Heroes Never Rust #87: Subconscious vs. Conscious in Watchmen

Heroes Never Rust #87 by Sean Ironman

Subconscious vs. Conscious in Watchmen

A few weeks ago, my Forms of Illustrated Narrative class discussed Watchmen, and when I asked my students what they thought of the symmetrical structure in issue five, they look looked confused and began flipping through the book. Rorschach is the focal character of issue five. The comic itself features a symmetrical panel layout. The first page matches the layout and coloring of page twenty-eight. The second page matches with page twenty-seven. And so on. At mid-point, the story moves away from Rorschach and features a scene that is an assassination attempt on Ozymandias’ life. At the exact middle, Ozymandias strikes his would be assassin, with Ozymandias featured on the left page and the assassin on the right, with those two pages acting as the mirror for the comic. The issue is all about duel identities, so it’s a fitting choice, the symmetrical layout. Rorschach is finally unmasked. Ozymandias acts as the mirror for the layout because he is the comic’s true villain, not yet revealed. Once I pointed all of this out to my class, the students seemed to understand and were somewhat amazed at the craftsmanship on display. Yet, the students did not notice when they first read the issue (for some students, this was not their first time reading Watchmen). What’s the purpose of a craft decision that the reader will not notice, or at least many readers will not notice? This is a lot of work to do for the writer and artist. Should readers understand the ways craft elements are used while reading?

watchmen chapter five

This is not just an issue for comics, either. The other day, a short story writer spoke to me about how her workshop failed to notice that the ending to one of her short stories mirrored the opening. She thought it obvious, but the approach seemed to go over everyone’s head, even the professor’s. It comes to me now that there may not be an answer to my questions. Whether a story or an essay or a comic is successful or not depends on the goals of the writer. If one’s goal is to show off a certain technique or structure—for example, if the goal of issue five of Watchmen was to show off the symmetrical structure—then the creator(s) may feel that the work failed because readers did not understand. But, if the goal is to the story and to the characters, then the reader not consciously understanding a certain technique may not be a problem. My goals as a writer have little to do with showing off or feeling intelligent, so for me, story and characters come first. A reader not realizing some intricate subtlety is of little concern for me.

How many times does it take to read a piece of writing for you to understand it? When I read poetry, I read a poem three times, each time slower than the last. A poetry professor during my MFA taught me that approach. Reading a poem three times allows me to understand it. I feel the same with other works. My first time seeing a film is not the best time. Once I understand what will happen, I can study each scene. With essays and short stories, I prefer the second or third reading. When I teach a work, I mostly prepare by reading the work again and again. I may read an essay four or five times before teaching it (and that is not counting the times I read it before I put it on the syllabus). The first time through, I understand the plot (hopefully), but not until a few times through am I able to really see the craftsmanship on display. Now, I confess, I may just not be as smart as other readers, and I am sure there are stronger readers than I myself, but I have three college degrees and will begin work on my PhD this fall, so I am not an idiot and I feel on the scale of reading and analysis strength I am on the stronger end. There is only so much a person can keep track of at one time. Having to read a work multiple times to understand craft is not a terrible thing.

watchmen five middle

To me, most work a writer does a reader feels subconsciously. This may be why it is so difficult for students to analyze work. My students may not have consciously noticed the symmetrical structure of the fifth issue of Watchmen, but they felt it. They felt secure in the storytelling. They understood the themes and plot and character arcs of the issue. Understanding how the writer and artist did their job will take multiple reads and intense study. That is why writing professors have jobs. To show students to slow down and really study a piece of writing.

In a creative nonfiction workshop last semester, I told students to study the beginning and the ending of essays and they will notice that the ending of a personal essay typically refers to the opening either by reusing certain language, imagery, or plot details. Once students began paying attention, they could pick it out quickly. They were then able to use the same approach in their own essays. Writing, to me, is not much different than crafting anything else. You can build me a house and I will not be able to walk through it once and understand how everything was constructed. I will only see a house, at first. But, if I carefully study each room, each window, each door, each separate element of construction, I will be able to understand the craftsmanship on display. The same goes for music, movies, paintings, etc. Artists work in the subconscious. That is why it is difficult to make art. A reader does not need to understand everything you have done as a writer. A reader only needs to understand the literal events of a piece of writing and get something out of the time he or she spent reading it. Accept that most of what you do as a writer will only be noticed by other writers, and feel content in knowing that if other writers stop to study intently your work, then you have crafted something worth understanding fully.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

The Global Barfly’s Companion #1: White Horse Tavern

The Global Barfly’s Companion #1 by Kristin Maffei

Bar: White Horse Tavern

 Location: 567 Hudson St, New York, NY

White Horse Tavern ExtBook to Bring: The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.

dylanthomascollected poems

The White Horse Tavern was a favorite of the Welsh poet, who Robert Lowell once described as “a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.”

