Writer’s Desk: Random It, Like Bowie

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

One of the more eye-opening bits at the just-closed David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—besides that clip from Labyrinth, his tattered Union Jack coat, and all the cultural ephemera that inspired him—is the part focusing on his recurring fascination with automatic and cut-up writing.

The technique wasn’t new by the time Bowie started using it in the 1970s. The likes of William S. Burroughs had already been randomly cutting up strips of words and threading them together to create curious curlicues of randomized verbiage. Inspiration out of chaos.

According to music CD-ROM developer Ty Robert, Bowie’s method was strictly analog:

Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics.

Roberts had an idea for a computer program that could help speed up the process. The result was a Mac program called The Verbasizer:

It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.

Per Motherboard, Bowie said:

So what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other.

This approach isn’t exactly a killer app for writing. But if you’re stuck for inspiration and feel you need a little kickstart, try randomizing things. If you can’t immediately see a method to the madness, go looking for it.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Get Pushed Around

Fran Lebowitz (Christopher Macsurak)

Back when New York had a downtown art scene to be proud of, Fran Lebowitz was one of its singular denizens and chroniclers. When she started branching out from writing on movies or what have you for Andy Warhol’s Interview, she ran into some difficulties. But she didn’t let that stop her.

Take this anecdote from an interview she gave to Interview (say it five times fast) about the piece on AIDS she wrote for the New York Times in 1987:

It was ’87. I remember it because when I started publishing, I got offers to write for big magazines. Interview, at the time, six people read it, believe me. But I would always say, “Well, it’s not that I don’t want to write for these big magazines, but you can’t edit it.” And they would always say, “What are you talking about?” And then they would name thousands of geniuses who willingly submitted to being edited. And I said, “Well, I don’t really care. You can’t do it.”

This isn’t to sat that we don’t need editors. Pretty much all of us do. But there are times in every writer’s life when they need to stand their ground and just say, No. Even if that means the piece gets canned.

Sometimes not being published is worth it

Reader’s Corner: Social Justice at Comic-Con

Though it will probably spur a backlash from the troll-ier corners of fanboy world, this year’s San Diego Comic-Con—the ever-more-massive pop culture lollapalooza currently taking over a good part of the city’s downtown—features a broad focus on diversity and social justice issues.

Per the San Diego Union-Tribune, here’s a few of the events being highlighted:

  • Panel: “Radical Activism in Comics”
  • Panel: “What Rebellions are Built On: Popular Culture, Radical Culture, and Politically Engaged Geeks”
  • Voter registration drive led by Indivisible and Black Mask Studios

Also, Black Mask Studios is releasing a special convention issue of their Trump-versus-California comic Calexit, with all proceeds going to help immigrants and their families in the San Diego area.

Screening Room: ‘Eighth Grade’

Elsie Fisher in ‘Eighth Grade’ (A24)

My review of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is at PopMatters:

Unlike most movies about school-age outsiders, Eighth Grade doesn’t rely on the traditional dramatic tropes of embarrassment and rebellion. Kayla wants desperately to have friends. Like most shy kids, she’s paralyzed in social settings. But unlike most shy kids, she pushes herself past that cocoon of diffident silence. First are her videos, which, you get the impression, are as much for herself as for anybody who might be come across her YouTube channel. This is a girl whose bedroom mirror is ringed with motivational quotes scribbled onto Post-It notes. (“Learn a joke every day!”) But also, instead of always hanging back on the periphery, occasionally she jumps…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Summer Movie Sequels

My essay on the ever-more sprawling world of movie franchises, “Sequel Summer: Deadpool Fights Thanos in Jurassic World,” is at Eyes Wide Open:

After banking a billion-plus revenue from Black Panther, Disney kept the Marvel machine humming with the late April release of Avengers: Infinity War. The first half of an apocalypse two-parter, this was less a standalone movie than a short-attention-span episode of a long-running series that was running out of ways to keep engineering conflict. Infinity War: Part One didn’t even bother establishing itself as a standalone movie like Black Panther did. It just dumped every available Marvel hero into a Battle Royale against Thanos, a big dull dud of a genocidal villain, and made sure to string it out to next summer’s sequel. Spider-man, Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Thor, and Nick Fury? Sure! How about Guardians of the Galaxy, too? Why not?…

Screening Room: ‘Equalizer 2’

Denzel, paying the bills (Sony)

The sequel to Denzel Washington’s surprise hit The Equalizer is hitting theaters this week.

My review is at Film Journal International:

When Antoine Fuqua’s sequel begins, Robert McCall (Washington) is far from his blue-collar Boston life. We find him in a Muslim cap and beard on a train through Turkey, reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and keeping a watchful eye on a man traveling with a young girl. A few clipped lines of dialogue (“American?” McCall is asked; “Guilty,” he responds) and some swiftly crippled henchmen later, the girl is safely back on American soil and McCall is back to his day job…

Writer’s Desk: Immerse Yourself

Michael Ondaatje doesn’t work fast. He spent six years on his seminal novel The English Patientwhich actually just won the Golden Man Booker Award (meaning it was the Booker Award-winner of the past 50 years). That is in part because he likes to drown himself in the material.

Per this interview from BookPage, Ondaatje prefers to get outside of himself and what he knows:

That’s how you learn. You don’t want to write your own opinion, you don’t want to just represent yourself, but represent yourself through someone else. It doubles your perception, to write from the point of view of someone you’re not. To write about someone like myself would be very limiting…

He was talking about his novel Anil’s Ghost. That one took seven years. Escaping into a new character and a new world takes time. But the immersion is worth it if you want to write something great.