Myth of the the Writer’s Identity

Myth of the the Writer’s Identity

A question that seems to come up time and time again on podcasts, blogs and forums is this: “When do I know that I’m a writer?”

Answers and advice vary in profundity. There’s: “Not until you’ve written your 5th book;” “When you get paid;” “Believe in yourself that you are a writer and you become a writer;” “a writer writes.”

All of which is a crock of shit, because the question itself is flawed. Here’s a crass allegorical joke:

It’s Scotland, somewhat stereotypically. A man walks into the bar and asks the bartender for a drink. The bartender pours up a beer and slides it over to his patron.

The bartender says, “Pre’y good beer, thar, dunchoo thank?” and the patron agrees that it’s a good beer. “But they doon’ call meh McClarty the beer pourer, naw doo thay?” The patron assumes that people do not call him by that particular name. “Pre’y nice bar here, dunchoo thank? But they doon’ call meh McClarty the bar builder, naw doo thay?” Again, the patron assumes that they do not. “Und such ah nice stone wall outside, duncha thank? But they doon’ call meh McClarty the stone masun, naw doo thay?” The patron is getting a little anxious for the point.

McClarty says, “But yeh fuck ONE goat…” 

The point being is that you’re often recognized for the things that you do and that may or may not be the things that you want to get recognized for. That’s beyond your control. The world is going to label you a certain way and that’s generally fine because there’s a 90% chance you’re a decent person– you’ll be labeled as a nice friend, a compassionate parent, a brilliant engineer… or you might be a bad person. Did you know that Stalin wrote poetry? Your high school friends will remember the cringe-iest things about you and that’s fine because you’ll hold their biggest embarrassments at ransom.

You might not get recognized for your writing, at least not in any critical capacity, and that’s fine too.

There are ways, though, to increase your odds, which is, you know, to write as often as you can, constantly improve your work and maintain a decent regimen to produce quality work worthy of recognition. Focus on your writing habits and open yourself to criticism; focus on projects that culminate in cohesive products so that you may move onto the next one.

You might be wondering, then, why I put “a writer writes,” in the bullshit category of common quips? Because, while true, it’s still in the hopes of attaining the “writer” status and while the advice asks you to focus on the grindstone, it’s still an ego trip. Although perhaps “trap” is the better word. As I’ve said before, buttressing your ego with art probably isn’t the healthiest move.

A lot of people want to have written a book and the belief is that you must be a writer to have written one. That perpetuates a certain fantasy that’s detrimental to the actual two components that are required to create anything: time and effort. That fantasy stands as a prohibitive wall between your goal of writing your novel, or screenplay, or mollusk-based erotica (you know, whatever you’re into) that prevents you from devoting that essential time and effort.

Actually writing isn’t sexy. It’s lonesome work that robs your loved ones of your time. It’s studying narrative structure in books and film until it’s ingrained into your fingers. It’s reading the same sentence over and over again until it doesn’t make sense. It’s trying to make sense of a history of stories in such a way that your own can wedge itself into. That doesn’t get a whole lot of light in the “Hollywood” portrayal of writers. The much maligned Californication doesn’t focus on the actual writing (an entire novel is apparently written off screen, hunted and pecked on a typewriter no less) so much as it fixates on the booze and the tits and the oh good lord my life is shit because I’m a shitty but handsome personMidnight in Paris doesn’t focus on the writing either, favoring instead to examine the ways authors compare themselves to the classics. While that movie does a better job about describing the work (“writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes…”), it still fails to snare an honest moment of writing. Even one of my favorite movies, Wonderboys, which does an excellent job of depicting the distractions and pressures of “writers block” and the fetishization of manuscripts, still doesn’t have a scene longer than two seconds of actual writing. In fact, Goddammit, one of my most hated movies probably has the most accurate portrayal of writing– Goddamn Gatsby has Nick Carraway, in a montage, stressing over his manuscript and organizing the pages fastidiously. But Gatsby doesn’t count, because the movie is garbage and it still seeks to romanticize the art. Which is what movies about writers do. They make the title a tantalizing trophy for the shelf.