White Horse Int

Why Writers Love It: This historic West Village tavern has been operating since 1880, and for the first half of its life was mostly popular with local longshoremen who would come in for a drink after their shifts ended. It began leaning literary in the 1950s, when beat writers starting imbibing, sometimes to excess, there.

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Famous patrons include Norman Mailer, Delmore Schwartz, James Baldwin, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and, most famously, Dylan Thomas, who spent his last conscious night on earth drinking here, before falling into a coma and dying of pneumonia on November 9, 1953.

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The event solidified the White Horse’s status as a literary bar, and it has since become a bit a tourist spot, though it’s certainly still a fun place to grab a beer and bask in the old-fashioned ambiance.

White Horse Ext

Caveat Emptor: The bar staff is polite but brisk, and once put up a sign advising soccer-loving patrons not to take up too much space while nursing a single drink. Your humble correspondent had no trouble with this sort of thing on a weekday night after work, but it’s something to keep in mind for busier times.

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Kristin Maffei

Kristin Maffei is a poet and copywriter living in New York City. Her work has been featured in Works & Days, Mount Hope Journal, and Underwater New York. For more information, visit www.kristinmaffei.com.

Episode 145: Patrick Hawkins!

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Episode 145 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I engage in an epic, manic conversation about the creative appeal and history of comic books and superhero storytelling with Patrick Hawkins.

10403566_10205272360302460_1480408357168425309_nTEXTS DISCUSSED

the-dark-knight-returnsSaga of the Swamp Thing OneThorAppleseed - Book 1 - CoverJohn Sable

Four important panels that John came across early in his reading life:

H182_HammerAnvilfrom The Incredible Hulk #182.

Hulk 182NOTES

Patty Hawkins is a geek theorist & humorist which is politer and more marketable than calling himself a fatuous gasbag who has seen & read far too much media involving capes, swords & ray guns. He makes no claims other then speaking the truth as he sees it about geek culture without sucking up or snarking down.

Sometimes he succeeds.

He is the producer & host of Come Get ∑ [pronounced ‘come get sum’] a new TV/webcast set to debut in 2015 focusing on geekdom as a social culture instead of an exploited clichéd demographic of basement dwellers & cosplayers.

He is one of the founding members & manager of The Geeks Of Comedy, a touring confederation of geek comedians who hack into all facets of fandom & fanDUMB with blistering honesty & self-effacement instead of lame ass Aquaman jokes.

He is also Patrick The Uneducated Critic and reviews films at his own caprice when they roll over on his Netflix queue (YES I’m one of the weirdoes that still pays to get the damn discs mailed to me).

He is a contributing panelist on the MarkWho42WHOniverse, a Dr. Who discussion podcast that bridges the generational gaps between Whovians which is not as easy as it sounds…

In his day jobs his is co-owner of TyFy Studios, an audio production facility, an Ideator at Ideas To Go, & is an Equity actor for Walt Disney World.

Go back and listen to Patrick perform some geek comedy as part of The Drunken Odyssey’s Nerd Love live show back on episode 47.

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Episode 145 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

 

The Curator of Schlock #82: April Fool’s Day

The Curator of Schlock #82 by Jeff Shuster

April Fool’s Day

Pranks can kill, kids!

I have to admit, I didn’t care for these slasher movies when I first started watching them. It’s kind of like your first beer. You not only get used to it, but eventually life doesn’t seem as good without it. I also find myself humming “O Canada” every night before I go to sleep. I don’t know what that’s about.

