The Penultimate Blog Post

The State of My YouTube Address:

Game Over, Insert New Brain to Continue.

Game Over: Insert New Brain

Game Over: Insert New Brain

The year winds down once again, but before we slip apart and make our way to the various parties and interventions, I’d like to say a few words and reconnect a few loose ends.

It turned out to be a spectacular year after a slow, apprehensive start. I want to thank everyone who finds themselves on this page reading my weird little tales. Those of you who revisit especially, the follows and the comments are the best encouragement to continue on this path.

Meowing on the Answering Machine is almost ready to unveil. There is a preview you can read, but this will soon be replaced with a cleaner preview of the actual final product.

I will be offering advance copies for review very soon, and will most likely be looking for beta readers as well. Check your calendar and watch this space.

I’ll be back to posting new stuff here on a semi-regular basis once the book is able to walk on its own. We just about hit the halfway point with Aftermarket Soul as well, and I think that may be the next one up for offering. However I am not yet certain if it only needs a polish and a good edit or if it needs major surgery and an extensive rewriting of the bulk of the book.

But that is, of course, another story for another time. As they say, one book at a time, but write your screenplays in trilogies.

Happy whatever where ever you are, don’t forget to have your calendars changed and rotated, and we will all meet again one day, at Denny’s.

700 Words About Minimalism

tensionAnyone who has heard me talk about writing at least twice has doubtless heard me say ‘less is more.’ I strive to write efficiently, to say as much as possible with the fewest words. Call it minimalism, call it laziness, call it cutting corners. It forces me around to what I mean to say.

My writing in general began with simple, short entries, poems and songs and little slivers of storytelling, mostly whatever could fit on one page. It seemed the most empty space I could deal with at the time, all the attention I could manage, the thoughts I could handle were just enough to fill up a single sheet of paper, one side.

Over the years my stories have gotten longer, I’m not certain if the ideas have become more complex or if its just the grinding of seizing gears. To this effect, I have formulated a list to consider while we write.

THE THREE ESSENTIAL RULES OF EFFICIENT WRITING:

1. Tell only the parts that move your story forward.

And that is all you need to know. Simple, effective. The rest should go without saying.

2. Skip over the boring bits.

3. Omit any irrelevant information.

By leaving these off we are saying much more, especially reinforcing the notion of brevity. It conveys the idea that some assumptions is necessary, on the part of the reader it helps involve us in the story, it moves beyond a simple attempt at entertainment. It leads us to think a little deeper about the words we read.

As they say in English, the exception proves the rule. Consider what this really means. What if the all the important parts are the ones we end up leaving out?

It leads us to the idea that for every sentence we write, there are two we can cut out later. There are many ways to express essentially the same idea, and we can easily become prone to repeating ourselves. Say it right, say it once. Make your words mean as much as they can; not different definitions, but degrees of description. Every word matters and should speak about as many parts of the story as possible.

This is where writing is different from math. Here we are graded on output, not effort. You need not show your work, in fact it is strongly discouraged. Some sleight of hand is indeed expected, certain tricks we use to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The reader should be able to jump from a string of words to a few pointed conclusions.

Recently the group I write in came upon a new prompt, “Describe someone you know, using their age as the number of words you are allowed.” We drifted apart to ponder, some scrolled through their friend lists on facebook, a few took off their shoes to add up complicated ages. I could write about myself and use up forty-one words. My cat would require sixteen. My niece just had her second birthday and would be the easiest option.

“She’s two.” I wrote, and turned in my homework.

Some may consider this cheating, taking the easy way out. But strictly speaking it is efficient. True, I say very little about the subject of my essay, but it’s worth noting that I am following the rules literally, some would say to an illogical fault. My answer is creative and clever but really gives no information. No work was required on my part as long as I met the qualifications of the challenge.

As a writing lesson, I easily received a high, passing grade. As a math problem it would have been marked ‘zero’ or incomplete.

I had written what was asked and nothing more. I could very easily expand on the subject I chose and would be more than happy to share about my niece for a few happy pages. But it wasn’t asked, and here is the slightly quieter second part of the point; adding any words at all to my answer would have made it technically incorrect.

Use the right words, use your words right. Tell your story and nothing more. Speak your piece and get out. As I always say, “less is more.” Know when to get out, and how to quit while you’re ahead.

©Robert Emmett McWhorter

A breathing sigh of repugnance

Postcards from the End of the World
7th fit: Bad Circus Night/ section ii.
‘a breathing sigh of repugnance’

374112_10150475755354595_182892415_n“It is a dark summer evening looking much like a winter evening on acconda all the snow,” Never bending logic bespooled from Freon’s gaping maw as he conveys his distinct memoirs of the bad circus evening.