I think these movies/series exemplify the nefarious side of the ego-trapped coin. That many seeking to be a writer want the validation of having written a book without applying the effort to actually write one. The reason being, I think, is that they assume it makes them sound intelligent enough to get laid. These chuckleberries don’t understand the self-loathing, disappointment, or solitary ecclesiastic heights of the creative process, or the frustration of mild success. After some years of this, I stand aghast. Why would you want to pretend to be a writer? Don’t you know that this is a sickness?

Don’t pretend to write to get laid. Don’t write to get laid (because that’s just not gonna happen, friend). Don’t get down on yourself because you’re not famous. Don’t let the title of craft steer you away from the craft itself.  Don’t give yourself a title at all. Dig into the work because you’re lucky enough to be crazy enough to enjoy this literary parade. It’s better to think of yourself as just someone who writes than a writer. 

And if anyone claims to be a writer at a party and claims Hank Moody as one of their influences absolutely do not fuck them.

And keep the goat alone.

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.

 

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Every one knows that you’re not in it for the money. The money might come, but it’ll come later, years later, after you’ve amassed a small library of classics. Or it might come biweekly if you work in media or journalism.

For everyone else, there’s the Joe Job, the daily necessity of labor and exertion to fuel your creative career. For a lot of us who were trained academically to write, this is also a necessity to improve value of our work.

When I was taking fiction courses in college, I mostly spoke with people in my own age bracket. After college, I was unemployed for quite a while. And you know what? I didn’t get much writing done. There was very little stimuli, outside of media. I wrote one piece that I’m horrified to revisit. It’s flat. It works as a cerebral exercise and only that, as there are few things in the story that resemble real life interactions or motivations. Once I was brought into the fold of the workin’ Joe, I couldn’t stop writing. I figured I could use my daily experiences to aid my creative process. It worked. Because, hell, you have to work a job, right? That much in life is certain until Robots replace us all. So until then, you may as well utilize your 9-5 the best you can.

One aspect of trying to create a career out of fiction writing that not a lot of people consider is what kind of job you need to have to make it work. I’ve watched a few of my fellow creative minded friends walk into a demanding (sometimes satisfying) career and hang up their paint brushes. Now, this could be irrational, but I admit that I’m afraid to lose that freedom, so I stick to employment that allows my writing life to exist– staying out of offices and school rooms and maintaining flexible schedules (At least that’s how I frame it. You could also say, poor job market, Millenial work ethic, yada yada. Clam it). These jobs might not pay as well as I’d like, but there are lessons inherent in any professional capacity. Let’s take a look at some that I’ve learned:

When I was employed before college, I wasn’t looking for anything I could use. I wasn’t writing then. NEXT.

My first job out of college was as a barista. It was a seasonal job and I was terminated after three months. I didn’t get much out of it writing wise, other than a sense of schedule. I slowly became more consistent with the time I set aside to write because, well, I had to. Simple lesson, but an important one. Now that I wasn’t writing for a publication or for classes, I had to motivate myself to get things done. During my period of unemployment, however, I didn’t value my time as effectively as I did while holding a position somewhere. Once scarcity was established, I began to value my personal time exponentially– and began understanding how to use it effectively to start and complete writing projects.

The next job I got was at a home improvement warehouse. I liked it. It required a lot of physical labor, a few tasks that required quiet concentration and a lot of talking to people. And people get chatty at those stores. It helped me connect with blue collar Americans. My co-workers and customers fed my imagination and gave me grounded details of their rural lives. It was stuff that I could take back to my desk and fold into scenes, enriching the sense of realism. One of my supervisors found out that I was a writer and joked that I was going to make him a villain in one of my books. And then I did, as I could perfectly account for how he’d react in any given situation. That job also helped my dialogue immensely. More on that in a bit.

Third job? Makin’ sandwiches. Everyone should hold a job wherein they don’t give a single, solitary doo-doo about at least once in their lives. And then they should quit. I’m not sure I learned a writing lesson at this one, but I did learn how far I could push my writing schedule while phoning in a work performance. At the frenzied height of one of my novel revisions, the daily schedule looked like this:

3 PM – 9 PM: Make sandwiches, go home

9 PM -4 AM: Write

4 AM – 8 AM: Lucid dream about writing

8 AM – 10 AM: Write down the passages I wrote while asleep

10 AM – 2 PM: Nap

And repeat for nearly two weeks. Then I got sick and had to tone it down a little. Maybe I learned a lesson about my own boundaries and limits. Maybe not. NEXT.