I remember when I was little. They used to sell these glossy stickers that inspired by horror movies right in the grocery store.

horror_stickersYes, they sold stickers of gruesome horror movies to kids back in the 1980s because the 1980s were awesome! They were fifty cents a pop, but I could usually persuade my dad to give me a couple of quarters. I remember this one for a horror movie called Return to Horror High. It depicted a skeletal cheerleader chanting, “Killer to the left. Killer to the right. Stand up. Sit down. Fright! Fright! Fright!”

I was too young to watch these kind of movies, but the movie posters and VHS covers were quite alluring to me. Part of me wondered if there was a skeletal cheerleader in the movie strutting her stuff as she cheered the homicidal maniac on.

Another poster that always caught my eye was the one for April Fool’s Day. This one didn’t have a skeletal cheerleader, but a young woman in a fancy evening gown with her back turned toward the spectator. What was most jarring about her was how her hair was braided into the form of a noose. I wondered if it was possible for girls to braid their hair in the form of a noose. Were girls able to do all of these crazy things with their hair that boys weren’t privy to? This remains a mystery to me to this day.

April1The woman in the poster is also toasting with her right hand and concealing a knife with her left. Was she planning to murder her guests? Was she getting revenge on some wrong done to her by then? Maybe she was just plain evil and wanted to murder them just for the heck of it. Well, I guess the joke was on me since that poster is a lie! There is no woman in this movie with a noose braid. April Fools!

April3You want to know what the movie is about?

April4A bunch of college kids wait around a deserted house to get slashed by a mysterious killer.

April2This one involves pranks so you can’t tell if the kills are real or not. Biff from Back to the Future stars. The End.

While I’m at it, I give you the plot to Friday the 13th Part 2. A bunch of camp counselors wait around a deserted summer camp to get slashed by a mysterious killer who turns out to be Jason Voorhees, the deformed, mentally challenged son of the PTA mom from the first movie.

Okay. I just watched the trailer for Return to Horror High. There’s a skeletal cheerleader in it!

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Photo by Leslie Salas.
Photo by Leslie Salas.

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

Heroes Never Rust #86: Watchmen: Non-Chronological Storytelling

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Heroes Never Rust #86 by Sean Ironman

Watchmen: Non-Chronological Storytelling

The fourth issue of Watchmen is a centerpiece for delving into Doctor Manhattan’s character. At the end of the third issue, he teleports to Mars. There, he builds a massive clock tower and, basically, reflects on his life. Reflect might not be the right word. Doctor Manhattan is the one vigilante with superpowers. He sees time differently than we do, with events taking place simultaneously. He is, at once, in the past, present, and future. The issue with all of this, of course, is that the reader is not Doctor Manhattan. At the end of the day, no matter how experimental a comic is or prose is, a person reads one sentence at a time, views one panel at a time, in sequence. These smaller pieces add up. Letters to words to phrases to sentences to paragraphs to pages. Even in comics, a visual medium, the reader views events in a sequence. An issue that many stories may have (comics or prose) is showing non-chronological storytelling. When your story features a character who literally views the world non-chronologically, the problem may be exacerbated. The reader needs to understand the story, regardless of whether he or she likes the story or not. Understanding the events presented is important.

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Doctor Manhattan goes through his entire history from being a boy wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker to attending Princeton to meeting Janey Slater to falling in love to his accident and supposed death and eventually his rebirth as a superpowered being to becoming a vigilante and meeting Laurie, the second Silk Spectre. There are other events that I’m leaving out, too. All of this is taking place as Doctor Manhattan reflects on his life from the story’s present day on Mars. To keep track of all of these different time periods (over a few decades), the story is given a framing device of Doctor Manhattan searching/walking on Mars. The frame is returned to time and time again, actually similar to a car revving. Each time, the story leaves the frame, the story gets a little bit more confident going further into the time periods and returning to the frame less and less and jumping from time period to time period without being taken back to the present day. Readers are still firmly placed—they aren’t thrown around time, so they can keep track of events.

