Novelty: Jazz and Chess

Novelty: Jazz and Chess

“_____ is like chess” is the laziest simile there is in the English language. Supposedly, everything is like chess, right? Relationships, raising dogs, building roads, checkers, sex, and building Gundam models. The message is that something requires strategy. Like chess.

Writing is like chess for a different, less contrived reason. Radiolab did an episode a while back about the possible moves in chess. Since the 1600’s chess moves and positions have been recorded culminating into a huuuuge Russian library of games. There are hundreds of thousands of moves. It went online and expanded further. They describe it as a galaxy of possibilities. As a result, chess became an exercise of rote moves and countermoves– essentially prescribing the entire game before it starts. But as the episode points out, as certain games progress, the number of games a move has appeared gets smaller and smaller until a move occurs that has never occurred in history. They call it the Novelty and it’s supposed to be very exciting.

I bring this up because the question of originality comes up a lot in writing. When a piece of work is called “cliché” or “hackneyed” or “trite,” it’s usually a sign of laziness of the writer, right? After all, they just took the concept of X and dumped it into Y.

And maybe that’s unfair. It’s a disappointing experience, sure, but all work is derivative. I’m not defending plagiarism, which is a problem which should be dealt with by means of shovel-punching, but I’m saying once an idea works, the only way to go forward is to try deviations of that idea a million times over.

The Story Grid Podcast got into this a little bit when they discussed how every pitch in the 90s was basically “It’s Die Hard… wait for it… INSIDE OF A WHALE. WhhhhaaaaOOOOAAAAA!!!” It’s how memes work. You make a joke and then you drag it through every possible version until someone makes the best one and then wins some short-lived validation.

Better example: Cowboy Bebop. Jazz, noir, western, and sci-fi were all established genres before 1998. That gem had the audacity to combine all of those elements into something no one had ever scene before. And guess what? Four years later, that recipe was copied and repackaged as Firefly.  Those two television programs are undeniably their own thing, despite sharing the same DNA.

There’s a whole website dedicated to cataloguing the conceits that occur repeatedly in pop culture. And yet, new content, even if it mimics previous works, can bring us new experiences.

It’s almost impossible not to make a written piece your own thing, even if you’re “painting by numbers.” David Wong had a quote on this that I couldn’t find, so here’s a similar one about how the personality of a writer inevitably bleeds into the work:

You can’t write fiction that’s not at least a little bit biographical, since you’re writing it from inside your own head and filtering everything through your own experiences. Even if you aren’t directly recreating scenes from your own childhood or whatever, you’re still writing about your own anxieties and hopes and it’s all filtered through your own view of the world.

And that’s a great thing. In a world of an ever expanding ocean of literature with the rise of self-publishing, it’s heartening to recognize that each book, if written in earnest, has at the very least personal value in the pages. That novelty is something that can still be attained despite the flood of content. I once read a book by an indie author and it was laughably terrible– but I have to give the writer credit that I had never read a hardboiled detective novel in which the main character sings karaoke and gets laid instead of solving the crime.

The way that originality seems to work is by slogging through tropes and clichés and turning them on their heads when you see the opportunity– it has been explained to me by very smart people that this technique is why Shakespeare was somewhat popular in his own time. And there’s a lesson there: you play off the expectations of the reader/audience with the cliché and then subvert the cliché, creating a pleasurable irony.

That’s how jazz itself works, right? If you’re familiar with the complexities of musical theory, you can improvise on top of it.

It might sound like I’m justifying dubious writing practices, but remember this: books are organized by genre and sold by keywords and metadata. Inevitably, you’re going to have to study the obligations of that genre and the various recognizable tropes within basic storytelling. And then you’re going to contribute your own variation.

Because we don’t stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s more like a Yertle the Turtle situation.