I did tech support for Apple products at a call center. Not only did I get an education in pacifying aggravated customers, I got the opportunity to chat with every geographic region in the USA. It not only gave me a crash course in regional dialect, but also how different communication methods provide insight into how people think. I came into that job with the bias that New Yorkers were a pissed off, curmudgeonly people and that Southerners were a simple folk. I was delightfully proven wrong. New Yorkers speak fast. They live in a fast-paced world, even when they aren’t in a hurry. There’s no reason to take offense to that. They’re also probably the most generous people I spoke with– I’ve been invited to dinner no less than five times by New Yorkers and Jerseryans, every time in an aggressively friendly manner. Meanwhile I learned that while Southerners speak at a slow pace, they’re not slow witted. I held that bias longer than I’d like to admit. Then I had a call where I was walking someone step by step through a reboot process, and usually by step 3 or 4, I let the customer take it from there. He didn’t. I asked him if he knew the next steps in the process and he said that he did but was waiting until I told him to do so. It wasn’t that he, or Southerners generally, was a dum-dum, he just respected my authority on iPhones. How this relates to writing (you may have wondered 200 words ago) is the dynamic of effective dialogue. It’s my opinion that dialogue, in addition to any narrative information conveyed, should reflect an attitude. In that respect, this job was a goldmine. I figured if how a person asked for help with iMessage could sketch a small portrait, then every tiny line out of a character’s mouth should be another brush stroke of a mural.

I’m going to skip all the other jobs, the gigs, crawling back to previous employers, and other months of unemployment and go straight to my currently held position:

It’s pretty great. It’s physical, so I don’t resent sitting at a computer for hours at a time at night, provides enough critical problem solving so I don’t go completely insane, and since it requires following procedures, I have the opportunity to day dream and mentally review what I’m working on creatively, fix logical issues, revisit character relationships and figure out the next step, all while performing my daily paid duties. Or, I listen to podcasts (some about writing, some not) to keep myself up to date in the goings on in the world without that biting into time after work so that I’m prepared to dig into my projects in a creative mindset when I get home.

The point is, you shouldn’t despair at your job. There are opportunities to expand your creative life everywhere. Keep your mental note pad open and figure out a way to keep writing, even when you’re not writing.

 

 

Actively Engaging Media

Actively Engaging Media

I’ll never understand people who don’t read. That’s not true. I’ll never understand people who passively ingest media. Thems the kind that just let the TV happen at ’em.

You’ve probably heard it said a good writer is a great reader. It’s an alright adage, despite having been repeated to the point of redundancy–and with good reason. Because whatever mechanism that drives human ambition is blind to the amount of work that goes into a piece of working literature. You may keep meeting the people that want to write a book who don’t read any books. You may keep running into people who call themselves writers who don’t actually produce anything. But if you meet a writer who does produce and doesn’t read? I don’t know, write their teachers from high school and inform them how much of a disappointment their students have become. The point is that this writing schtick takes work and that work primarily consists of reading a butt load. If you don’t like reading, then, Jesus, dude I don’t know why you’re here. But if you’ve been putting reading books on the backburner, remind yourself that it’s as much work as it is play and crack that sucker open.

So rejoice, all ye wordsmiths, for yer work be entertaining and usually pretty fun. Reading is a good time and don’t forget to enjoy it. But lets take it a step further. I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog about the worth of analyzing films and video games.  I want to ruminate a little further on that, such that that in addition to becoming great readers, we also become great purveyors of art of all kinds. So maybe don’t take off your writing lenses when you treat yourself to a Netflix binge or video game marathon.

The good news is that you were probably going to watch movies and television shows anyway. The challenge is sussing out a lesson in works that exist for us to disappear into– and feel free to become absorbed into a film, that means the storytellers are doing something right. It’s up to you, however, to figure out why it was so effective in ensnaring your attention.

We’re all brothers and sisters in this world of storytelling and there’s a lot to be learned from analyzing other mediums. Think critically of how a film is shot–think of the technical nightmare it takes to pull off a scene like this. This is important to pay attention to because, to dust off another overused adage, “Writing is like directing a movie in someone else’s mind.”

Think about how a single frame can tell a story by its composition:

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

 

By this screen grab alone, you see evidence of Norma’s vanity (the mirror), her break from reality (as she’s not even looking at herself, or the police in the mirror but somewhere far away) . You understand the severity of the situation– there’s been a murder (gun being held as evidence) and Norma’s suspect (police. duh.). And as far as tone goes? An unsettling clash of dark darks and bright lights.

