The Thoughtful Blogger

 

Have you ever analyzed what blogging means to you and how it influences what you write? You could learn a lot. Recently, I did just that for Esther Prokopienko, a grad student at the College of Saint Rose. Researching both the act and platform of blogging, she incorporated the following answers into her research and posted the resulting paper, The Scholarly Writer/Blogger: A New Discursive Space, on her own blog, Esther’s Space.

1. How long have you been blogging? Why did you choose to begin? Do you notice any changes in your writing/thinking process from before you were a blogger to now, as an active blogger? Do you use blogging as a way of thinking through ideas? How do you use the different mediums (journals, blogs, livejournals, etc) for thinking and writing?

While spending a great deal of time overseas as a flight attendant (1997-2001), I had begun a blog of sorts, The Lincoln Street Chronicles, to keep friends and family updated on my personal activities and observations. I’d also share pre-digital, scanned photos of my layovers. That primitive HTML site was hosted by Geocities and I would add entries to the top of a free, single and static web page. There was no mechanism for readers to enter comments, but I sometimes posted interesting email replies under the main post. I certainly wasn’t the only person doing this, but I suspect that blogs, as they are known today, stemmed from this type of “web logging.”

I have been blogging officially since January 2007 when required to do so for a college literary theory class. Transitioning to a more sophisticated data entry system and the access to an extensive, searchable catalogue of Google Images added for multi-layered meaning was quite exciting. After I resigned from flying, my writing had become private again, hand written within various small, decorative journals. I had forgotten how much I missed my online interactions until assigned my first class task, to write an introduction about myself, a task that included a carefully selected picture of a toilet.

I thought, initially, that the informal style I used to record thoughts and feelings about places I had visited would not translate well to academic theory analysis. I was wrong. I quickly realized that it was the perfect tool to express my frustration with my lack of quick and easy understanding. In fact, while venting about how difficult Bakhtin?s theory was to grasp upon first reading, I had a bit of fun creating dialogue as if I were speaking with him. His picture looks down upon my own as he encourages me to take another look at what he has to say. When I do, I gain more understanding and share that understanding with my classmates. In this and later posts, I draw parallels between the material and various pop cultural phenomena such as Madonna?s affinity for sparkly things and Star Trek’s arch enemy of assimilation, the Borg.

Creating written content, through blogging or any other kind of writing, forces me to engage more thoroughly with the material. Fleeting thoughts must be carefully molded into cohesive ideas. In my mind, because blogs are designed for a wider audience than that of a private scholastic paper read by a single professor, the inherent design infuses an added responsibility to entertain (or at least engage) a larger audience. It also adds importance, when presenting interpretations publicly, to ensure accuracy. To get sloppy is to risk public humiliation on the world stage. This is the additional pressure of academia in the blogosphere, a place where unknown professors are looking for lesson plans, students are looking for clues in order to grasp difficult topics, and, in the case of a particular international literary journal that pirated one of my posts, editors are looking for material to publish.

2. Describe what you write. What makes the blog an appropriate avenue for exploring your topic? Do you have a separate personal blog and a more academic blog, or are they one? Do you think of your blog as a personal space, or as a space to engage in discussion with others?

The majority of my blogging tends to focus on class discussion topics or to stem from assignments. As my collection grew, I decided to make this a repository for all my academic writing. I have since added and back dated assignments from other classes in order to keep a mind-expansion record of sorts.

To talk of academic writing alone would only portray half of the story. At some point, after talking with two friends about the first and last time I ate haggis, I pulled an old journal entry from that day, posted it to my blog and shared the link. When I first did this, I knew that classmates would also be able to read about my adventure. This was the day I discovered a use for categories and tags, an easy way to delimit the personal from the scholastic within the same blog. From then on, Daily Drivel became the category of choice for anything personal.

The terms “personal space” and “blog” are incongruous to me. The fact that readers from all walks of life and from all over the world have the ability to comment make this space public. In fact, I have learned to limit the presence of my personal snippets, or at least writing that is meaningful to me, thanks to the advent of Google AdSense. It seems that the new trend for “entrepreneurs” is to steal posts from other blogs, post them to their own site, sign up with Google AdSense and have Google place topic specific advertisements in their sidebars. When people land on these sites and click the sidebar ad, the blog thief capitalizes on writing that is not their own. This has happened twice, putting the onus on me to prove my identity by sending a copy of my passport as well as the original site of authorship prior to Google shutting down the culprit. Apparently blogging is no longer enough. Now one most police their posts as well.

3. When writing a blog post, how do you imagine yourself as the writer? How much of your writing is “real you” and how much is a portion of you- writer you, blogger you, academic you?