 

Anti-Intellectualism and The Case AGAINST Mediocrity

Anti-Intellectualism and The Case AGAINST Mediocrity

In one of my previous entries I wrote about how mediocrity can be inspiring– in the sense that it can fill you with the confidence to at least match the quality. At the hazard of contradicting myself, today I am going to beg you to make your content as good as humanly possible. 

Media causes ripple effects in society. I’m not an alarmist about how millennials are getting lazier and dumber by the second because on the whole, I believe that to be patently untrue and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to get you to vote for somebody. But I do recognize that during this transitional period of how we ingest our media, it tends to be indulgent (I’m not judging. I watched Stranger Things in a single day) and since our media has (ironically or no) saturated nearly every second of our lives, it’s important to check the diet of what we’re consuming.

The recent presidential debate was entertaining as hell. I know I had a good time on Twitter. But the fact that it’s become entertainment is a little disconcerting. On one hand, it’s getting people involved with politics. On the other, people are examining the performances of the candidates instead of the policies they’re proposing. I think our media has a lot to do with that–to compete with Game of Thrones, the presidential debate had to be a bit of a shit show.

As content creators, we have an opportunity (I want to say responsibility, but that’s a troublesome word) to engage our readers with critical thinking. That can be hard to juggle with the “entertainment value” of what we’re trying to create. I totally understand if you’re coming at it from the angle, “I’m an entertainer, I just want to help people unwind and escape their problems for a little while.” And that’s noble in and of itself. But what’s gained there if that’s all there is to it?

We live in a day and age where we hide in our bedrooms and watch Netflix until our eyes bleed. We play (awesome) video games that average to over 100 hours of playing time. We stare into our phones to avoid the awkward eye contact one might accidentally exchange on the bus. We indulge a lot of escapism. And sometimes that’s what we need. Feel no shame for escapism.

Perhaps feel some shame to what you’re escaping into, if there’s no merit in it. I know, I know, one can wax poetically and existentially on the Godawful Friday by Rebecca Black. You can create meaning in things that are otherwise devoid of any inherent value. And I will defend the honor of dumb action and horror movies until the end of time– is there any real lesson in The Friday the 13th franchise? Did I learn anything from A Nightmare on Elmstreet? Perhaps, but then again, maybe I’m projecting meaning onto those films, instead of gleaning any actual truth. They’re fun, but they aren’t challenging in any way. The same reason people like me dissect pop culture philosophically, is why kids often act out in school–they aren’t being challenged. 

That’s the word of the day right there: Challenging. I look to Jurassic Park as the perfect example. As a movie, it’s thematically perfect. It’s entertaining, it’s scary, it’s satisfying in the triumphant ending. And it also challenges the audience on issues of the role of mankind in the natural world, a challenge that is becoming more and more relevant. It also challenges gender roles, and asks the question frequently, “What does it mean to be a good parent?” Those questions vary in subtlety and are never preachy except for one siiiick example. You can walk away from that movie, fully entertained and unaware that the film was poking at those issues and still have those questions brewing in the back of your mind. And the book? Wonderfully dense with a lot of science jargon that adds another layer of complexity to decode to keep up with the pace of the story.

I don’t want to disparage other authors out there, or some of the incredible entertainment that’s been coming out. But I’ve seen the depths of what independent publishing can produce and people have purchased and consumed terrible, haphazardly written products in this brave new world of publishing. Not only are those books a scam (which hurts all of us, as a reader burned by an indie will be less willing to buy a book by another) it also stokes the fires of ignorance. We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the content we create, be it social media, blog posts (ahem), the books, songs, and films we write. It needs to challenge us first, make us ask ourselves the hard questions before asking the audience to consider our musings.  It’s important to remember that we aren’t just a product of the world we live in, we actively create it.

So let’s work on creating smart entertainment.

I’m not saying you have to be ambitious. I’m not saying you need to remove the wool from the eyes of masses and expose them to some forgotten truth about the world. I’m just asking as a fellow writer to try and instill a sense of purpose in your work, because that’s what’s going to resonate the most with the readership.

That and fart jokes.