Monday, July 23, 2007

Oh. . .My Hypocrisy!

I haven't written for just about a week or so. Sadly, I've felt down and somewhat uninspired. A combination of post-wedding decompression, finding the drafting reaching the level of drudgery and feeling a little disappointed by the project side of things probably has something to do with it.

Hopefully a new book I picked up at Borders will help. It's Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt. Its hypothesis, that human rights comes from both a rational argument and emotional sentiment really grabs me, in a way that touches on what Alex Epstein talked about the other day in his blog entry, Not Wilde About It.

The way this book talks about the rise of the novel (which, by the way, is a book that just came in the mail today, too!) and its hypothesis really feels like it gets at the organic creation individualism, universalism and human rights, or in other words, the story of these concepts. . .rather than just telling a sequence of events. The consilience of these two books really excites me!

While on that topic, I think I'm starting to understand my perfectionism when it comes to the bachelors project. My brain works in narrative, in stories (even though I've got some kind of prejudice against historical fiction). A lot of the research that I've done on utopianism and social theory feels just like that, a listing of a sequence of events and ideas. . .but it doesn't necessarily feel like the telling of a story.

At least, it hasn't to my intuition until somewhat recently when I've been doing some major Wikipedia research into the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the KKK, American History, the change from classical liberalism to New Deal liberalism, ethics and the list goes on and on. Honestly, I'm a little scared about how much work will go into citing sources that aren't from Wikipedia once I finish this damn project.

But yeah, I feel like once I can mush all this disparate information into a story, a narrative, I can really get into it more. I can only imagine the prolific insanity that will come after. . .neither can I wait!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Humanity and Psychology in Stories and Theory

Since I haven't found too much inspiration for blog entries lately, I'll point you toward Not Wilde About It, a blog entry by Alex Epstein. It starts with him saying that he had a negative reaction to the movie, Wilde, then goes off in a beautiful entry about the importance of humanity and psychology in a drama, not just some kind of retelling of facts in a movie, like some kind of documentary.

Alex did a great job at articulating my feelings of frustration when it comes to my bachelor's project. While doing the research and trying to understand and articulate theory while relating it to literature and real life community histories, I'm getting immensely frustrated about not grokking all this stuff together. Everyday, I get closer, but it's quite frustrating as I struggle.


Monday, July 16, 2007

The Virtues of a Research Journal and Tricking Your Brain

I've started to find that keeping a research journal has helped me articulate some thoughts when it comes to my project. It also helps me to keep track of my thoughts, the source of those thoughts and also the stream of consciousness that has led up to the thoughts. I can even say that, to some effect, keeping a research journal works as a way for me to map through my thoughts and the path of my topic.

Sure, I have yet to go back and take another look at this map that I've made. And yes, I'm still kind of lost on the matter of philosophical freedom, even though I decided somewhat on saying screw it to that part and moving forward. Like many people have told me in the past, the project doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be good enough to get me a bachelor's degree, for Pete's sake. Someday, though, I have the feeling that I may think something like, "Huh. . .didn't I write down something about freedom? Philosophical freedom, at that? When did I say it, and why?" I can just go flipping through the journal to get some kind of idea what I was thinking and where I wanted to go with the idea.

The research journal, though, works as a great way to simply explore thoughts. They seem to go in the oddest directions, sometimes even taking spiraling or twisty-turny routes up and down some kind of metaphorical mountain. They can oftentimes come about while working on something marginally topical to the project.

One of my biggest breakthroughs came through a little more than a year ago, just before moving to Chicago, when the wife and I were seeing a couple's counselor for general maintenance and stress issues that usually come with preparing for a big change like a move. The topic of me getting my bachelor's degree and finishing the project came up a lot and almost became a central part of a session or two. After a bit of that, I had decided to work on a writer to my project sponsor's about possibly dropping the whole thing or changing its direction.

While writing a draft of the letter, though, I felt that I needed create a foundation and basis for the argument I would make. So, in a way, it felt like I was distracting my brain and making the whole project more personal by trying to come up with a direction for it that felt closer to my intentions and when I originally came up with the idea as a teenager/young adult. By the end of that night, I had the protean idea that I used to eventually finish a paper that I had been working on for more than a year!

