Duchamp Inspired

Yesterday, I posted about my visit to the Hirshhorn museum’s exhibit of Marcel Duchamp. I was inspired by his surrealistic/experimental approach to creating art. Here are the results that came out of that inspiration…

Photo of the Washington Monument flipped upside down and the top of the Monument is touching the top of the US Capitol building.

On the same overcast day as my visit to the Hirshhorn, I saw the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument and wanted to see how they would look touching, top to top. The image makes me think of an alternate world. Some people might already consider the Capitol as an alternate world.

The Mona Lisa painting with my drawings on her of headphones, a mask over her nose and mouth, and a rose tattoo on her wrist.

Duchamp added a mustache and little chin beard to a postcard of the Mona Lisa. I added headphones, mask, and rose tattoo to give her more of a modern look.

A photo in which three shadows have been made into silhouettes, and these shapes are filled with an image of streaking white and yellow light.

I filled shadows of my daughters and me with a photo of blurred Christmas lights.

The exterior wall of a building with a grid of windows. Some of the windows have been filled with other photos, including a Ferris wheel, beach, stack of stones, and cherry blossom.

A wall of reflected memories.

2021 National Book Festival

Tented pavilions set up on the National Mall, with the US Capitol building in the background

This year’s National Book Festival kicks off today! 

The U.S.-based festival started back in 2001, formed by Laura Bush and the Library of Congress. It’s been running every year since.

When my daughters and I first went to the festival, it was held on the National Mall, during a weekend in early September. Tented pavilions held author talks for categories: fiction, poetry, history, science, etc. (The photo above is from that visit — I can’t remember what year.)

Afterwards, the festival moved inside, to the DC Convention Center and still took part on a full weekend. Then it was reduced to one day. Last year, the festival was just online. Author talks still happened, but with screens.

Through the various changes of the festival, my family has really enjoyed attending the festival. My daughters have festival posters — a new one each year — hanging on their bedroom walls. You can check out the poster gallery from all the festivals here — and you can download high-resolution PDFs of them.

A very big thank you to all the folks who put together the festivals. I’m always impressed by the organization of the rooms for author talks, lines for book signings, banners, and so on. I’m sure a lot goes into making the festival hum along.

This year, the festival’s theme is “Open a Book, Open the World.” And the festival happens over a whopping ten days. I don’t typically use “whopping” but it seemed appropriate. That’s a whole lotta love for books! YESSSSSSSSSS! That’s with ten S’s, so you don’t have to count them.

The main website for the festival is here.

Video chats with authors are unleashed! — as of 10:00 ET. The list of those is here.

The authors participating in this year’s festival are listed here. On that page, you can click on an author’s name to jump to their page with a description of them, the title of their most recent work, and a link to their video conversation.

I’m planning to check out video chats with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Martha Wells, LeVar Burton, Charles Yu, George Saunders, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Also, as a kind of contribution to the celebration of books, I’ll be posting book quotes on Twitter throughout the ten days. If you’d like to see them each day, my Twitter name is @dwilliamswriter. I’ll probably also group the quotes and post them here on my blog — I might not have a schedule for those posts, though. 

Happy reading, and I hope you enjoy the festival’s offerings!

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Photo of a hole in drywall within a house.
by Lujia Zhang/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted a review of Horrorshow, and I wanted to follow that with a post about another aspect of the novel.

This post has a spoiler for Horrorshow, so if you plan on reading it, you might want to stop reading here.

(Well, the post’s title is big clue, but try to forget that.)

Moving on…

In that book, just beyond halfway through it, the main character (Riley) starts coming to grips with the notion that he could be a character in a novel. I’ve learned that the phrase to describe the situation is “breaking the fourth wall.” The Free Dictionary gives a background how that got started:

“Taken originally from theater, in which the fourth wall describes the invisible ‘wall’ that stands between the audience and the stage.”

I can’t remember when I first heard about the concept, but it’s a fascinating one. The idea that a writer can develop self-awareness in their characters, so they realize (or are told) that they’re within a story.

A helpful video on “metafiction” is on YouTube: Understanding Metafiction (Literature, Films and Video Games).

The movie Stranger Than Fiction (2006) explores the idea when Harold begins to hear, inside his head, a narrator describing his life. I enjoyed that movie, and it planted a seed in my mind to eventually write a metafictiony story.