In the mind of Freon, the night is filled with dreams of lonely melons, but he is embarrassed of oedipediacal implications, and instead makes up a wild exaggerated stinky.

The inquisitors of the waffle headed pope on a rope dessed up like rats and began to cover him with Fat Elvis stamps. His faces were covered with their thick moorish saliva, frying his flesh like a big, wet cow being shoved into an electrical outlet.

“Meester Freon!” they shouted. “Tell us what we want to know!”

Freon spun the thin spools of his memory, but it had run out again. ‘Damn,’ he thinks, ‘I wish I could remember to refill that damn thing.’

“Meester Freon!” one of the inquisitor rats steps forward, whipping him with the six whips he holds in his six arms, obviously the buddhist of the group.

“Stop whipping me!” shouts Freon, “I’d tell you what you want to know, but I can’t remember. Do you have any skull filler paste?”

“Why Yes! Of course!” an especially cheery and handsome rat steps out from the crows, holding a large blue plastic bottle. “We always keep a large supply of Krompelfesterheeganman’s concentrated skull filler. For all those times you need to remember, and better than a brain enema.”

There is a whisperous tremor amongst the inquisitor rats.
“What the shit man! It’s a stinkin’ commercial!”

The rats all walk off mumbling things about lawyers and unions, leaving everybody disappointed because it was just about to get to the good part.

©Robert Emmett McWhorter

n de Fens o da Speke

Saturday, 13 March 2004
Topic: linguistics

typewriterA few years back there were some motions to further amend the United States constitution, this time it would be to concretely define a certain word in legal and binding terms. Where I stand on the actual issue is not important, but I was mostly misunderstood when I tried to explain that I opposed the action strictly on linguistic terms, I was trying to avoid the actual issue, be it pro or con,  but from the point of view of the language itself.

I don’t like the idea of passing laws to define words. If you know what I am speaking of specifically, otherwise we should let it go, as I didn’t intend a political discussion.

Up until now, there have never been any set in stone rules to the English language. All the spellings we recognize are merely the ‘preferred’ spellings. In the late eighteenth century, eccentricity in spelling was deemed a sign of intelligence and originality; General Washington was often noted for his wild syntax. Even up until the 1960s there were alternate but acceptable spellings of words such as cigarets & connexion, and then somewhere along the lines ‘thru’ became acceptable in place of ‘through’.

Now, with the advent of the computer and instant global communications, the language is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. And it needs to be unhindered by legal binding of any sort in order to continue to adapt.

Yes, I learned ‘rules’ of English in school- more honestly, they taught it for twelve years, much of the time I had other things going on. But think about this one simple question concerning these rules. How do you prove them?

By the exception. “This is the exception that proves the rule,” the teachers use to say, amazing to me in retrospect that they were able to utter such nonsense with a straight face.

So therefore, ipso facto, the first rule of English is you have to break the rules for the rules to even apply. Sounds good to me!

This is more than a language, in fact it’s not even a language anymore. English is the only language where it is easy to take any sentence at least two ways. One of the hardest languages to learn just by the ever shifting qualities of words for different situations.

While it may be difficult to say exactly what you mean and impossible to shield it against how the reader will interpret it, it is extremely easy to be misunderstood. By this I mean to the point where random words can be strung together and come out decipherable as something intelligible a good majority of the time.

It has grown beyond being a language in this sense, that it is no longer strictly a means of transferring information. It is more off a means of artistic expression, ideal for abstract expression slightly more concrete, tangible than a symphony orchestra. What it is to a real language is comparable to what Velveeta is to real cheese.

But, linguistically it is the most important thing to ever happen. It is a constant study in human communication with ever-changing means of measure.

Sometimes it is fierce intellectual combat. Despite the number of languages colliding head on with English it remains a highly sophisticated tongue; in spite of environmental influences to revert to a form of Pig-English; the sprouting of dialects, the constant need for new words to describe what we are doing with the new things they are inventing, it is very important for the language to remain both extremely adaptable and easily accessible. Which means for the most part, it must border on chaos and nonsense at all times.

This is why I love this language. And I really do; the majesty, absurdity, profundity and playfulness of the English language. This is why I write, or maybe because I write I have fallen in love with the word. See what I mean?

This is why I write from where I do, from the fringe of reality. My favorite thing to do is to think up three completely impossible scenarios, and figure out how to write about them together so that it makes sense and, hopefully, seems plausible.

I think this sort of coherent explanation of the purely illogical, absurdly unthinkable, even abstractly implausible and just plain wrong is an important demonstration of what the English language is. By its own reasoning, we cannot know the full truth from the language until we have exhausted every possible exception to the truth.