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In visual design, like on the comic book page, a viewer/reader needs a line of sight. A viewer/reader needs to understand how to read a page—basically a line to move a viewer/reader down and across the page. A story needs a similar line. Readers need through-line to move them from scene to scene. The frame story of Doctor Manhattan on Mars is that line. It gives the reader a base to feel safe and secure. I have written about this before, but it is important for a reader to feel like the writer is in control, that the writer is not just throwing whatever is on the top of his or her head at the reader.

watchmen

Comics have a bit more leeway on changing the scenery and time period suddenly because readers are capable of processing images faster than text. Just changing the colors and images between panels is enough to communicate to a reader that there has been a change in time and setting. So, comics can change scene faster and still have the reader keep track of what is going on. But, Watchmen also uses text. If there’s one thing I learned about transitions in prose (and I think this goes for nonfiction as well) is that beginning writers tend to overthink them. Elbows and knees are ugly. How many people can say that the most beautiful part of their partner is the elbow? There are exceptions, I’m sure, but the elbow serves a utilitarian purpose. It’s not meant to be beautiful. The same with transitions. Transitions are utilitarian. They serve a purpose to move the reader from one place in the story to another place in the story. Many beginner writers try to turn transitions into art. In Watchmen, readers are moved from one time period to another period in a simple manner—“It is 1985. I am on Mars. I am fifty-six years old.” You cannot really get simpler than that. Readers get the year, the place, and the age of Doctor Manhattan, the narrator. The text firmly places us into the time period. The transition is also written in a style befitting Doctor Manhattan—there is no emotion. Alan Moore uses the text as not only a transition, but also as a means for characterization. But, the transitions are not overdone. They fit the voice of the character, and they move readers from place to place. And that is it. The transitions do not do the heavy lifting. They get the job done, and the story moves on.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

Episode 144: Katie Farris!

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Episode 144 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk flash fiction, mythology, Cosmopolitan, the meeting of graphic and written art, and experimental writing with the fabulous Katie Farris,

Katie Farris-2plus Jesse Back writes about his spiritual, romantic, and personal evolution through Will Durant’s The History of Philosophy.

Jesse Back

Photo by Daniel Parsons.

TEXTS DISCUSSED

boysgirls

The Story of PhilosophyInvisible Cities

BodyhomeNOTES

The music used with “Forgetting Christianity” is “Bleached Beach” by Noveller, a one person band, that band being the amazing Sarah Lipstate.

The music at the start and finish of this episode was “Rising East” and “Chaotica” by The Bambi Molesters, an amazing surf rock band out of Croatia. “Rising East” is from their 2010 album, As the Dark Wave Swells, and “Chaotica” is from their 2004 album, Sonic Bullets: 13 From the Hip.

As the Dark Wave SwellsSonic Bullets

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Episode 144 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #81: Leprechaun 2

The Curator of Schlock #81 by Jeff Shuster

Leprechaun 2: The Legend of Funkswittle’s Golden Lox

Another Leprechaun movie. Yay.

L2A(1)Yeah, I know St. Patrick’s Day was a couple of days ago, but it’s a Leprechaun movie so I’m not going to lose any sleep over this. The only Leprechaun movie I care about is the inevitable Leprechaun vs. Chucky movie that they’ve been teasing us all these years. Hollywood, make this happen!

I’ve also included my own subhead for this movie since one was not included. Hollywood should really put me in charge of the titles for their movies. For instance, I would title Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Star Wars Episode VII: The Gungan Conundrum, but what do I know?

1994s Leprechaun 2 from director Rodman Flender starts off like the last one with an overlong prologue about how the Leprechaun (Warwick Davis) wanted to trick a young lass into marrying him back in 994 AD by making her sneeze three times. The young woman’s father says “God Bless You” after the third sneeze, ruining the Leprechaun’s spell. He kills the girl’s father by strangling him in mid air or something to that effect. He then tells the guy that he’ll marry one of his descendants instead, the father’s descendent, not the Leprechaun’s. Ugh! I’m already losing the plot.

L2EFast forward to modern day Los Angeles, where we’re introduced to a colorful cast of characters. There’s a teenage scam artist named Cody Ingalls (Charlie Heath) who lives with his Uncle Morty who is a drunk. The two of them run some Hollywood Celebrity Death Tour deal, the kind where you learn that Elvis was one of the few celebrities who died on the toilet while actually using the toilet. Clint Howard and Kimmy Robertson show up as a couple of gullible tourists. I think I spotted Cynthia Nixon as well, but that may have been my imagination. Uncle Morty can’t give the tour since he’s skunk-drunk at the local pub.

