I stock up on dopamine* in the mornings by dancing, sometimes singing to my favorite songs.  These range from So Whatcha Want by The Beastie Boys to the opening of the 2013 Tony Awards as sung by Neil Patrick Harris (thanks, internet, for all your flaws, for bringing me this ode to excess.)

Being a stage performer, particularly in musical theatre where you might have to be singing, dancing, and acting all at the same time, is tremendously hard work.  It is physically demanding, often debilitating.  Lots of musicians bring the same energy to the concert stage, not just in rock but across the board (it’s Britney, bitch.) 

It’s not just the dopamine I’m chasing but the calorie burn.  So I’m not ashamed to say I had to bail out about two minutes into the Talking Heads’ performance of the song Life During Wartime in the seminal concert film Stop Making Sense. 

IDK what David Byrne was eating those days (looks like nothing) but he never stops moving and neither do the rest of the band.  If you don’t regularly exercise, you’d never keep up, because they are beasts.  MF, they are playing their instruments while running in place and has Gen Z seen this shit yet?  This is a TikTok challenge waiting to happen, amirite?

So I thought, what a great candidate for a stupid goal. To be able to do David Byrne’s bit in Life During Wartime.

Get delusional, isn’t that what the kids say?  This is a theme for me right now, after a post I made about impossible goals to a lively group of professional writers blew up, getting a few hundred comments from writers at every stage of their career.   Why not carry this energy into everything I do?

I need delusional goals.  Ordinary ones don’t seem to motivate me.  So why not try something ridiculous?  Absurd and not wholly useful except that it spurs me to be more active.  A chance to score a symbolic victory over my human tendencies—taking the easy way out, hoarding calories in case of famine, anxiety about my appearance and social rank.

We have so little time on earth, and there’s so much that we might do that we’ll never have the time to even read about in someone else’s words.  We’re dying the minute we’re born and I think if more people understood that we might as individuals and as a civilization use our time better.

I’m old enough to feel this in my bones.  They say youth is wasted on the young because it’s only the accumulation of years that make you understand time at the cellular level.  There is no solution to death.  I don’t know that I’d choose eternal life even if it was offered.  All we have is today, this hour, this second, this heartbeat, this blink of the cosmic eye, our every breath one more pearl strung on a thread that grows shorter and shorter.

Do it now.  The thing you always wanted.  Do it now because there is only now.  Only this moment, this breath.  This.

Photo by Alex Turcu on Unsplash

Clever Soup

Alphabet pasta letters in a spoon spell out "SOS"

A holodeck and a human actor: a best-case scenario for AI filmmaking. Human actors reacting in human ways to whatever scenario the filmmaker invents, which is not much different from what goes on now.

The thing is, you can’t fake human, and maybe it’s not worth trying.  Everything else in filmmaking—sets, props, locations, eldritch horrors—can be represented artistically and therefore generated with digital imaging.  It’s the people you can’t fake.

Consider: we pay people to do nothing but be good at emoting.  Certain people emote i.e. act more skillfully than others, and we make them millionaires and give them gold statues and big parties and all our attention.  One individual, idiosyncratic human with their asymmetrical face and personality quirks and gut biome, singular among all other humans currently alive, can win the hearts of millions.  You’re telling me a calculator (which is what a computer is, writ large) is going to be able to fake that any time soon?

AI research has over the years taken up billions of dollars, and we’re still nowhere near faking people.  Maybe it can’t be done.  A computer as intricately modeled as the human brain might need to be either the size of a mountain or be an actual biological brain, grown in situ.

We are clever soup.  But we are like nothing else.  We’re cheap to make, easy to teach, endlessly inventive.  Why bother trying to mechanically replicate what’s already so abundant?

Slay all day? In this economy??

You’re not going to believe this, but I learned a lot about writing from reading this article about, er, recording and mixing pop songs. But what does an interview with one of Beyoncé’s sound engineers have to do with writing a book about kissing?

I write genre fiction, the pop music of the literary world.  And before you sneer at that, consider that romance novels make up 40% of the entire global book market.  Your literary stream of consciousness debut novel is a free-rider on our sales (you’re welcome.)

Pop music has to get its point across in three minutes.  Less, ideally, because if the first fifteen, twenty seconds don’t slap, no one is going to want to hear the rest.  And by slap I don’t mean bombast.  I mean that the opening has to suggest a big payoff is coming.  A fat beat, a mad drop, some crazy vocal run that make your hair raise.  The money shot, if you will.  The Big Fight at the end of the action film or the last kiss at the end of the romance (where we always promise a happy ending.)