I have heard this question asked before and still don’t know how to reply. I do not picture myself compartmentalized in such clear terms. My humor almost always enters into my academic writing, for better or worse, so that could probably be read as “the real me” shining through. Since the academic scope of my writing is based in deep-seated curiosity, even that is “the real me.”

What I can say about writing, in any format, is that I am far more confident using the written word than I am with engaging in the messy act of unleashing my ideas verbally. I am more apt to express my actual thoughts in writing than when under the gun to speak in public, a task that strikes terror into the depths of my soul. In fact, when speaking, I often cannot find those words most important to conveying my idea at all.

4. When you are writing, do you imagine an audience? Do you know your audience personally? Has your blog provided opportunities for you to meet others with the same interests? Have you ever consciously chosen to write/not write something because of concern over your readers? possible responses? Do you ever use blog feedback to generate new blogs?

My audience, beyond my classmates, is typically envisioned as a big, black void. Brave confidence in writing only goes so far when I never know what is coming at me from the dark recesses of the internet. Some expert can come along and tell me I?ve got it all wrong, which I would actually welcome, but I am careful not to write much about politics for fear of a giant slamfest. My political opinions are only now becoming part of the majority point of view. The past eight years have been a different story.

I broke this political silence recently when I received a friend?s response to my Facebook tagline that sparked a political discussion. Moving the discussion from one platform to another, I transferred it to my blog and kept my correspondent-in-crime anonymous. This would be the closest I have ever come to generating new posts from blog feedback.

Post inspiration is most likely to come from my in-depth comment on other blogs rather than blog feedback. When I receive a comment, of course that sparks conversation. I simply tend to keep topic conversations confined to a single post, sometimes replying with as much as an essay-length response rather than breaking out a new post.

5. What are your blog stats? What is an average number of visitors to your blog per day? What areas of your blog are the most popular? Are there particular topics that elicit a higher readership? How has your readership changed over time?

My most famous blog post of all time is called “Foucault, Foot Lickers, & 7 Foot Sex Symposium.” This post is a Foucaultian interpretation of a college faculty reading in which one essay examined how wrong the fetish of foot-licking seems to be while another explored the ways housing a seven foot tall painting of a bikini clad couple for a friend changes one’s life. Both essays had, in my mind, proven Foucault?s point that in all the ways we try to avoid talking about sex, a discourse is thus created.

Search terms for this particular post are less than academic: foot lick, foot licking, lick foot, licking feet, lick feet, feet lick, feet licker, sex foot, sex feet, feet sex, foot sex, footsex, and so on. 2008 has yielded 2,736 hits for this post alone, up from a measly 300 from May-Dec. in 2007.

Close seconds include posts on Cindy Sherman and Linda Hutcheon, both of the postmodern persuasion.

Oddly, political posts get the fewest hits so perhaps it’s time to shelve that unfounded fear of a slam fest from folks who disagree with my views. Good to know.

Will the Real Harvey Pekar Please Step Up?

From the beginning of Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), we are presented with many versions of Harvey Pekar:

A comic strip frames Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay), an uncostumed kid on Halloween in 1950. When asked what he’s dressed as, we learn that this kid is no super hero. He cranks off, “I’m Harvey Pekar. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood” and storms off with the voices of kids mocking his name in fading echos.

If memory serves correctly, we hold that same external comic frame and fade the content to actor Paul Giamatti walking that same street playing the film’s character “all grown up.”

• A voiceover of the real Pekar tells us Harvey Pekar is also a real guy and we eventually meet that guy in a sound studio being interviewed, documentary style, by Shari Springer Berman.
• Interspersed are comic renditions of the character talking to us in bubbles, telling us about who he is.
• Giamatti thinks in bubble text at the supermarket where the idea for American Splendor was born.
• We meet “the comic renditions” of Pekar again at the the train station when Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) arrives for the first time.
• Later, we get clips of the real Pekar on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
• Giamatti also stages Pekar’s volatile GE/NBC blast on the same show.
• Last but not least, we see one more permutation when Giamatti acts repulsed while watching a play about Pekar played by Donal Logue when the voiceover adds that he, the real Pekar, wonders how he?ll feel seeing Giamatti play him in this movie.

The genius mix of reality and fiction is enough to make my head spin…

On one hand, Harvey Pekar is very real. He documents his every day life events and those of his work acquaintances in American Splendor comics. He has appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” as your average guy from the Cleveland rust belt (although he doesn’t seem very average to me). He has always kept his job as a VA hospital file clerk. Now he’s produced enough work and acquired enough fame to appear in this movie but divulges the fact that he’s doing it for the money. Throughout every rendition of American Splendor, Pekar’s reality bleeds from life to art and back again.

