Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Experiments in Creativity

I have been undergoing a grueling experiment with my creative energies. Let me tell you about it.

About a month ago I re-read Bret Easton Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO. Originally my dear departed friend Brian had lent me this in the late 90’s and upon reaching what has become infamously known to people who have read the book as ‘The rat scene’ I closed the book, put it in my car and returned it to him the next day, leaving explicit instructions to never have it brought out in my presence again.

I blogged more specifically about this book on CHUD here:

A decade later it had begun to occur to me just how amazing Ellis' style is and I decided to re-read the infamous volume. After finishing Psycho my appetite for his wonderful prose was set and I immediately turned to the E's of our store’s Literature section and decided on GLAMORAMA as my next. Only my boss intervened, promising me a galley’s copy if I waited until she could find it amidst her books and so I went this, the thrifty route, and chose the next book there on the shelf that caught my eye: LUNAR PARK. This, now this was just a fluke then that I read Lunar Park immediately after Psycho and I will forever be grateful that circumstance dictated I did. They are, in a sense, companion pieces and I would implore anyone who reads Psycho to do so with the undiluted intention of following it immediately with Lunar Park.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic THE GREAT GATSBY has long been my favorite novel, but now it has close competition for that accolade. Lunar Park is pretty fucking close. I don’t want to get to into what this book is, except that while continuing to be a wonderful example of Ellis’ style, the story itself is not what it first appears. Ellis himself is the main character and I’ll leave it at that – if you plan to read it please do not wikipedia it or anything like that – I thank beer that whoever did the blurbs on the jacket did so tastefully, giving away nothing of the twists and turns this book takes.

I’m talking about all this here as a precursor to telling you about this experiment. It’s no secret that those of us who are writers or artists or musicians or whatever have other such artists who are our inspirations. Sure, life and consciousness are inspirations in and of themselves, but there are occasionally those other souls on this floating orbital garden that put their blood sweat and tears into creative projects that trigger something of a shared experience in ourselves and give us the momentum to create our own little worlds of sound and glass and steel and words.

This one-two punch of American Psycho and Lunar Park have been my most recent.

For more than a year I have been writing screenplays and have in that time had many thoughts that returning to prose fiction, where my writing began, had possibly become impossible. Ellis helped me get there.

Originally everything I wrote was first person. This started in first grade or so when I began writing stories. As I grew older it was perhaps solidified by my love of H.P. Lovecraft’s megnomanical first person tales of humanity’s otherworldly encounters with forces they could not hope to understand, much less control. My first (and thus far only) completed novel, The Subtle War was originally written in many first person salvo’s, the main character Jake being a thinly-veiled tribute to another dearly departed friend of mine, my best friend after the deterioration of my first long term ‘romance’ Jake Owen Ostrowski. Only after finishing TSW and preparing to shop it, I found a lot of agents and publishers hated first person fiction, some even going so far as to say they would not even consider it. Feeling terrible about it now, I went back in and rewired a lot of that novel to be third person, in hopes it would facilitate it's sale.

Hasn't worked yet. And now I see Ellis, who almost always writes first person, as a glaring example of how to do it. I'm reminded that I should do what I do how I want to read it and say 'Go Fuck Yourself' to anyone that doesn't like it.

But why first person?

With TSW, the tale worked better when I used Jake as a fiction suit; a character-vehicle I could climb inside and maneuver around inside the microcosmic world I had devised for the story, a setting but also a sort of Voodoo-doll of the ‘real’ world my flesh and blood body inhabited on a daily basis. The idea was very much inspired by another writer I love, Grant Morrison, and it went something like this: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm – insert yourself into the world of your story and write things there that would effect the characterized version of you and then conversely echo up into the real world. This worked almost immediately, both invigorating and kind of frightening me when a scene I wrote (that was subsequently cut) where Jake has to look through a junkyard for some hidden message and finds it in the form of a tattered old comic book in the trunk of a junked car. The comic was an adaptation of a Lovecraft tale. Several days after writing this my car broke down and in anger I put my fist through the plastic sheet over the dashboard. Fearing my father would find out I dragged my friend Two into a junkyard and low and behold, I found the piece I needed but I also found a bridge between worlds – a tattered comic book in the trunk of a junked auto. The comic was, of course, an adaptation of a Lovecraft tale…

This method unfortunately has proven, as all scientists will attest when queried about dabbling with the mechanisms behind the consensual world, unpredictable. Of course soon after the comic book incident I overtly tried to write a story where I won the lottery. Hahah I laugh now at my ignorance at the way the Universe works.

Anyway, I’m sidetracking. But that’s okay, because this is all illustrative of the creative process and how I’ve learned to move through my own version of it, and my new approach was the impetus of this post to begin with. After the Ellis-combo inspired me to return to fiction I began writing a novel. This time however, I decided to adhere very strictly to the stimuli which had inspired it to begin with. Although I have a thousand fucking books to read, I would read only Ellis, now moving on to GLAMORAMA at last, the wonderfully original galley indeed coming my way soon after it was promised (thanks Jodi). I would listen only to that music which fit into what I now considered my ‘Ellis mood’, and I guess that will require a bit of an explanation.

Ellis reminded me a lot of my late, aforementioned friend Brian, who was also very influenced by his writing. He also reminded me of Brian’s brother and my long time good friend and on again off again roommate Two. Brian was also an enormous fan of Greg Dulli’s band The Afghan Whigs, and this too was another thing first recommended to me by Brian, which I ignored or couldn’t get into at the time, only to receive one of his copies of the classic album ‘Gentleman’ after his death via Two and fall immediately in love with it and everything Dulli did with the Whigs and after (Twilight Singers, The Gutter Twins).

Here then was the foundation of the music that fit my ‘Ellis mood’ and thus would provide the background and sonic fuel for my new novel.

Dulli and Ellis reminded me so much of Brian because they all craft their art out of and about similar things: drugs, sex, and the things we hide from everyone in our daily lives. Lunar Park, with Ellis as the main character and told first person, begins very much about about the secret life he leads behind the back of those people he loves and who try to help him. This includes drugs, but also intuitions that drive him to see the world in a very different light than most folks would admit they might see too. Dulli’s music always seems to have a vibe to it that accompanies scenes of nighttime debauchery in a young, urban setting. Frat boys scoring coke in a seedy nightclub, fucking questionable women in a bathroom stalls, snorting and drinking until the sun comes up and the blinds just won’t defend them against the return to the mores and expectations that daylight brings with it. There is such an explicit tapestry here, woven similarly between Ellis and Dulli’s art, and joined together through a lost friend who himself influenced me constantly to write just by being so into the craft himself.

So now his influences have become mine, and here I am writing a novel playing with some of these atmospheres but also working through my own violent reaction to fighting like hell to do something that propels me into doing what I truly want to do for a living, leaving the 9to5 world behind and making my world a better place, for me and the love of my life and all of our friends.

So it’s Ellis, Dulli, a lot of dark jazz, dark electronica, and all the music that to me at least, sprung from the minds of people who knew what it truly is to move through the night and experience it for all its epic, otherworldly glory.

90 pages in a month. I’ll let you know how the rest goes. The influence ban is starting to change, one thing bleeding into another, Gutter Twins leading me back into second frontman Mark Lanegan’s (formerly of QOTSA and Screaming Trees) unbelievable solo effort BUBBLEGUM, bleeding me into guest vocalist there PJ HARVEY’s masterpieces TO BRING YOU MY LOVE and STORIES FROM THE CITY STORIES FROM THE SEA leading me to this, to that. Aphex Twin's nighttime salute I CARE BECAUSE YOU DO leading to Roni Size’s NEW FORMS, and a trip home to Chicago to interact with a lot of other friends who influence me just by having been there on so many infamous nocturnal adventures leading me to the music I associate with them and those times, CAT RAPES DOG from Chris W. and New Radicals for the bar where I spent many of my nights pickling my liver with Leine's red, Hacker-Pschorr and great conversation. Of course then there's UNDERWORLD, which not only is the ultimate nighttime music but also a reminder of my one salvation, Sara, the person I am closest to and who keeps me from actually delving into the depths of the real life 'Ellis mood'. Better to craft that microcosm, move in with a character and explore entirely different worlds.

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