Lynn Nottage > George RR Martin

If a primary purpose of combat fiction is to remind us of the horrors of war, you couldn’t pick a more disturbing setting than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict there has killed five million people, including unspeakable terrors of rape and torture.

It is in the DRC that Lynn Nottage sets her Pulitzer-winning 2009 play Ruined. It holds nothing back from the truth of war, displaying the most inhuman moments of evil and forcing us to confront people at their worst.

But it is a play that is, by design, not pessimistic. It’s not naive or simplistic, but it avoids the trap of pessimism so common to 21st century writers, especially Game of Thrones novelist George RR Martin. (I’ve written about his pessimism before.)

Nottage traveled to the DRC and Uganda with the theatre director Kate Whoriskey. They met women and men who had experienced war in its most hideous manifestations. They saw the psychological, emotional, familial, physical, and spiritual decimation caused by the fighting. They spoke with women whose bodies, minds, and souls had been violated and torn asunder.

And still Nottage wrote a story of hope.

Whoriskey says it perfectly in her introduction to the play:

She decided [...] in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda. What struck both of us from our trip was that while there was incredible chaos in the region, this was home, and people were determined to survive and build lives here. When the media focuses attention on these areas, they often describe the violence, the poverty and the AIDS crisis. It is rare to hear the full story, the positive alongside the negative.

What was so rich about our trip is that we witnessed great beauty, strength and artistry.

[...] On a different trip to the region, Lynn spoke with a Rwandan about life after the genocide. He said to her, “We must fight to sustain the complexity.” This phrase became a mantra for creating the piece. We did not want to focus solely on the damage but also the hope. [...]

Lynn has the gift and genius for looking inside moments of profound disruption, witnessing the chaos, absorbing the psychic damage, and then synthesizing a narrative that shows us we are capable of so much more.

I find no hope in Game of Thrones. I find it to be a story utterly devoid of hope, committed primarily to stylistic innovation (of which it contains plenty) and audience manipulation (which, again, it does well). The fact that Martin cares very little about reflecting the hope we humans so desperately need proves (to me, at least) that he is unwilling to fight to sustain the complexity.

As a result, we don’t get the full story.

The Cover That Started It All

When I was a kid, my parents brought home a word processor for our Apple //e computer called Bank Street Writer. The cover (see right) featured a proud mom and dad watching their little Virginia Woolf pump out pages and pages of fiction on the dot-matrix printer.

That image did something to me. I wanted to be that girl so bad. Not because I sought the approval of mom and dad (I mean, I did, but they always gave it automatically), but because I loved the idea of such sheer output. Her fingers were producing work in the form of paper. What alchemy is this!?

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with the imagery of writers at work. I have a photo of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ typewriter over my desk — not because she’s my favorite writer in the world, but because it’s a pretty picture (flowers in a vase, lovely crystal paperweight) and I love mechanical typewriters. (Not writing on them, although that’s fun, but the idea of their existence. They say William Gibson wrote the first draft of Neuromancer on a typewriter. Dude.)

I bristle hard at the notion of embracing the pretense of artistry without putting in the work. But I am deeply in love with the romantic ideal of the lone wordsmith, pounding out the symbols in a desperate attempt to convey some significant meaning. (It’s not quite the same magic when you’re actually doing it, of course.) I guess, so long as I continue writing, I get to also lust after the iconography of writers. WOO!

This Primus song is one of those: “The Pressman”

Residence Solitary

Get it? Because it’s a pair of synonyms for “home” and “alone”. I am blinding in my cleverness.

Diane has gone to visit her family for a few days, and I’m here taking care of the dog and chickens. I’ve got a mountain of papers to grade, and I’m going to try to get a podcast out as well. There’s a stereotype about guys being home alone, being atrocious slobs and wilding out (cf. The Simpsons, fig. 1).

I’m not really part of this trope. The one degree to which I conform to that model is staying up too late playing video games. (“Too late” = 11:30 PM.) Hedonism alert!

I’m sending off a couple of pieces to a literary journal for teachers. I’ve got a good feeling, but of course I had a decent feeling about the horror story too. Hopefully I’m developing a thicker skin. Who knows.