Lesson of this story: taking another tact and approach to a related problem can help work on a solution. Sometimes we just need to fool our brains to come up with a better, innovative idea for a problem.

I'm not sure if I've really started tricking my brain while working with my research journal, but it's nice to have it available away from home and my project materials. There's plenty of scrap paper at work, but I generally just throw it aside when I get home and forget about it. Nothing comes of it.

Google Docs really helps with this part. As long as a computer has an Internet connection, I can pretty much hook into my docs there. In addition, I can give friends who have some pretty good opinions access to it. Instead of sending e-mails to all these different people, saying the same thing, sending an e-mail to one particular person then having to search for that e-mail later or dealing with the problem of flooding people with tons of e-mails (you know who you are!), if I had a great idea, I can put it in the journal, then they can just take a look at it during their own time. No one has seriously done so. Having the journal in a "central" place where I can retrieve anytime that I like really makes for the most beneficial aspect of this research journal thing on Google Docs, though.

Well, anyway. . .as you can probably tell, I'm pretty inarticulate at the moment. This idea has just popped into my head recently, and I've wanted to ruminate about it for awhile. I'm also working on the fumes from writing about an hour. I really hope that I get my articulate edge back soon. Just babbling gets a little boring and annoying after awhile.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Burn Notice Will Pass the Time

To be completely honest, the presence of Bruce Campbell was the first attraction to Burn Notice. Sure, Campbell has taken more than one dumb role (some Sci-Fi produced movie with him and his crew crash landing on a planet of bugs or something being one of them). It's not out of character for him. Whenever he has a good role, though, he has GOOD roles in fun productions.

Campbell doesn't necessarily have the most interesting role in Burn Notice, but the show makes for good enough fun to pass the time over the summer. The premise of the show is that the main character, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), was a CIA agent who received a burn notice then dumped in his hometown of Miami. The regular supporting characters include his mom (Sharon Gless) with whom he has a stereotypically loving yet ambivalent relationship, Sam (Bruce Campbell), a washed out retired member of the intelligence community and Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), a current or ex-member of the IRA. The Westen character wants to find out who issued the burn notice and fix the problem, all the while the end of each episode has a clue showing that someone has their own reasons for doing all of these things. . .and he also has to take jobs as an unlicensed private investigator to pay the bills.

This show makes me think of Charlie Jade without the science fiction, the epic quality and the satire of corporations. Both Charlie and Westen are private investigators, have training in the martial arts, are good with surveillance equipment and other technology and, in many ways, are practically undefeatable in a fight or even really in a competition of wits with most of the people they encounter. Charlie only had a problem with something like 3 or 4 other characters in fights, and one of them was genetically altered! Westen hasn't really faced anyone he couldn't defeat easily. . .I'm really waiting for an in-your-face real down-and-dirty amoral fight between Westen and some other character, like when Charlie took on that security guy at Vexcor who nearly killed him.

Hell, even the actors have very similar names! Jeffrey Pierce plays Charlie and Jeffrey Donovan plays Michael Westen. Not only do they have similar names, but also hold themselves in similar fashions, but that's easily understandable since the characters are both trained fighters, private investigators and had some presence in the intelligence community.

This is simply an instance of an archetypal character and story being executed different enough. Charlie Jade certainly had a less appealing beginning to the series, mainly, in my opinion, because it had an ensemble cast and didn't really seem to no where it was going until somewhere between the 7th or 12th episodes. I actually kind of liked the fact it had that open endedness to it, as I talked about here.

On the flipside, Burn Notice takes an approach similar to Eyes from a couple years, which didn't last more than half a season. All the point of view comes from Jeffrey Donovan plays Westen or his main supporting characters when it has to do with his story, and, in general, the overarching plot involving the mystery character leaving intentional clues that Westen's burn notice and being stuck in Miami has more to it than possibly just someone trying to dick him over. Essentially, the show leaves enough of a lure for people who might become fans, but it's mostly focused on the casual viewer until maybe closer to the end of the season.

Nonetheless, Charlie Jade has only been on international non-US TV, and Eyes was on US TV. Up until maybe LOST, the US audience hasn't been well known for its patience. Will Burn Notice do a good job of entertaining casual fans, possible fans and balance well between the two.