But again, what does that have to do with writing books?  It’s all about Stuart White’s commitment to the first take as being the truest. Understand that this first take he’s talking about isn’t a demo.  When Queen Bey walks into that sound booth, it’s already planned what’s going to happen when she starts to sing. Hours of thought and setup, years of training and experience, all come into play in creating a perfect moment, where singer and song unite at an instinctive level, the way they ideally do onstage.  Everything after this first take is fine-tuning.

Similarly, by the time I write my ‘first draft’ of a book, I’m ready to deliver a great performance.  Even though I call it a ‘zero’ draft (gives me permission to let it be bad) I go into writing a book with a full synopsis, and all the scenes I’ve collected since thinking of it all nicely laid out in order. With chapter headings. Ready to write.  What’s missing at that stage is the feelings.  And those can be planned for but not plotted.  That’s what I deliver when writing a chapter from my notes, the emotions of the scene, which register in my body* while I’m writing. I don’t want to stop and figure out which character is sitting on which side of the bed in the middle of getting them into the bed.  If all those bothersome details are plotted, everything else just flows.

Your results may vary, but this is my system and it’s what my high-diffusion scatter ADHD seems to like: wild ideas, usefully structured, with a flowchart of operations and a minimum of attractive nuisances i.e. side-quests my characters don’t need to go on.

What my dang brain hates is editing. The rewrite, the do-over, the second take.  A rerun of the same creative form that strives, and often fails, to improve on the first instinctive attempt. And for my busy little enterprise, a massive time and/or money sinkhole.  

I despise writing words that I’ll have to delete, and that’s what happens when I write without a plan.  Being very (problematically) imaginative, I can take a story in any of a dozen directions if left unsupervised.  My plan is therefore my supervisor, and they’re a hard-nosed bitch who I hate to disappoint. Speaking of, they’re looking meaningfully at me over the imaginary cubicle wall.  Time to clock in.

*This is why I hardly ever watch tv or movies and am very selective in my reading.  By the end of the day I’ve had So Many Feels that I don’t want to have any more, and certainly not most of the feelings that ‘broadcast entertainment’ wants you to feel: jealousy, confusion, revulsion, futile anger at the establishment (I have that to spare, you want some?)  When my day is done, I want real people.  Or sleep.   

Why choose?

Reverse Harem and the (r)evolution of Romance writing

If you aren’t an avid ebook reader, it’s likely you’ve never heard of the genre, which has begun to call itself “why choose” because algorithms are prurient snitches. Yet it’s the strongest trend in self published romance, with no signs of slowing down.

It is also an astonishing indicator of where culture is headed. Because two out of every five ebooks sold are romance, and reverse harem tropes are EVERYWHERE.

So what the heck is it? Nothing more or less than a romance story where the heroine gets ALL the boys. Without having to choose between them, favoring one and only one. Without lying or cheating, with the consent of all the men, which is perhaps the most fantastical aspect of the genre, that three or more cis-het guys could get over their egos enough to get along with their partner’s metamour.

OK so what the heck is a metamour?

It’s the point at which the Why Choose genre gets really interesting. Because, pardon me if I’m wrong, but this is polyamory. A metamour is your lover’s lover. Not your competition, just “the other person who loves the same person as me.”

Meaning the strongest trend in romance writing is a vigorous, fun-loving, open-hearted repudiation of the nuclear family. One of the lynchpins of Western society, blamed repeatedly (and quite sensibly) for maintaining women’s inferior status. Less than half a decade ago, women in the US were being arrested for wearing pants. A wife needed her husband’s permission to open her own bank account. The assumption was nearly universal that all women wanted was safety. That women weren’t sexual, weren’t interested in freedom in being their own person, in existing for any reason besides replicating DNA aka having babies.

Oh, my sweet summer child…

That has never been enough. And hear me out, this is not some Sandberg gaslighting about how every woman miraculously can have it all aka a high paying high pressure job as well as a functional marriage, happy children, and time enough to seek personal meaning. Such women usually have nannies. And they are frequently miserable. The women, not the nannies, though I reckon a fair few of them are less than thrilled with what often functions like a sort of indentured servitude.

This is of course not universal. But that’s the point. Women want different things. Women can finally have what they want. And yes, RH is a book trend. It isn’t a sign of the death of marriage. But it is certainly a sign that the Overton window has shifted hugely in the direction of even more freedom for women. And for men, who must bear the brunt of being denied softness, emotionality, compassion. Who are taught they must defend their tiny tribe against an entire world which wants them dead. Truth is, the world usually isn’t paying attention. Truth is, modern marriage isn’t a siege state. Wives are not chattel, nor are they princesses, to be kept in a tower and denied the world.

Women are raw, and horny, and also nice and pretty and kind, but still red-blooded, salivating, alive. And we are tired of being told what to do.

There is a world filled with possibilities. Even it’s only words on a page or a screen. A world where women get exactly what they want, and men are happy for it to happen. So come on over! Sometimes the grass really is greener even once you’ve hopped the fence.

No flash photography

Banksy is one of the greatest living artists.   Because we don’t know if anything he’s ever told us is true. 

Even when he says he’s telling the truth.  Particularly when he says he is, as in his film Exit Through the Gift Shop.  Tracing Banksy’s often reluctant involvement in the abrupt rise and fall of another street artist, the film is either a shocking record of true life, or a sublime fake.

We don’t know.

That’s the art. 

Not the spray paint, not the ruined theme parks, but the very inscrutability of the artist’s existence. The art is in the fact that we will carve out of our very walls a rock he is said to have touched and hang the rock on an art gallery wall then charge other people money to view it.  The art is the news story about the painting which shredded itself the moment it was sold. 

He is invisible, criminal, liminal.  We might never see his face.  That is his art, and our psychology is his canvas. 

photos by Lewis Roberts / Robin Wersich / Cole Patrick on Unsplash / treatment by The Fixer

The chipped stone wall of an insurance firm’s downtown office, the alley which never sees sun, the corner of the underground parking garage where a drift of dead leaves has gathered: this is the mental state of so many of us.  Waiting for the unknown to express itself upon us. 

A vivid red balloon, a bunch of flowers, a rat with a felt-tipped pen scrawling a name, any name.

Making something from nothing. 

Making us into art.

Slacker: the greatest movie you’ve never seen

A round metal disk with the words 'survey marker' stamped around the edge and "City of Austin" stamped in the centre, surrounding a star. The marker is hammered into pebbled concrete.

In the early 1990s I had a cool boyfriend.  Art house films, hashish, chaos magick, the whole counter-cultural package.  He took me to see a film one night at the rep cinema.  The place that weekly showed a grainy cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film so old the colours had slid permanently to magenta, making the inky blackness of space more of a very dark red.

This was a newer film though.  An independent film, at a pivotal moment in independent filmmaking.  A film about absolutely nothing. 

Don’t bother with the trailer for Slacker..  It won’t tell you a thing.  And if you miss the opening of the film, you miss it all.  Not that there’s a puzzle to be solved, a mystery that satisfies you with its clever resolution, like a Memento or a Fight Club.  People walk around Austin, Texas, and talk to each other. Joyfully, angrily, with the habit of old friendships or the shock of new acquaintances.  Some don’t speak at all, merely cross paths, like the young woman escorting her elderly father from the grocery store, who recognizes the shoplifter they pass as a girl she knew from her ethics class.  Soon the young woman, the elderly father, and the grocery store will be forgotten in the momentary tale of a nervous house-breaker, a tv-addicted tech hermit, an OG conspiracy theorist, the unluckiest man alive, the budding young capitalists, even S.T.E.V.E. with a van.  People you’ve never met yet whom you will recognize in an instant. An instant is all you get.

A Gen X Dekalog, a film about nothing, a momentous piece of cinema, made for an eye-wateringly low budget of $23,000.  Linklater’s other films draw much from its meandering structure, but I still love its absolute simplicity, its sincerity. 

This is why you watch Tik Tok.  This is why we watch gamers’ livestreams, reality TV, our neighbours through the fence.  Anything humans do, other people will want to watch.  Even if all they’re doing is walking around Austin, Texas on a hot summer’s day at the end of the 20th century. 

Plus this song:

Existential Pop Music

but make it sweet…

I’ve been listening to this for weeks. The other day I read the lyrics (because I can’t speak Portuguese). And trust me, we are both crying. I love little songs like this that catch your ear then take possession of your heart.