Years later, I heard the Radiolab episode, “The Real Don Quixote” (2015). The show’s guest Bruce Burningham (professor at Illinois State University) talks about how Miguel Cervantes broke the fourth wall in the sequel of Quixote’s adventures. In Part Two, the character Sampson Carrasco tells Don Quixote and Sancho Panza about the Part One book and drops the news that they’re characters.

The episode set the brain gears turning, then I wrote a flash-fiction piece “Characters in a Story,” in which two characters chat about the suspicion that they are, yes, characters in a story. Maybe funny in an absurd way, but too much like a writing exercise.

I came up with a broader story, and that flash-fiction piece is within it: Other Lives of the Boothbys

Cover for Other Lives of the Boothbys, with the title included within other text that's not important and grayed out.

Bradley Boothby has also seen Stranger Than Fiction, and he feels déjà vu when he walks by the building for Randolph-Turley Publishing Company. Bradley doesn’t think he’s a fictional character, but he feels he is somehow connected to a story published by that company. So Bradley takes the step of entering the building and talking with an editor to see if, somehow, his name is included in one of their books.

That meeting sets off a series of events. Included in those, the editor Jack Schneider and the writer George Foulkes write passages of books inspired by Bradley’s quest. Jack Schneider takes a crack at writing scenes of two characters forming a deeper relationship. George Foulkes starts a new story in which another writer is visited by his characters from a post-apocalyptic world.

I had fun writing Other Lives of the Boothbys, trying to come up with how different people could be inspired, then act on that inspiration. All of the writing process wasn’t fun, as self-doubt continued to pop up. I wondered if people would find the book boring. But in the end, I was pleased with the story, and I’m proud of it.

Tomorrow, I’ll post an excerpt from the book. Ah, the suspense…

But if you can’t wait for 24 hours, you can read an excerpt from the novella’s beginning here (I posted it last year).

Octavia Butler’s Rules on Writing

Photo of colorful bubbles
by Rodion Kutsaev/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted reviews of two books by Octavia Butler, and today I’m following them with highlights from one of the essays included in Bloodchild and Other Stories. I thought these highlights deserved their own post.

The essay “Furor Scribendi” (“mania for writing,” according to Merriam Webster) includes Ms. Butler’s rules for writing, and she encourages writers to make them into habits in your life. In each item, the rule is taken word for word from Ms. Butler’s essay, then I’m offering a condensed explanation of each item in my words.

  1. Read. Inhale fiction and non-fiction, read books in the genre you’re writing, read books that discuss writing. And that doesn’t have to be old-fashioned reading: audio books are good ways to experience books, and you get the benefit of hearing the sound of language.
  2. “Take classes and go to writers’ workshops.” These provide feedback on your stories — readers who can tell you what works and what doesn’t work in the stories, before you send them out into the world.
  3. Write. Set aside time in your schedule to write every day. If you’re stuck with your work in progress, shift to journal writing. Setting down your thoughts could inspire ideas for later stories.
  4. “Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it.” Check the writing and research. Fix the flaws you find.
  5. “Submit your work for publication.” Check out the markets and submit your stories to the ones that interest you. Yes, this can be scary. And yes, rejections will hurt. Every writer experiences them. You can learn from rejected work, and you could use it in a new project — even sections of those old pieces.
  6. “Some potential impediments for you to forget … first forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not … Forget talent. … continued learning is more dependable than talent… finally, don’t worry about imagination.”

Especially with imagination, I liked Ms. Butler’s words so much I want to put more emphasis on her advice:

“Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong. So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use.” — Octavia Butler

I’m drawn to this kind of advice. I’ve posted about it from Shel Silverstein (“Put Something In”) and Felicia Day (Embrace Your Weird). I believe the reason I’m drawn to them is that they serve as reminders to me. Be serious about crafting stories, but don’t forget to have fun along the way. And hopefully, these words will be helpful to other writers out there.

All the quotes in this post are from: Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories, Seven Stories Press (New York: 2005), pages 139-142.

Individual Weirdness

Photo of caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, created in Christmas lights.
by Joshua Coleman/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted a review of Felicia Day’s Embrace Your Weird: Face Your Fears and Unleash Creativity. I’m following that with a post about the perception of weirdness, as I like how the book put into words what I’ve felt about the word “weird.”

I’ve certainly tried to fit into what seemed mainstream. But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more comfortable with what makes me different than others. And I’ve shifted what I consider to be “cool.” I used to think it was dressing in a trendy way and acting in a certain way.

However, is it cool to conform to what most people are doing? Or is it cool to not follow the popular trends?

“We’re often called ‘weird’ for the very fact that we defy stereotypes in some way.” — Felicia Day

I’ve called things “weird” as a way to describe how bad they were for being different. I’ve heard family and friends do the same thing. Granted, some things are different and scary and intimidating. A species of nasty, tentacled aliens who want to wipe out all humans? That fits the bill.

But I’ve tried to reduce using “weird” as a go-to label when meaning it in a negative way. Because weird can be very interesting. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had many weird moments, and the book is lots of fun. Surely, it has inspired writers and artists to create their own wonders. To go down the rabbit holes of their imaginations and see what they can come up with.

“Our weirdnesses are the most fertile places to start when we want to create.” — Felicia Day

While reading Embrace Your Weird, I nodded at several parts. The idea of seeing our differences as positives. Of trying to be comfortable with them. Of taking walks with them, having a drink together, playing games, getting to know each other better. Those weirdnesses can generate ideas in working on creative projects.

As a writer and illustrator, of course I’m going to encourage people to take a shot at creative projects. It can be fun to move from spectator to inventor. If you don’t want to show the results of your inventing to the world, you don’t have to. Believe me, I have created stories, poems, and drawings that I’m not going to post on this blog.

But if you’d like to share, then put something silly in the world — as Shel Silverstein suggested. Or something scary or adventurous or melodious or dramatic … and so on.

If it wasn’t for creators who took what came before them and explored their media in different directions, would there be The Wizard of Oz? Abstract art? Terry Gilliam’s movies? Ursula K. LeGuin’s books? Dr. Seuss’s books?

The list can be much longer. And I’m glad those artists created works, so we can enjoy their individual voices.

Shel Silverstein

I’d like to include posts about some of my inspirations. Feels good to share these with you lovely readers out there, and to give thanks to the folks who have influenced my writing and drawing.

First post of this kind is to Shel Silverstein, whose work inspired me to put poems and illustrations together into The Dancing Fish. The poems in that book started many years ago, as ways to entertain my two daughters and to post on my old blog. Shel Silverstein’s books influenced what I wanted: poems to make my daughters laugh (or at least smile and give a little giggle).

After I wrote poems for a few years, I put the poems aside. They remained out of sight until I had the idea to create drawings to accompany them, and all of that would be placed into a book.

Of course, a shining example had been around all along in Silverstein’s books. But I hadn’t considered such a book until last year. The long delay between writing the poems and starting the book caused me to look at the poems with fresh eyes and recall the joy of writing them.

I loved Silverstein’s silliness, his turning something around and looking at it from different angles. We’re so used to falling down, but what if it was possible to fall up? If you bent down and looked around, you’d see everything in a different way (“New World”).

And I loved the playfulness of drawings to extend the fun of the poems, and to me the magic is in the expressions of the people and animals. From scared Santa running from a hound (“Christmas Dog”) to a worried guy peering at cantaloupe through a microscope (“Nope”) to pleased animals looking at the guy in a cage (“People Zoo”) — all are drawn with such humor that you can’t help but smile, even with scared Santa. (All these poems are in Falling Up.)

Silverstein’s fun could be subversive at times. The challenge of selling hats to the peculiar people in “Headless Town.” An odd gumball machine with an eyeball in it (“Gumeye Ball”). A very strange order in a restaurant (“Who Ordered the Broiled Face?”).

He suggested that being too good would be boring. “Camp Wonderful” is described as such a nice place, but the poem’s narrator ends by firmly stating “I know I’m gonna hate it.” Instead, there’s enjoyment in at least hearing about naughty things, as the narrator of the “The Pirate” lists the dastardly deeds of Claude the pirate, then expresses the wish to sit next to Claude at dinner, presumably to hear his juicy stories.

Silverstein is directly inspirational in his “Put Something In”:

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-grumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.

A Light in the Attic, 1981

And that’s what I wanted to do with The Dancing Fish. Put something goofy into the world. An illustrated poetry book inspired not only by Silverstein, but e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, and more. A book that will hopefully bring smiles and laughs to readers.

I went in different directions with my drawing than Silverstein. I like cross-hatching as shading rather than his stippling dots. While Silverstein used black as a single color, I liked the variety of different grays in the mix. I’m not even close to Silverstein’s talent of drawing expressive faces, and I think mine are rather plain by comparison.

Youtube has fun animations of Silverstein’s poems:

“Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too”

“Sick”

“Where the Sidewalk Ends”