On the other hand, Pekar, like any artist, hand selects moments that portray his reality in a particular way. The comic story is first selected and shaped by Pekar. As one of the film’s screenwriters, he has some sway over what makes the film. Although he does little to openly display his controlled artistic bent, we get a small clue when, by his own admission, he says he has not always portrayed his wife accurately. Pekar also relinquishes much of his control?when rendered visually by a wide range of artists. That control is once again wrested from him with the inclusion of other screenwriters. At one point, he fears what the film’s outcome will be with so much room for interpretation by others. In these small spaces, we can see that the real Harvey Pekar is not so easy to pin down. Perhaps this is why, after seeing other HP’s in the phone book, Pekar ponders both who they are and who he is.

This fictionalized reality becomes interesting in that, although Pekar rebels against commoditization of corporate entertainment, particularly as he and self-proclaimed “nerd” Toby Radcliff (Judah Friedlander) are commandeered on “Letterman” and MTV, Pekar has ironically been in the business of commodifying himself from the beginning. The Pekar doll made by Joyce, now his wife, is the perfect metaphor for Pekar’s construction process. The clothing is something Pekar has truly worn, the fabric of his reality, so to speak, and something everybody can relate to. But it is his face, ultimately his identity, that is the creation of an artist. By making himself a comic book character, the visual product patterned by and after Pekar himself is what has been for sale at every stage of the game.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

In Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), we discover the early nature of Oscar Wilde’s fame (played by Stephen Fry) from a conversation between the characters of Ada Leverson (Zoe Wanamaker) and Lady Mount-Temple (Judy Parfitt):

Lady Mount-Temple: I know your friend is famous, Ada.
Ada Leverson: Notorious, at least.
Lady Mount-Temple: But I don’t understand for what.
Ada Leverson: For being himself, Lady Mount-Temple.

In Alan Randolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), this type of fame is said to be true of Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as well. The repetition of this notion (in these and other films) suggests that writers have a larger-than-life personality and high social profile in addition to the work they produce. While we know this to be untrue, particularly since writers lead much of their lives behind a desk writing about subjects other than themselves, only those eccentric, dramatic and often tragic figures lead lives worthy of having films made about them. Unless we look beyond the film portrayals, what an audience is left with is the notion that all authors must experience adventurous escapades to craft good work.

What Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle does differently is poke fun at the stereotypical valorization of the writer’s life at the same time that it partakes in the act. By creating a story about those literary figures that began at Vanity Fair and who eventually created The New Yorker, they are obviously held in high historical regard, certainly notorious enough to spend?many thousands of dollars on production costs. While the film reinforces valorization in this way, the script itself is where the mockery of this process exists.

What does fame mean as compared with the value of the writing? Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), Parker’s co-hort in the Vicious Circle, says in jest:

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

This suggests, at least according to this writer’s character, that when fame supersedes the work, the work can no longer fail. In fact, the work must continue in order to sustain the fame, but the work’s value mustn’t necessarily be of equal import. Interestingly, this character’s quote stems from Benchley’s real life and is incorporated into the film. Benchley truly pokes fun of his work in this way.

Parker’s character also pokes fun at the perceived writing life. While the character is described within the film as a “trainwreck” who “knows how to suffer,” she is called out by MacArthur for writing “fluff.” The description of Parker’s life is the polar opposite of what she writes. At a social gathering, Parker is asked to recite one of her “little things,” a trifle of a poem to entertain. In response, Parker demonstrates that although she may write ”little things,” these little things are no real reflection of the life she leads. Here she pulls out “Resume”, a poem prompted by her suicide attempt in which living wins out but only because the process of killing oneself is a nuisance:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Later she tells her psychologist that she only writes “doodads” because New York is “a doodad kind of town,” illustrating that perceptions are simply that. Her life is not light fluff. This same psychologist tells Parker that her writer’s block comes from the booze. Trashing the stereotype of booze as muse, he says that she is absent from living life and without seeing it, she can’t write about it.

Overall, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is more a character study than dramatic device. Living “out loud” does not mean living an eventful life according to this depiction. Depression might be Parker’s muse but the events that depress her offer no real turning point in the plot. She just sinks deeper and deeper, the end. While this may read as a detraction from the film’s success, I find the departure from the traditional equation of life and work, glorification of alternate mental states and expected narrative form a refreshing twist from most other films about writers.

Objectivity: A Question of Perspective

In reference to whether or not the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson as portrayed in the 1997 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas offers any kind of objectivity, my classmate Catherine Dumas says:

Hell yeah, a lot more that the journalism that we get on a daily basis through our media. A lot of our media is controlled by some Australian dude, Rupert Murdoch.

While I tend to agree with Catherine on some level, I think we need to start with whether or not objective truth exists before answering this question.

Truth is constructed via the gathering of facts and means nothing without the connectivity of those facts through narrative. Since narrative is always written from a particular point of view, there can be no objectivity without the influence of culture whether it be race, gender, political affiliation, sexual preference, etc. That said, I say no form of writing offers objectivity. Regardless of any stated effort to achieve it (the phrase “fair and balanced” comes to mind), journalism is used to persuade the public toward a particular viewpoint.