Meanwhile, we see a homeless guy drowning his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey, sloshing and spilling it near some enchanted tree. Out pops the Leprechaun who wrests the whiskey from the sad sack’s hand. The Leprechaun spits it out, complaining that it’s a Canadian blend and the only real whiskey is Irish whisky. I can’t fault him there, but then he notices a gold tooth in the homeless guy’s mouth. The Leprechaun rips the gold right of the guy’s mouth, adding it to his pot. Later, he rips the ring finger off the hand of a Hollywood agent. Now why is it okay for the Leprechaun to steal gold from others, but you’ll pay dearly if you try to steal his? Not very cricket if you ask me.

L2B(1)It’s important to note that this movie is a love story. Cody has a girlfriend named Bridget (Shevonne Dunkin) who is the spitting image of the young woman who the Leprechaun wanted to marry a thousand years. Naturally, he tries the sneezing spell again only to have Cody say “God Bless You.” This makes the Leprechaun angry, but I have no idea if this broke the spell.

L2C(1)Does “God Bless You” have to be said after the third sneeze to cancel the spell? Can you just start the sneezing spell over again if it’s only said after the first or second sneezes. The film is very unclear on the rules. In fact, the Leprechaun just tosses a gold neck brace around Bridget and claims her as his bride. How does that work?

On a personal note, how pathetic is it to be killed by the Leprechaun? Give me a Jason Voorhees or a Tall Man to finish me off. I’d never live “Death by Leprechaun” down in the afterlife.

Five Things I Learned from Leprechaun 2

  1. If you hire Clint Howard, don’t let him go to waste.
  2. You can drink a Leprechaun under the table.
  3. Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People is a scarier movie.
  4. In the 90s, reboots were sequels.
  5. Death by espresso machine is a horrible way to go.

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Photo by Leslie Salas

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

Heroes Never Rust #85: Watchmen & Sex

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Heroes Never Rust #85 by Sean Ironman

Watchmen: Sex

A great deal occurs in the third issue of Watchmen. Laurie and Dan get their taste for superheroics reinvigorated when they are jumped in an alley. Doctor Manhattan is confronted on television for allegedly giving cancer to people around him due to his super powers. He leaves Earth for Mars. Rorschach continues with his theory that someone is trying to plot against the superheroes. But, the scene that sticks out to me as the most interesting is Doctor Manhattan’s sex scene with Laurie toward the beginning.

Chapter03The scene opens with Doctor Manhattan’s blue hands touching Laurie’s face. Then, a third hand appears. Freaked out, Laurie screams and the sex stops. Two Doctor Manhattans are in bed with her. When she goes to another room in their house, she spots a third Doctor Manhattan in some sort of a lab—his office, I presume. Laurie, upset that her boyfriend thinks so little of loving her that he duplicates himself so that he can continue his work, storms out. It’s a short scene, only two pages, but it’s a vital one that helps develop both characters and moves the plot along, giving Doctor Manhattan no reason to remain on Earth after Laurie leaves him.

Sex can be difficult for some readers to get through in a story. It’s not for me (as a writer or a reader) so sometimes I’m confused by certain readers’ responses to stories featuring sex. I can understand when readers feel sex scenes are gratuitous, and I feel the same in certain works, True Blood, for example. But, gratuitous can go for any type of scene. A conversation can be gratuitous. A gratuitous scene goes overboard long after the scene accomplishes what it was meant to accomplish for the story. If a conversation goes on too long, then it is gratuitous. The same with an action scene. Any scene. Of course, there are gratuitous sex scenes. But, just because sex is present doesn’t meant the scene is gratuitous.

WatchmenSex1First, there is little nudity in the sex scene in issue three. Laurie pulls the covers up. The reader knows she is naked, but showing her breasts would be gratuitous here. Readers are shown Doctor Manhattan’s ass, but he spends the majority of Watchmen nude, so that doesn’t really count. The scene is shown knowing full well that most people view sex as an intimate act. It’s personal. And because most readers would agree with that idea, the scene works well. Doctor Manhattan has become so distant from his humanity that he cannot even be present when making love to his girlfriend. If readers did not view sex as a personal and private act, they might very well agree with Doctor Manhattan as Laurie complains and storms out. Instead, readers are able to understand that Doctor Manhattan has become less interested in human acts. He would rather stick to his experiments. During the argument, Laurie throws a beaker filled with some sort of liquid at Doctor Manhattan. It smashes on the counter, spilling its contents. As one Doctor Manhattan tells Laurie he is prepared to discuss why she is angry, another duplicate fixes the mess and recreates the beaker and liquid. Even as he is fighting with girlfriend, his mind is really on his experiment.