Therefore when I write stories about couches that talk, I am helping to solidify some unspoken truth about furniture, or possibly linguistics (I think this is more true, but in a purely larval stage of my literary growth- I was still throwing random syllables together to see how they would stick).

I think it is a very important place for someone to write from, this little light shining in through  a crack in the semantic door; this little tree branch that caught my shirt as I tumbled over the steep cliff of sanity. It is important to show that even things deemed ‘impossible’ are possible within these words. And once you realize that you can, indeed, do anything here, you hopefully will see that this aspect of the language is very reminiscent of life itself.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

Barking Up the Ancestral Tree

391090_10150475755449595_1079669056_nI’m of the belief that each language has limits on what it can contain. I also believe the language we think in influence our attitude and outlook to some degree. We think about things differently in English than someone speaking French or Aramaic just because of the parameters set by the words we can use. Different definitions, but more- different nuance, subtle differences in connotation more than meaning.

I think every language we lose is another tool we no longer have for studying and understanding this wacky world around us. Math is the language of science and is able to describe many of the wonders of the Universe in definite and concrete terms, but Math can’t convey the wonder. It is not possible to write awestruck existential poetry in the language of quadratic equations.

One thing that makes us Humans stand out as a species is the complexity and sophistication of our linguistic systems. I don’t believe we are alone, but farther ahead. Few would argue that Dolphins and other intelligent animals do not have a language of their own. Audio signals meant to convey ideas, feelings and instruction.

The sounds made by domesticated animals were once considered crude and carrying very little meaning. This notion has recently been overturned, many scientists as well as dog and cat owners will acknowledge there are different meanings for the different sounds they make, although they do convey a good deal more non-verbally.

In the wild, dogs and cats and their immediate relatives do not use barks or meowing as a way to communicate with each other. These are, in fact, rudimentary languages our pets have developed specifically for humans, to be able to converse on a basic with their people.

Our own systems are intricate, refined by several thousand generations of evolution and adaptation. Sometime recently, in the grander perspective, we learned to convert our words into visual symbols, no longer must we draw a bird to conjure the thought of a bird. The written word has been around five to fifteen thousand years, depending who you ask, but again in the big picture it is a splitting of hairs.

The impact of the written word is probably comparable to the impact the first spoken language had on us and our intelligence. The written word seems permanent, and carries great weight. There is still, this late in our own game, a percentage of the population that will believe something true simply because it is written, rather than spoken. If someone took the time to scratch it into a recognizable combination of characters placed in specific order to convey the idea, it had to be true.

Writing is not the only adaptation we have made of our languages, only the most sophisticated and inspired. We have also learned to communicate through a system of raised bumps, for those who cannot see.

COHERERWe have used blinking lights to exchange information, smoke signals, flags held at different angles, electric pulses converted and read as dots and dashes, and indeed even primitive ritual drumming which became akin to a political broadcast for neighboring tribes and approaching enemies.

A selection of beats and rhythmic patterns, and subtle variations applied to each could inform anyone within earshot of our latest achievements or intentions.

I won’t be surprised when the Archeologists or Historians announce proof that the first attempts at mechanical reproduction of rhythm was invented by ‘primitive’ societies such as these, and indeed the very first drum machines were created as an early attempt at the answering machine.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

Mr. Argyle Sock

Thunk  ‘Melodious Thunk’ CD 1995

Mr. Argyle Sock,
Sits on his rock,
wreaking of rum
And Catholics.

Houses fall down
When he comes around,
He stands alone
In the windowframe.

With his finger in a dyke,
At the open mic,
The leaks come
Squeaking to a halt.

But if you can’t find it,
You’ll be reminded,
That it’s absolutely
Not his fault.

argyleWhen you’re only
Entertaining a thought,
But the thoughts gets bored
And move away.

They’re probably
In his head now,
Having the time
Of their lives.

Mr. Argyle Sock
Picking your pocket
Funding your
cash/ weight-loss diet

Riding his bike,
Looking just like…

If he was for sale
You’d buy it.

If you could afford him,
You’d buy it.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter
published by Hermetic
Medical Records (ASCAP)

Pleading The Fifth

As a musician I’m often asked what my favorite band or favorite song is. As far as rock and roll or whatever we’re calling it these days,narrowing it down to any one song is nearly impossible, and it depends on when you ask me, how my mood is, and

    Beethoven Fifth Symphony 2nd movement conducted
    by Mikhail Pletnev/ Russian National Orchestra 2009 what particular internet arguments I am involved in at the time.