As I allude to in the title of this entry, I'm essentially a casual fan to the show with some possible interest in the larger arc for the fans. Nonetheless, I don't see that much potential for dragging me in as a genuine fan or really doing all that great of a job getting people to make the commitment as fans. It needs to kick in some bigger themes. By the third episode, Charlie Jade had already thrown in some allusions to The Odyssey, a hero getting thrown into the wilderness, corporate satire, neoliberal criticism, exploring the ideas of propaganda and the split between freedom fighters and terrorists, the lengths to go to save a way of life and the list probably goes on and on. It's very likely that Charlie Jade originally started off trying to bite off more than it could chew, but the fact that it reached for so much really grabbed me and struck my curiosity about the possibilities.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily put all that much for heady topics or even emotional issues to catch my deeper attention. I feel like I could miss a couple episodes then not have a problem at all coming back to the show. I'd miss out on nothing.

My TiVo labels it as either a crime drama or crime comedy, probably the latter. I feel that the main mistake of Burn Notice is that it romanticizes the character and the situation too much. He's too clean, too morally good without much of a back story to explain it, too perfect and too angsty when it comes to the family. The Fiona character is too pretty, too whimsically into chaos and violence, too flirty, too happy to have spent time with the IRA. Sam works fine enough, but I think that's mostly because Bruce Campbell plays him. Even the very minor bad guys are too innocent and fit into certain can't take seriously pigeonholes. In other words, Burn Notice doesn't have the complicated and compelling characters to keep me around and invest my time except that it's kinda funny and there's nothing else to grab my attention.

I think Burn Notice should aim for more maturity, when it comes to plot lines, characters and arcs. It needs to be much more dirty and underhanded. The characters need to make tougher decisions and not always show their best selves. Make the characters more complicated in this way would go a long way to engaging the audience and maybe inducing them to commit and invest themselves in the show. As it is now, though, whatever. . ..

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Inspiring into Flowing Writing Technique

Since the wedding, I haven't been as inspired as I had in the relatively recent past. Whereas I had written four or five pages easy on Sundays and even got to writing two or three pages on weekday nights before, with much glee at that, I've written a lot less and it had felt like drudgery.

Now, don't get me wrong. As I mentioned in an old entry about Flow and discussed a little with Dawn in that entry, I've pushed myself to write, even though I didn't necessarily feel all that inspired about it. I've gotten about five or so handwritten pages (which, with my handwriting on the big pages I use, can turn out to be longer when typed up) so far, and the page tonight felt pretty good. I finally hit a point of real drama where tensions were created.

I can think of at least two reasons why I don't really feel all that inspired:

1. Focusing so much of my attention on the wedding, whether it be organizational or emotional, took me out of the Flowa of writing.

2. Getting frustrated with the ethical/moral themes in utopianism and the predicted final disappointment mixed with good learning while reading Alasdair MacIntyre's A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century hasn't necessarily filled me with tons of hope. Nonetheless, I'm not facing the same kind of disappointment I had in the past. I've refined my own ethics and also how they apply to my project/novel a little more, but I didn't necessarily find the Answer I was looking for, even though the information in that book has helped me to come closer to making my own semi-original answer.

I think the main thing that's making the writing something of a drag (until now) is that I'm trying to practice some different techniques and experimenting a little. Normally, exploring boundaries and seeing what happens gets pretty exciting, but most of what I'm doing is injecting more description and having things around the characters happen that provide some atmosphere and help to characterize the culture, society and such.

I'm not just injecting all this stuff in there to do it, either. A bit of this inspiration comes from a writing textbook that the wife brought home from class. It has had some pretty good ideas, and I've only read the first 50 or 70 pages over the last three or four months. Pretty much the reason I'm trying to inject more description and such into the story is to avoid saying things like "minutes passed," "some time passed," "[a character] pauses," etc. etc. Throwing in descriptions of the area around characters and bringing up the actions of non-characters that are part of scenery do a good job of
(1) showing that time passes rather than telling of its passing and

(2) as I said before, characterizing the surroundings, culture, society and working to bring the reader that much more into the world that I'm creating.

If I'm getting a little bored writing it, though, I can't help but think that my audience might very well have the same problem with it all. How much description do people want? How much will they feel it distracting them from the story? At the same time, though, I've been building this world for the last 10 or 11 years. It has changed here and there, but I know it pretty well. I'm describing a very familiar place with very familiar people. Of course, dwelling on the same ol' same ol' will bore me. At the same time, though, my audience will generally be reading the story for the first time, so it will be all new to them.

In the end, I'll need to find a balance. Writing the first draft, as I've mentioned millions of times, I'm not holding myself back, even if I think I'm writing something dumb. Instead of just having one thing happen after another, though, I've started throwing in details and descriptions. Maybe they'll eventually become too much for the story or maybe I'll figure out a better way to describe things. I'm simply just throwing in another element while drafting the story, just to get done. Once it's done, I'll be going back, moving stuff around, taking things out and putting others in, utterly changing stuff and so on and so on. It's a process, and I'm learning quite a bit doing it.

I like to think so, at least.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Normalization & The Tragedy of the Academy

So I've been married for just over 1 week, 1 day and an hour. Neither the wife or I feel particularly different. After all, we had been dating for practically 5 years and living together for 3 of them.

I did have a primordial and emotional realization, about a half hour ago, that I can't just end our relationship with a couple tasteless, thoughtless words. Don't plan on it or even desire it, but it's just something that popped into my head while letting it ruminate randomly. Then again, knowing that a divorce costs about the same, if not more than a wedding, is just one more argument for staying together. . .which really doesn't compare to the emotional benefits of being married.

Anyway, the major adjustment now is more returning back to the regularly scheduled life I had say. . .a year and a half ago, just in a different city, a different job in the same industry, different people and just a different details. Other than that stuff and actually having my ass together enough to work substantially on the novel, the project and the time management to make it all happen, life really has normalized to some extent, just new and improved.

Today really sets the example of executing the time management skills to get work done. I've done a fair amount of reading and writing today. Back during the Fannie Mae days, I had gotten good at writing a page or so when I got home from work M-Th then dedicating my afternoon and early evenings on Sunday to writing and reading. I got quite a bit done then, and I intend on getting a lot done now that I've got a regular job and don't have weekend wedding jaunts to make.

After doing a fair amount of writing the novel and reading Alasdair MacIntyre's, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Age, I've stumbled onto something of a tragedy of some academic disciplines, especially when the practitioner hasn't really become comfortable with innovating original ideas. Not to worry, I'm not talking about Mr. McIntyre.

I'm talking about myself. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Age is a smashingly good book. It doesn't provide an indepth comprehensive history of moral philosophy, but it has introduced some good bits of information, answered some of my own questions (if not completely) and Mr. McIntyre does a good job of keeping the narrative of this short history interesting and, dare I say it, somewhat exciting.

The main tragedy, however, is that I don't think I won't be satisfied enough at the end of the book. I can't fault the author. Rather, the topic of ethics and morality in history obviously hasn't reached a good solid, conclusion. I know that Mr. McIntyre has written books about virtue ethics and that he really digs Socrates, Plato and Aristotle but has the humbleness to accept that these three philosophical powerhouses don't have all the answers. If anything, they have the roots to the important answers.

Basically, a book like this one acts as a great introduction to the topic. It's pretty much intended to get someone interested in the topic and get them to read more into it. To some degree, it's a needed over sized marketing brochure for a discipline and a great mind. This book will give me great ideas, but since the topic is incomplete, I will need to do some original thinking in addition to gathering the information Mr. McIntyre has provided. When it comes to this project, I've got a little sick of original thinking and could deal with a little hand fed thoughts and concepts. I've been working on this thing for years and years, and I'm ready to move on.

I guess, like a friend has said, though, that this project really has inspired me to do what these projects are supposed to do: provide a broad range of research and knowledge through my own instrumental action and research. But dang, couldn't I have done something like this when I had more experience?

Alas, despite all my venting, I got myself into this mess, and I'll need to get myself out of it. It's just amazingly frustrating when I have generally had more ambition than I necessarily have the conceptual ability to handle. Well, at least I'm not satisfied with accepting pat answers like "That's just the way it is" or "You just ought to!"