WatchmenSex2Second, the sex portion of this scene is only in three panels (four if you count the larger panel of Laurie pulling away from the two Doctor Manhattans). Twelve panels show the argument and Laurie storming out. The sex is not the important aspect of the scene. (When are the physical actions of a scene the most important aspect? Most of the time it’s the mental or emotional responses of the characters.) The sex is presented to get to Laurie storming out. She can only stand so much of Doctor Manhattan not caring. In an act as intimate as sex, she needs him to care. To want to be there with her in the moment. The sex that is shown is only a close-up of Doctor Manhattan’s hands on Laurie’s face. It’s enough to have the reader understand what is going on, but that’s where the sex ends. Once a reader understands the choreography of a scene, the scene can focus on character development, show reflection, or show internal thoughts. Beyond that, a scene can become gratuitous.

Watchmen is a book for adults. In my opinion, if one is writing for an adult audience, nothing is off limits. Adults can handle it. If they can’t, then they need to take a look at their life. Hiding away from what’s in the world is not in the interest of art. At some point in the creative process, a writer must consider their audience. I don’t mean pandering to their audience. But, a writer should ask himself or herself who they are writing toward. I read Watchmen the first time when I was eighteen. Perhaps I could have read it a couple of years younger, but to truly appreciate it, readers must be mature. If I read Watchmen back when I was only reading X-Men comics and discussing them with neighborhood friends in my parents’ driveway, I would have hated it. Including sex in adult stories is not a necessity, but it does allow a writer to connect to readers and to get readers to think about an idea in a different way. I spent my childhood reading superhero comics, and when I read Watchmen, I finally understood what it would mean to have superpowers. Watchmen places superheroes in the real world—the comic makes them relatable. We have sex, and so do the superheroes.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

Buzzed Books #23: Einstein’s Beach House

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Buzzed Books #23 by Rachel Kolman

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob M. Appel

einsteinsbeachhouse Einstein’s Beach House, Appel’s latest short story collection (and his third publication of 2014), is a quick, fun, clever read.

Appel is a writer who knows how short stories work best. He knows how to hit all of the right notes and how to balance humor with serious emotional engagement. Appel’s diverse background (on top of being a writer, he’s also a physician, attorney, and bioethicist) gives him a rich world of details that provide authenticity to his characters. Each story is a line-up of quirky character habits and genuinely unique conflicts. The opening story, “Hue and Cry,” features two young female pre-teens, who might have slight crushes on each other, spying on the registered sex offender who lives next door. In “La Tristesse Des Herissons,” (which translates to “the sadness of the hedgehogs”) a couple tends to their depressed pet hedgehog while the husband wonders if their marriage is falling apart.

And these quirky stories are great, for a while. However, by the end of the collection (which is only 8 stories, mind you), the consistent, similar beats and voice of every story grows tiresome. There’s not one, but two stories that feature a couple strangely over caring for a pet as if it were a child, and two stories that feature a young daughter being exposed to some aspect of adulthood through a disturbed father. There are also at least four older narrators looking back on some anecdote of their childhood, as is the case in “Einstein’s Beach House” and “Limerence.”

Often, Appel’s tells the readers just exactly what his story is about at the end – essentially, a statement of the story’s theme summed up in one line. In case we missed it, an extra beat to feel the author’s smugness at his own clever nature, after a deeply enjoyable narrative. And the few stories that strayed away from that idea (“The Rod of Asclepius,” for one) were incredibly more enjoyable.

There’s still plenty that Appel is doing right: he aptly explores the way the past influences us, with insights that linger long after the story is finished. “Einstein’s Beach House” and “Limerence” both feature older narrators looking back at some particular incident of their childhood, attempting to figure out what it meant, using the distance to reveal more insight into what could seem on the surface as a meaningless childhood adventure.