For bands, it still varies as the wind blows, but I can usually keep it to a gaggle of regular suspects, The Beatles, Camper Van Beethoven/ Cracker, Robyn Hitchcock, Pixies/ Frank Black, Phish, They Might Be Giants, Stephen Malkmus/ Pavement…

But in the grander scale of things there is one composer and one piece of music that, to me, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Ludwig van Beethoven and the Fifth Symphony, specifically the second movement.

I’ve long respected and admired the work of Beethoven, but sometime in the early 90’s this particular piece was cemented in my conscience. It has since held its unwavering place at the top of my list, with as many gold stars as I can give it.

It was late one night or early morning when I came home after a long, crazy party. I wasn’t quite ready for sleep, but my body was exhausted. I wanted something mellow to listen to and lull my thoughts away. Something without lyrics I would have to pay attention to.

I found my CD of Beethoven’s Fifth by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The first movement slipped by in all its majesty, and soon I was immersed in the brilliance of the second section.

I ended up not sleeping, I hit repeat on the CD player a few times and listened to it over and over. I found it speaking to me, without words it was transmitting some information directly into my soul. It left me laughing. Not a snicker or a little giggle, a riotous uncontrollable laughter, I am surprised I didn’t wake any neighbors.

There is good reason the Fifth Symphony is still one of the most well-known compositions in history. And everyone is familiar with the first movement, especially the opening, even if they don’t know what it is.

‘Da-Da-Da- DUUUUUM’

But here, in the second movement, something is being conveyed, a story is being told. I get glimpses of it still when I listen late at night in that state between waking and dream. Beethoven is telling us the history of Humanity, the history of the Universe, and the individual history of the single, isolated, inconsequential human life, all standing one next to the other, all a metaphor for the rest.

There is something transcendent, majestic, exuberant, existential and a terrible, terrible sadness and loneliness that, somehow, we all seem to share.

I know it’s one mans opinion but I will easily call this the most beautiful piece of music ever written, possibly the greatest accomplishment of artistic expression of all human history.

As an artist and a musician I can admire it, revere it, but I can’t really understand how it was written. I can’t ever see my mind being so inspired to turn out something so brilliant. But I can, and do, thoroughly enjoy it. And this I plan to do as long as I have a brain cell left in my head, and ears which still hear.


© Robert Emmett McWhorter

Sandcastle Implosion

eyeballAnd then there was the one guy who woke up one morning with a terrible earache. He struggled out of bed, unraveling himself from  the blankets.  In the bathroom, he located a q-tip, and probed the inner workings of his ear canal.

The cotton swab squishing in his head made a painful grating sound, like sandpaper grinding directly on his brain.

He pulled out the q-tip and a gold-ball sized portion of his head, skull and gray matter came out with it, rotten and dripping parts splattered onto the bathroom tile.

He went into the living room and retrieved the phone from it’s hiding place under the sofa. Fingers flipped through yellow pages, until he found an ad for a doctor who sounded good enough.

Still holding the q-tip in one hand, he dialed the phone with the other, and make a doctors appointment for next Saturday.

Ξ
‘Sandcastles imploding,
Unplugging a million brain cells,
Dislodging a million more memories,
They sizzle and scatter and
slip out of place.
Ξ

©Robert Emmett McWhorter

The Persistence of Entropy

Dali, Disintegration of Persistence of Memory

Dali ‘Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory’

I have never really measured my own self-worth by wealth or material possessions. Growing up ‘modestly’, to put it nicely, I never had opportunity to do so. It has been instilled in me from a young age that possessions are fleeting, wealth is temporary.

I could own a big house and fill it with toys and still be miserable. I could chase after money until I had enough to keep generations of off-spring comfortable and never wanting, and still feel empty inside. And, even these can disappear over night.

So, I have long-held that the only things I can really own, the only things that can’t be taken from me; are my experiences, my memories, my words.

About five years ago my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It has been a difficult road, to say the least. The woman who I once thought strong enough to hold up the world, to watch her deteriorate is painful, frustrating and sometimes infuriating.

And it has completely uprooted my beliefs, my notions about life. I watch as she struggles to express herself, as she tries to unravel a memory now tucked away just out of reach. Any notions I had of permanence or owning my own thoughts has been capsized.

The only thing I thought I really owned, my mind, is just as flimsy and fleeting as anything else. My thoughts, ideas, memories and experiences; they are just as flimsy and corruptible as any material possession.

It shakes me to the core. At the same time, it gives me a renewed urgency to get my ideas and memories out of my head and onto the page.

Time is not on my side. Even my experiences can be taken from me. If I don’t share them, if I keep them locked away in my brain, there very well may come a day when they can no longer escape; and remain forever prisoners of my darkening mind.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter