoughtfully deployed. I’m talking about the use of “devilry” in the last one there, the Slendertone link. Very nicely done.

4. Flattering your reader can be embarrassing for both parties but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. I take a small but genuine pleasure in thinking of myself as “an overly skilled blogger” and “thus cool,” even if it’s only robots and jaded, spotty Uzbeki teens saying so.

5. Being mysterious but not coy is tricky but should be attempted. To say that “[c]ertain 3 areas in this article are definitely the very best” but not specify the areas doesn’t cut it for me, but there’s room for improvement.

6. An unaffectedly simple question can have a devastating effect. The one inquiring about my method(s) for making my blog froze me in my seat because I truly have no idea. Surely this commenter didn’t mean coding, surely he or she meant something more nebulous? But those aspects of it are not any less opaque to me than they are to anyone else. I’m going to try not to get hung up on this at the moment and focus on making use of some of these other lessons instead.

creative constipation + its antagonist

For a long while now I’ve been aware of and mildly interested in Momus without bothering to investigate. (More on this below). Every so often I’ll stumble across or be pointed towards something of his, and that’s that. I recently found myself watching this new-ish video from him and liking it a lot.


Momus and John Henriksson, “Love Wakes The Devil”

I circulated it to a few friends with the qualification “I have mixed regard for this guy” or something(s) to that effect, and I got some interesting responses. One person helpfully pointed out that the mystery man in the video — perhaps a long-forgotten robot built to compete with Elvis, shelved for awkwardness? — is reminiscent of this other guy. Another asked why the mixed feelings? “I think maybe it’s his voluminous and incessant output,” I answered. “All the blogging, etc. I guess I’m a bit suspicious of someone who is endlessly interested in their own utterances, for years and years and years at a time. Or maybe I just resent him for having so much of himself out there, because it makes it sort of impossible for me to evaluate him as a casual listener.” Which is silly, obviously, for several reasons. Why should anyone be graspable in one grab? Of course they should not be, and I tend to actively dislike people who are. Why not put a ton of yourself out there is a discrete, messier and more interesting question, I think, and my friend’s perceptive response made me rosy with self-consciousness:

He’s definitely a certain kind of person. I think he is very comfortable expressing himself. I don’t think he is self-critical (I mean this in a positive way). I don’t think he is trying to make a ‘great work.’ I think he sees himself in the tradition of folk music. And in his mind giving something to world — no matter how imperfect — is better than keeping it stifled up. As a result he has really added something to the world where most of us are trying so hard to be perfect we never actually do much.

I don’t think he meant really for real on a granular level (individual albums, songs, what-have-you), but you get the idea. I’ve struggled with the trying-to-be-perfect thing at moments but the biggest issue for me is wanting to have everything in place before I start a new project. Which is, yeah, a form of wanting everything to be perfect. I find it very difficult to start something new unless I feel I can completely throw myself into it, and how can I completely throw myself into something unless my “spare” time, my energy, and my reasons for wanting to do it are all heaving with abundance? And would you believe I have some trouble getting these things synced up? Of this bundle of idiotic expectations I have, the time-related one seems to be the most manageable; I think it’s a relatively straightforward matter of learning new habits (getting comfortable working in small chunks of time rather than big blocks, for example). Where I really run into trouble is in navigating the ambivalence I develop about my reasons for taking on any potential project, my questions about why do z instead of y or x, and is it worth bothering with at all. Not because I believe in greatness-or-nothing but because I believe in deliberateness-or-nothing. Just about every book or song or arty-whatnot that’s ever really meant anything to me was made by someone who seems to have been working from a series of rigorous aesthetic and intellectual decisions (versus working from a mindset of “oh hell, I’ll just try it and see where it goes”). My ideal is work that appears unstudied coming from someone who has studied the fuck out of it. One example, a curious one considering I don’t particularly like the Ramones: A couple weeks ago this article by Johnny Ramone came out, and in it he talks about the formation of the band and the decisions they made in the earliest days. The four skinny guys in jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets (or, the four skinny guys in jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets) took six months to decide that that’s what they would wear:

At that point, we were still dressed in partial glitter. I had these silver-lamé pants made of Mylar, and these black spandex pants I’d wear, too. I was the only one with a real Perfecto leather jacket—what the Ramones would later be identified with—which I had been wearing for seven years already. I also had this vest with leopard trim that I had custom made.

We were still evolving into the image we became known for, but it was trial and error at first. I’d give Tommy a lot of the credit for our look. He explained to me that Middle America wasn’t going to look good in glitter. Glitter is fine if you’re the perfect size for clothes like that. But if you’re even five pounds overweight, it looks ridiculous, so it wouldn’t be something everyone could relate to.

It was a slow process, over a period of six months or so, but we got the uniform defined. We figured out that it would be jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets, and the tennis shoes, Keds. We wanted every kid to be able to identify with our image.

I’ve never cared about wanting to make anything people can identify with but I do care deeply about singularity, and I think it generally comes from that same process of refining one’s ideas to the point where everything that’s there represents a series of decisions. (To use another Ramonesian example, think of them playing “Happy Birthday”: it would sound 100% like a Ramones song, and we can easily visualize how they would look playing it, the way they’d be standing or holding their instruments, and pretty much everything else about it). It’s not that I think a uniform or an identifiable stance are essentials or that it should necessarily be a slow or anguished process; it’s more about starting from a place that isn’t aesthetically or intellectually bankrupt, and paring away any crap going forward.

Do any of you have secret tricks for working through these pre-working choices, for wading through the muck between having an idea and commencing work on the idea? Please murmur them into my comments section. Highly recommended drugs that enable you to start a hundred weirdo side projects while blogging like a fiend will also be considered.