The distant narrator looking back works well for these two stories; it doesn’t work, however, for the most intriguing story in the bunch, “The Rod of Asclepius.” This story shows a father and seven-year-old daughter going around to hospital rooms and “injecting” patients. It is later learned that the father is quietly targeting and killing the relatives of doctors, due to a bitterness over his wife’s own death in a malpractice case. It’s an intriguing, complicated storyline, which loses some of the immediate thrill with the distance of the narrator, the seven year old now re-telling this story in her thirties, ironically now a doctor herself. Personally, I’d rather have stayed in the scenes with this young girl who already knows at seven that what her father is doing is wrong. The whole present-day narrative of her now being a doctor steals from the complex internal conflict she faced with at such a young age

Despite this, the idea of facing the past and trying to understand the complex dynamic of relationships is a commendable theme and explored thoroughly and inquisitively in this collection. There’s no doubt Appel’s voice is fresh, contemporary, quirky, and lively. Sure, he might be a bit “one-note,” but lucky for him, it’s a remarkably good note to hit.

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rachelkolmanphotoRachel Kolman (Episode 85) received her MFA in fiction from the University of Central Florida. She currently teaches composition at Valencia College and Seminole State College. She’s also a barista at Vespr Coffeebar and can make a mean cup of joe. When she’s not grading papers and drinking coffee, she’s probably watching Netflix and eating Vietnamese food.

Shakespearing #31: Antony and Cleopatra

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Shakespearing #31 by David Foley

Antony and Cleopatra

31 Antony and CleopatraOne reason I wouldn’t be a good playwriting teacher is that I wouldn’t know how to teach inconsistency. It’s one of those things I think you either get or you don’t, one of those things that suggest certain elements of writing can’t be taught. Mostly I mean inconsistency of character, and the not-quite-playwright usually produces one of two effects when drawing a character. Either the character is diagrammatically laid out, sometimes with painstaking psychological nuance, so that everything the character does is motivated with crystal clarity, or else the character makes no sense whatsoever, shifting and chopping according to the whims of the playwright or the needs of the plot. Neither resembles an actual person.

If I wanted to try to teach characterization—if I wanted to give a student some idea of how to portray a character whirling, like most of us, around some wavering core—I’d say, Read Shakespeare. Read Antony and Cleopatra.

In this play Shakespeare seems to set up inconsistency as the signature of a noble soul. His two leads, equals in stature and in confounding behavior, are set against the chilling single-mindedness of Caesar. They tack back and forth (sometimes literally) on the impulses of the moment. This, of course, is a problem even if you’re not trying to win an empire. How can you construct a recognizable self from a welter of warring impulses? Antony seems to sense this in a speech in which he compares himself to a drifting cloud, “A vapor, sometime like a bear or lion,/A tower’d citadel, a pendant rock,/A forked mountain” until “the rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct.”

Two things save Antony and Cleopatra: the largeness of their passions and their rhetoric. And here’s where I’d feel compelled to warn my young playwright. You have to be careful with Shakespeare, I’d say, because he can leave you with a fascination with characters who shape themselves through rhetoric. And that dynamic structure—the fragmentary, contradictory character willing itself into shape through continued acts of speech—can puzzle those used to cleaner forms of characterization. (Though this itself is a puzzle since many great playwrights—Chekhov, Williams, O’Neill—have done it.)

Cleopatra’s last moments are flight after flight of rhetoric, as if daring herself to new heights. It’s hard to tell who’s getting higher on her fumes, she or Shakespeare. It begins in Act IV: “O, wither’d is the garland of the world,” and “It were for me/To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods,/To tell them that this world did equal theirs/Till they had stol’n our jewel.” In her final scene, she pulls out all the stops: “Rather on Nilus’ mud/Lay me stark nak’d, and let the water-flies/Blow me into abhorring.” She even takes some meta-jibes at the actor playing her, who as “some squeaking Cleopatra [will] boy my greatness/I’th’ posture of a whore.” By the time she gets to “I have immortal longings in me,” we’re entirely swept away by this magnificent act of self-recreation on the verge of self-destruction.

But maybe she’s on to her own game. The more fatal master of rhetoric is Caesar, for whom rhetoric is not about self-creation but political force. When he smoothly, persuasively lies to her about how she’ll be treated as a captive, she replies, “He words me, girls, he words me.”

How strange in this last act of Antony and Cleopatra to be reminded both of the falseness of rhetoric and its thrilling power. It creates worlds, it creates people, and when all else is lost, it builds a pyre on which to throw yourself.

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David FoleyDavid Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the GreeksParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

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