Shame and Affirmation: A Vet Revisits Tim O’Brien


"We wait to ETS, / until we all come back from Iraq with PTS, / and so we all just stay in and PCS."

So I was going make this blog an every-other-Wednesday sort of thing, but it’s the Fourth of July — kind of a big day in my world. Been working on thesis stuff, and for reading now I’m getting back into Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I first read O’Brien as undergrad at Boise State, requirement for a class on literary criticism. Read the first story in the collection as part a handout, thought it jingoistic and glorifying at the time, but then again I’d only been out of the Army for a year. I couldn’t see the story on account of its setting; I was still too close to that part of my life to be able to see it honestly. Most days it all still rubbed me like sand on a sunburn, reminding when I wanted to forget. I hated it. I had just quit smoking and I hated it.

My initial reaction to reading O’Brien was “So the fuck what?” I didn’t give a damn about Lt. Jimmy Cross. I had no respect for that sort of whining out of a soldier –my thought was, fucking deal, you pussy, suck it up and drive on — and certainly didn’t respect it out of an officer. I once had an NCO above me — Sgt. Notz — kid about my age who’d married a girl in another platoon. He came over one night and moped on my bunk about being worried about his wife who was out on a convoy. I told him it’d been seven months since I’d even seen my wife, and that I had zero sympathy. I was cleaning my rifle at the time, breaking it down piece-by-piece and wiping. This was the first time he and I had interacted as anything but a junior leader terrified of his bosses, and a college dropout hanging out on the bottom-rung of a war. Read more »

“Dear Esther”: A Long Walk Into a Very Bleak Sunset

"I have begun my ascent on the windless slope of the western side. The setting sun, an inflamed eye squeezing shut against the light shone in by the doctors." (Image credit: thechineseroom)

The screen above comes from a little experiment by University of Portsmouth developers thechineseroom, created in conjunction with writer Dan Pinchbeck and Mirror’s Edge level designer Robert Briscoe. Is it a computer game? Is it a visual novel? It’s both really. It’s titled Dear Esther, and regardless of whether you write or game, you should absolutely experience it. Read more »

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

Go to hell, Skeptical Baby. You don't have even HAVE your degree.

So, I’m conversing recently with a coworker at my regular, bill-paying job. I answer phones for a bank — don’t judge me, it’s chill, I get to go to work in jeans, and I don’t have to wear a stupid hat or sing any stupid songs over the course of my shift. Call-centers, in my opinion, are the new steel-mills: ready employment for willing Americans, if one can just get past the high turnover and lousy benefits. But I digress.

So anyway, I’m talking to said coworker — middle-aged soccer mom, seems nice enough. She’s overheard me talking about stuff for school, and so she smiles, asks me where I’m attending. I tell her EWU. She asks me about my major, and of course I steel myself a little bit before saying “Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.” There’s always that brief moment of unblinking skepticism people give me when I say this, but I’ve gotten used to this just as I’ve gotten used to customers from New Jersey being foul of temper and lukewarm of IQ.

Note, however, that said coworker doesn’t ask me “What I plan to do with that degree,” but rather, “what I want to be when I grow up.” It’s moments like this that make me wish I had advanced training in Krav Maga. Read more »

The Lesson of the Bone-Flutes

They were carved from mammoth ivory and bird bones, left and found in a cave in Southern Germany. We don’t actually know what the people who carved them called themselves — we know them now only as the Aurignacian Culture. Their flutes had at least two and in some cases three primary scales, which says their creators had a reasonably sophisticated understanding of musical principles. These are the same people who produced paintings and sculptures of mammoths, aurochs, rhinoceros, and lions — all now extinct in Europe, if not the entire world. Some of these sculptures are anthropomorphized and depicted in ornate dress, suggesting a religious component to their creation.

The Aurignacians disappeared 40,000 years ago. The whole of Europe has frozen over twice since they vanished. Their works predate the Lascaux cave-paintings by over 20,000 years. Read more »

Titles Without Stories (A Short Listing of My Failures as a Writer)

With a brief hat tip to Sam Ligon and Jeff Corey, and without any further ado:

1. “In Scenic Pigs, Arizona”

2. “The Pool Boy Sends His Regards”

3. “Here’s to You, ‘Typhoid Mary'”

4. “Forty Pounds of Tallow and Thou”

5. “Nude, Manning a Leaf-Blower” Read more »

Is All the World Jails and Churches?

The older I get, the more I believe it to be so.

So I was perusing my usual blogs earlier this week, and came upon an article in Wired, plugging a new documentary by filmmaker Stephen Maing, titled High Tech, Low Life. The name of the film comes from a quote attributed to author William Gibson, who famously used the term to describe cyberpunk fiction as a sort of lire noir of the Information Age. Given the film’s focus on citizen bloggers in the People’s Republic of China, the title seems quite appropriate.

I haven’t seen the film yet, as it’s only just now screening in select cities. However, I was very interested in the article itself, which details the efforts of Chinese citizens to undermine the country’s infamous “Great Firewall.” Granted, by now we’ve all read volumes about China’s record of Internet censorship, mostly in a  pro-America, be-grateful-for-the-freedoms-you-have context. That sort of talk has never really interested me, as it’s frankly dishonest and is usually employed to stifle legitimate criticism of America’s own human-rights record. What DID interest me about this preview, however, was the very different kind of censorship that Maing’s film appears to portray. Read more »

A Playlist for a Prison

So I begin teaching at a local correctional facility this week; I’m there on behalf of the EWU MFA teaching group, Writers in the Community. Led by program director Greg Spatz and current 2nd-year Fictioner Liz Moore, a few of us MFAers go out and teach Creative Writing classes at local schools, nursing homes and prisons every quarter. Rather, I suppose I should use the form prison, singular. There’s only one prison slot in the program, and this quarter, I’m it.

1. Half-Life 2  ~ Nova Prospekt

The facility I’ll be in is a combination medium/long-term minimum security installation. It houses over a thousand inmates, and sits west of town beyond the pines and hills, on the edge of the vast flat scabland that is Central Washington. There’s only one way in or out, and from the road all one sees are hardened structures, high fences, and floodlights. I actually approached it for the first time and thought of our old bases back in Iraq, all guard-towers and razor wire, and felt my throat close up for a moment. Odd, that what should inspire trepidation about this place was not the nature of the facility, nor its population, but rather its associations with someplace else.  Read more »

Gibson’s Corollary: Advertising as Art

… Or is it the other way around?

The clip below purports to be a keynote address from the global “Technology Entertainment Design” expo (TED), a series of science and research conferences funded annually by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation. In the clip, English billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland discusses the relationship between technology, human expansion, and defiance of authority, as first embodied by the myth of Prometheus in Greek mythology.

 

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQpGwnN3dfc[/youtube]

 

You will notice almost immediately that the date-stamp on the clip places the lecture in March of 2023. Savvier viewers may also note that the figure of Weyland is actually Australian actor Guy Pearce, famous from films such as Memento and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The clip is a piece of viral marketing, first screened exclusively at this year’s actual TED conference in Long Beach, California, and produced for the occasion by Alien director Ridley Scott. The clip was designed to not only advertise the TED talks themselves, but also Scott’s upcoming Alien spinoff flick Prometheus. The name Weyland, incidentally, is a reference to Weyland-Yutani, the mysterious “Company” behind the tragic events of the original Alien film. Read more »

The Importance of Not Being Clever

How IS that working out for you?

In the film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, anarchist fugue-state persona Tyler Durden listens as his seatmate on a flight makes a witty joke. No smile, no change in expression, indeed no sign of response at all. “Oh I get it,” he says, when the play on words is finally explained. “It’s very clever. How’s that working out for you, being clever?”

“Great,” says the narrator.

Tyler rolls his eyes. “Keep it up then,” he says. “Right up.”

I thought of that exchange this morning while trolling around on iO9 (because I’m a gigantic science nerd), when I came across this article by Charlie Jane Anders. The title is “How NOT to be a Clever Writer.” It’s mostly aimed at writers of specfic, though it does have some advice in there for MFAers as well (and I happen to be both). The crux of the article addresses the desire of many young writers to be the MOST witty, the MOST inspired as far as dialogue, use of line, or world-building, which tends of course to make a given narrative more about the writer themselves (Look at me!), rather than about the piece they’ve created. Read more »

What’s Wrong with Speculative Fiction? I Might Have an Idea.

What's wrong with speculative fiction? Nothing, really; it's just that too often, you can see the machinery underneath (Photo Credit: iO9)

So I was in class recently — Greg Spatz’s Form and Theory course, “Beyond Realism” — when I happened to peer over at a classmate’s book. Leisure reading, outside of our normal assigned material. Victorian-style cover art; dark hues and noirish, industrial overtones. Something steampunk.

“What are you reading?” I asked her.

The classmate shrugged. “Nothing you’d be into. Not really literary.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You know my first publication was science fiction, right?”

“Really?” She seemed puzzled. “Guess I didn’t see that one coming.”

As a group, we MFAers tend to be sensitive over our choices in reading or writing. We’ve been raised on steady diets of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, and anything that breaks from that minimalist tradition, we often feel the need to excuse. And why wouldn’t we? As both Tyler Evans and Greg Leunig have recently observed, such admissions can do great harm to the perception of one’s artistic credibility, and even to one’s career aspirations. I’m not saying I agree that such should be the case, necessarily, but then I’m also not super-defensive over it. If a given work can be considered good writing — that is, good in the sense of structure, characterization, use of line — it should hold up on its own, regardless of genre.

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