What I read on vacation

against the backdrop of a bright blue ocean, someone lays on the pale sandy beach reading a paperback bookbeach

I went on a trip the end of April with the serious intent of reading some light fiction. I write it, so keeping up with what other writers are doing is kind of a job requirement, but I sometimes just don’t read at all.   Unfortunate but you know how it goes, *insert modern life* and all your plans are suddenly negotiable.  Regardless, I did do a fair bit of reading while away.  I’m not including buy links, just look ‘em up yourself. You got the internet on that thing, right?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

A nice book about how to die well.  I contemplate own mortality with more frequency than most people (don’t applaud, it’s maybe a bad thing) so nothing in here stunned me, but its gentle solace is a perfect fit for these grieving times.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Did Not Finish at 40%.  I might have finished it if it was the only book at a beach cottage when the weather was bad.  I’m not big on murder mysteries and we’ll leave it at that, because I have Many Feelings about this book, its plot, its characters, and other books like it which I don’t want to voice. Inevitably, there’s a movie now.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

A brave little novel that tries really hard to not be a Cancer Story by being a book about books, yet is still inescapably a Cancer Story. But good, though I found the dialogue a bit forced. Yes, the characters are well-read for their age, but my own 19th Century aristocrats barely talk that high falutin’.  The author character was a nice touch, but again, another book I only read because it was on the shelf at the vacation rental.

Glitterland by Alexis Hall

I have no logical response to Alexis Hall ‘s romance novels. They’re all amazing IF you like his style, which is exuberant and passionate and unapologetically queer and very “head-space” with lots of ruminations by the main character. I will resist the urge to discourse on the historical antecedents of this sort of novel, but rest assured Hall does it on purpose.

What we end up with is a scorching POV of a man with serious mental illness and his star-crossed lover from Essex which is evidently the UK equivalent of the Jersey Shore. I told Hall himself that I hadn’t read a finer regional accent in prose since Irvine Welsh, and I now call everyone a ‘donut’ when they mess up but adorably. Ten million stars. It’s about to get reissued with (ahhh!!!!) bonus content and for the first time ever I am going to buy a book I already own.

His Lordship’s Secret by Samantha SoRelle

Born in poverty, ascended to wealth, Alfie hires his long lost friend Domenic to protect him from whomever is trying to kill him.  Events Ensue in a twisty and quite macabre Regency-era plot with interesting class commentary and solid period detail. I love a “dress you up” trope, which I didn’t expect to encounter but which aligned perfectly with our historical fashion-themed vacation. All in all, a nifty self-published novel in the growing canon of Queer Historical Romance

The Middle of Somewhere by Roan Parrish

Barely news (there’s a pun in there) to anyone who reads MM Contemporary Romance, but I am a decade behind thanks to an extended reading drought. Aaaaaaaanyway, I don’t typically like present tense in novels, but I grit my teeth and kept on with this one, because what else do you do on the plane? I was rewarded with good, gritty characters and a strong love story that hits a lot of comforting tropes without being too stereotypical. And the sex scenes are lit.

Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater

An author who is finally getting the acclaim she deserves. Like her prior Regency fairy tale Half A Soul, this was a joy to read, with wonderful, complex female leads and a heart-breaking yet ultimately redeeming love story driven by genuine personal growth on everyone’s part. I adore her rendering of the realm of Faerie, 10/10 would visit but very cautiously. This story also aligned with our fashion-themed vacation, being mainly to do with magical embroidery e.g. the ten thousand stitches of the title.  Bravo Ms Atwater!

Rock and/or Roll

There’s a certain class of boomers who love to rhapsodise about how their generation had the best music ever, man.  Statements of this sort are generally followed by them saying how today’s pop music can’t hold a candle to, say, 1970s era Rolling Stones.

Sir, that’s like comparing apples to Doja Cat.  Most people at that time weren’t listening to the Stones, they were listening to Pat fucking Boone. The Rolling Stones were scary long-haired weirdos who looked far too feminine (that pout!) given how often they sang about sex.  You know, underground. The Beatles were underground.  For years you simply couldn’t hear that kind of music on the BBC. You had to either buy the record or listen to an illegal broadcast from a boat moored just outside British sea jurisdiction. 

Remember: rock and roll was not mainstream. It was what dirty, freaky, pot-toking delinquents liked. Everyone else listened to Frank Sinatra. Barry Manilow. Nana Mouskouri.  The Harry Styles/Taylor Swifts of their age.  Even at their height, when Zep were selling out stadiums, they never played pop music.  You still had to own the album to hear the songs, or go to the concert, or stay up into the night listening to FM radio and hoping like hell they’d drop a “deep cut” instead of the two singles that got 99% of the airplay.

So put away this sad attitude.  The interesting music isn’t on the Billboard charts, and it pretty much never was.  It’s underground, like it always is. Today’s pop music is as curated, manufactured one might say, as it’s ever been.  Maybe even a little less, given the ongoing disclosure of the music industry’s predatory practices and the rise of the singer-as-entrepreneur.  And it doesn’t really matter what old people think about new music. Trust me, the trap community gives exactly zero fucks that senior citizens slate their tracks as “not real music.”  Everyone used to hate rock and roll too.  How soon we forget.