How would you write this scene in a book? How would you write it in a short story? A poem? A song? You’d write it differently for each, I’m sure, because you aren’t half-assing this. Do you get a different feeling from the writing? How so? What details are you leaving in? Out? Why? What changes? Asking ourselves a lot of questions helps to understand the choices being made in other’s work and asking the same question of our own work leads to bigger realizations and (ideally) a clearer focus of what we’re trying to achieve.

So we’re paying attention now, effectively “reading” all forms of art. But where to start? What does a balanced media diet look like? You already know what you like to read, right? Start there and keep at it. And if you find yourself merely entertained and reamin unchallenged, hit up a booklist and maybe pick up one or two of those the next time you’re strolling past your book store. Film? How many of IMDB’s top 250 have you viewed?  Read analyses of film, film, video games. (Hell, I watch hour long videos summarizing Final Fantasy plot lines, because I remember being moved by them as a kid and want to identify the successful elements those stories hit upon.) Read The AV Club after your favorite episode of whatever airs and get your brain juices flowing.

We live in an age when criticism outnumbers content 1000:1 and there’s a lot of content out there. Identifying the useful, educational criticism should help cultivate storytelling instincts and give you the tools and vocabulary to dissect your own stories and see what’s working and what is not.

Read. Watch. Listen. Read.

And don’t forget to write.

Whatchu Know?

Whatchu Know?

The most hated question in interviews and Q & As with authors is probably “Where do you get your ideas?” Because the answer is almost always either a contemptuous shrug or the clichéd “From the world I live in.”

It’s kind of funny, because the latter is what writers are taught early in their career with the tired adage, “Write what you know.”

I think there are times when writers mistake that advice for “Write about my life.” There was an older woman in one of my fiction courses who wrote a really personal story about the day her ex-husband was released from jail. It was a deeply moving story… or it would have been, if it had been properly constructed. But when criticized, the writer took it personally, going as far as quitting the class then and there.

I think the danger is, when you transcribe your personal life into a fictional setting, is that you want the details to match up with your own memory. This doesn’t always fit the story and making the concessions to make it fit damages your own memory of events. Save that memory for yourself. If it’s funny, save it for parties. If it’s tragic, save it for therapy. This is you we’re talking about here. Keep yourself whole and don’t exploit your life for a chapter in a book.

Fiction isn’t a diary. It can be hard to remove your personal stake from a piece of fiction during the editing process. When it comes time to “kill your darlings,” and those darlings are “factual events that happened to you,” you will find yourself in a bit of a quandary.

“But how do I write what I know?”

My advice (which is probably advice given to me that I am repurposing here for your pleasure) would be to start recording how you interface with the world around you–going back to the answer up top on “how I get my ideas.”

Your friend is talking. How are they talking? Are they sad, happy, neutral, bored? I’m cooking dinner. I feel ____ when I cook, because ____. This rock that I’m holding is crumbly. It reminds me of _____. It’s windy right now. People are walking ____ in reaction to it.

A personal example of this is when I wrote a scene in which the main character is gifted pickled herring. A friend who read the chapter’s only statement on the chapter was “How the #$%@ do you know what pickled herring is?”

And the answer to that is I had pickled herring on saltines with my grandmother years ago and it seemed like a thing that old neighbors would gladly gift someone, and the kind of gift that you’d be thankful for, but not particularly excited about.

I used a memory from my own life, took out the detail I wanted, figured out why I thought it worked and wove that into the story I was writing… without writing the scene between me and my grandma.

I’ll have more thoughts on this later (I have more thoughts on everything all the time).

 

 

 

The Power of Mediocrity

The Power of Mediocrity

Here’s an exercise you can do the next time you go to the bookstore: research your favorite writer’s whole catalogue and figure out their worst book.

Go buy that book. Read it. Cringe through it. Note its virtues.

Now ask yourself if you can produce something at least as good as this. Chances are that you can.

With Self-Publishing allowing for anyone to enter the arena of fiction writing, there are no standards in place that would prohibit inferior works from reaching readers. Books are often error-laden and stiffly, quickly-written and lean more on heavy marketing than quality of the product. I’d advise that you be honest when reviewing their work– or if they ask for a review, be polite and decline.

But also note that you can publish something better than this. You can correct the market quality by the taking the time and thoughtful care to go over your book many times. Have friends and family review them with you if you can’t afford an editor. (I can’t. And errors keep popping up even years later.)

Make it the best damn thing it can be because even if it doesn’t make a lot of money, it can outpace at least half what’s out there, or, at the very, very least, it can’t do worse.

And that’s still a success.

Writing as Improv

Writing as Improv

First, a suggestion: If you are a hopeful writer in high school or college, the absolute best advice I can give you is…

Take theater.

Second, an explanation: Me and my friends get together and discuss our current projects semi-regularly. Because I live in Portland, most of these friends are musicians. We got to talking recently about the concept of “flow” and what it takes to improvise musically.  It means practicing your technical skills repeatedly and then turning your brain off.

Here’s an article what happens to your brain while free-styling rap, the cut of the jib of which is:

The areas implicated in processes like organization and drive were marked by an increase in activity, while those parts responsible for close self-monitoring and editing were deactivated.

I think it boils down to trusting that one knows their technical skills are there and by tapping into one’s subconscious, that it will automatically organize itself into a song. It’s like having a dream right? The majority of us are not film directors and yet we build sets, costumes, create characters and write dialogue all while our brain is supposedly “off.”

The famous quote of comedic genius Del P. Close is “follow the fear.” Fear is the mind killer and, in art, that might actually be a good thing. It’s a way to shut out the ego and trust your own instincts.

I want to bring this discussion to a classic argument shared by writers: “To outline or wing it?” Nearly every reading I’ve gone to, this question is asked and the answer is always the same– “it’s up for debate, but I personally need to outline my own books, so I don’t lose track of yada yada yada…” But what about the other side, the “wingers”, that don’t plan ahead? Another quote to the rescue:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Thanks, E.L. Doctorow. And I agree with him. Well, how about that I agree with both? If you’ll indulge me about my own writing process, I make a loose, looooose, outline that’s almost never more than 1-2 sentences denoting what needs to happen per scene. If I have a complicated web of relationships (such as in Muddy Sunset) I’ll spend some time figuring that out ahead of time in a notebook and set it aside. As far as the actual writing goes, I take those 1-2 sentences and then I improvise.

Authors often say that this causes the problems of 1. Creating more work later (true) and 2. is messy and inconsistent (not always true) because 3. Without a plan, you are lost (often true, but not always a bad thing).

To which I want to ask the following question: If I know I’m driving to the beach and have three hours to do so, does it really matter what road I take? Recall any family vacation and I almost guarantee you that the thing you remember most is where you stopped along the way, not the actual mind-numbing highway through Kansas (sorry, Kansas). Or you remember changing a tire, or waiting for the tow-truck, needing the bathroom 75 miles away from the nearest gas station– you remember everything that hadn’t been planned or accounted for. Not having everything in place ahead of time allows for spontaneity. I try to maintain a rule that I need to surprise myself at least one time per scene. If I, the author, am surprised, there’s a fantastic chance that the reader will be surprised as well.

Another quote, this one by Raymond Chandler, a personal hero of mine:

“The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

This too speaks of tapping into that fugue state, and following the subconscious instinct in storytelling.  It’s about trusting what lies beneath the topsoil of your brain, that’s there’s something special under there and it’s up to you as the writer to uncover it and show it around. Maybe your tools haven’t been sharpened (it’s a lifelong game, and no one ever reaches 100% perfection) and if that’s the case and you don’t trust yourself yet (or perhaps too much) there are many viable spaces online to practice and get feedback.

So back to the beginning. Hopeful writers still in school: take drama. Participating in theater during high school helped me nearly as much as taking creative writing and standard English courses. Theater taught me…

  1. To improvise.
  2. To embrace the fear of performance.
  3. To step inside a character’s psychology, physicality.
  4. To shut my own brain off and go with “The Flow.”

These are the lessons that don’t get covered in English courses (“But what does it mean?“) or creative writing courses (“What does Raymond Carver teach us about Craft?”).

If you aren’t in school and find yourself stuck with writer’s block, perhaps try to engage the subconscious mind and participate in other disciplines: music, theater, drawing.

You might be surprised what your brain has in store for you and your story.