We spent last night with some friends at a fancy restaurant. It was fun (and delicious), and dinner ended around 9:00 PM, so Diane and I just said “Happy New Year Greenland” and called it a night around 10:00. I don’t much care for the ritualistic niceties of staying up until midnight just to clink glasses and drink bubbly. Besides, I woke up yesterday at 4:45 AM and forgot to take a nap, so being conscious until midnight would have been quite a chore.

Time to walk the dog!

Sad and Miserable

Yesterday Diane and I went skiing, which was a lot of fun, even though the lift lines were very long. (We thought we were avoiding the crowds by going on a Friday, but apparently everyone else in Wisconsin had that same idea.)

Today my body aches all over, especially my legs. My head is also in pain. This makes me feel like a wuss, because four hours of skiing did this to me? I feel old and weak.

Then, today, I received a second rejection email for the horror story. As I said last time, I can’t tell if it’s a good story or not. I feel like I ought to just keep trying until someone says something positive about it, but then I think I should just throw it away and forget about it.

The magazine that rejected me today has a thing on their website that says:

we cannot offer personalized feedback on each story. If we say, “send more,” however, it does mean that we hope to see something else from you.

Well of course they did not tell me this, which I’m taking to mean “Please do not ever contact us again with your boring predictable garbage writing.”

How on Earth do people do this for a living? I’m starting to wonder if the past 20 years of writing stories and novels is all just a fraudulent exercise of the ego with some sycophantic niceties from friends and family thrown around out of sheer obligation.

Sigh.

Words, Words, Words

Recently a horror magazine put out a call for submissions on Reddit. I’ve never really written a horror story (partly because, as a schoolteacher, I feel restrained from writing the kind of nasty stuff that is usually found in the genre), so I took a shot.

I think the resulting story, “Dermatobia hominis”, is decent, but it got rejected. The editor gave some feedback (which is rare, and which I appreciate) indicating that the main character is underdeveloped and the story feels predictable. I can’t really argue with these, but in the first case I don’t much care. It’s not about the main character (and yet even as I write that sentence its absurdity strikes me); it’s about what happens to the main character. (Besides, we do know some things about the main character.)

As for the second: Yeah, it’s probably predictable (I can’t judge). But isn’t Romeo and Juliet predictable too? I think this strikes at the biggest problem I face with the horror genre: Everything in it is predictable as heck, and I thought I was doing something interesting by exploring the real behavior of an actual animal.

I know writers have to be tough, and generally I don’t care when someone doesn’t like something I’ve written. But this is why I don’t spend much time on the post-writing part of things. I hate begging people to read my stuff, and it’s disappointing to get negative reactions. Then again, it’s got to be part of my life if I ever want to get a bigger audience.

The other problem, of course, is that I wrote the thing so very quickly, and I don’t know how confident I am about it. If this were “z”, then I wouldn’t give two figs about what people said about it. I know that story is awesome. I think this one is good, but I don’t have the same love for it. I think I’m going to submit it elsewhere, but it’s a gamble. If it gets rejected again, that will feel even more painful. But it’s ridiculous to just give up when I get rejected once. (Insert boring aside about my pathetic love life pre-2k.)

Keyboard!

On a lighter note: I got a new keyboard, the state-of-the-art Microsoft Wired 600. I wasn’t opposed to something a little more fancy, but the reason I bought this one is because it was literally the only keyboard in two office supply stores that wasn’t wireless. Why do I want a wireless keyboard!? That’s all I need — more batteries running down and polluting the planet. Besides, my keyboard is always in the same place, in my little roll-out tray under my desk. I can’t imagine who has such an active lifestyle (but still uses a desktop PC) that they need a wireless keyboard.

The interesting thing for me is how different the typing experience is with it. I only recently began to realize how gummy and unresponsive my old Apple keyboard was (I have no idea when I got that one). I’m still getting used to the different spacing on this one, so I’m probably getting the same error rate. But when I don’t, it seems so nice and smooth.

I also got the video game Super Hexagon, which is an evil exercise is masochistic punishment. It works much better with a fresh new keyboard. I still hate it, tho.