Has anybody seen “The Myth of the Liberal Media: The Propaganda Model of the News?”

(more…)

Rocket Fuel for Thought

Let me strap on my lizard tail, take a few hits of adrenachrome, and scrawl for you my musings. [Moments later…] Whoa. Right on. Here we go.

The question: Substance abuse – Writing fuel or writing substitute?

I say fuel.

Granted, the stigma of alcoholism and addiction adheres itself to the stereotype of writers. What drunks! What freaks! What introverts plagued by the pain and suffering of their own humanity! Sure, we’ve had a few of these throughout history. But really, doesn’t Poe’s addiction produce some amazing literary results? Writers, often referred to as seers, don’t necessarily like what they see. To observe the human condition at a deeply personal level can produce extreme depression, particularly when the writer sees no way out of the social confines that trap him or her. Think Oscar in Wilde. Addiction, even when detrimental love is the drug of choice, becomes the fuel used to examine the world around him. Narrative requires conflict, and those who are deeply conflicted have a great deal of material to work with.

Sometimes, when depression becomes severe enough, addiction becomes not the fuel but a salve applied to the wounds of the soul. In Barton Fink, we find W. P. Mayhew at the point when addiction gets in the way of his writing. This doesn’t mean Mayhew stops writing completely though. He simply abandons his role as sole creator and becomes part of a collaborative team.

In the case of Raoul Duke, a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson, again, I say fuel. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may have begun as an assignment to report on the Mint 400, but Duke’s gonzo journalism reported instead on his immersion in the counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s. The difference here is that substance use (or abuse depending upon whether or not you’re in town for the Narcotics Convention) becomes the lens, not necessarily the protective salve. It is the reality and that reality is chaotic.

What I find most interesting about this particular travel narrative is that it becomes a commentary on a lack of control. Who has more control, the cops or the addicts? Let’s see…

While, the cops at the convention think they have their finger on the pulse of drug abuse by listening to L. R. Bumquest examine the advanced stages of cool and groovy, they completely miss the two offenders seated in their midst. On the flip side, Duke and Gonzo appear to be irrational, chaotic and generally unaware while submerged in their drug induced stupor. But are they? They know when to double dose, controlling their chaos through the knowledge that the ether will wind down in two hours just as the mescaline kicks into high gear. They have perfected their experience down to a science, in some ways making it seem less like chaos and more like control.

I must point out here that chaos does not refer either to random events or lack of control. According to Wiki:

In mathematics and physics, chaos theory describes the behavior of certain nonlinear dynamical systems that may exhibit dynamics that are highly sensitive to initial conditions (popularly referred to as the butterfly effect). As a result of this sensitivity, which manifests itself as an exponential growth of perturbations in the initial conditions, the behavior of chaotic systems appears to be random. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future dynamics are fully defined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.

Noting the above definition, is constructing the illusion of control a better way to live when you’re constantly at odds with what deterministic systems actually exists? Do you end up frustrated, angry and out of personal control because you can’t get a room at your original hotel, yelling at the desk clerk (“Law & Order” detective, Elliott Stabler) because your wife thinks that this is the end of the world and has fallen to tears? Or is it better to roll with the punches, taking it all in stride, and hold true to the understanding that control is the illusion? Perhaps, like Duke and Gonzo, you instead walk into the Bazooka, a symbol of American excess, with your knees as sturdy as rubber chickens and the understanding that you can’t make it stop. All you can do is watch yourself do this.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seems to say that it doesn’t much matter which side you chose. While the film may end with Duke’s contemplation of Leary and the fall of the acid culture, calling them “a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers,” he offers no alternative and little comfort. Each person engages with life in their own way, creating new deterministic systems and chaotic effects for another and both approaches are no more that personal indulgence. In the end, the tattered American flag trails behind Duke’s car, a symbol of the past and failed ideal of control over your own destiny… a failed American Dream.

Let’s party!

 

Fear and Loathing Sounds Off

I found an original script of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and have included the first portion of the first scene below. Highlighting the sounds mentioned within the text, they include everything from the wind, car tires, music, screeching bats, characters screaming, news, voiceovers and narration. This montage of reference to sound doesn’t include what might be assumed by the action, from slamming car doors and trunks to crinkling plastic and popping tops of bear cans. (Although, in the 70s, these were pull back tabs, they still popped from the pressure of carbonation.)

To illustrate what a sound editor might consider, I marked the direct reference to dialogue in red, narration in green, prerecorded music and news in blue, and implied sounds in orange. In doing so, I found it eye-opening to see just how much editing and mixing is involved in such a short span of film. This, by no means, covers the full spectrum.

(more…)