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I often see these twitter/blog/social media whatever posts pop up on various feeds from kind of successful authors and other marketers who spend a lot of time writing shit online to keep relevant. The kind I’m thinking of are those “TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER DO ON SOCIAL MEDIA IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENTIRE WORLD TO WISH YOU’D NEVER BEEN BORN” sort of generic advice offerings.

I’m fairly certain I probably do all of them. I admit, I’m not that great about doing this kind of thing on demand, at least outside of professional life. If I don’t feel like talking, I won’t. And if I’m going to talk, it has to be something that actually interests me. The only things that interest me in this context are things other people haven’t done or talked about much.

Where dieselpunk is concerned, I can’t handle any conversations about home-made jetpack costumes. I just can’t. What I can talk about is the way this particular idiom fits into everyday cognitive life.

Today, that means writing a criticism of nostalgia.

The hell??? one might ask in this case. Well, being a dieselpunk author doesn’t give me a free pass for questionable thinking.

Midnight In Paris

A while ago my wife and I watched Midnight in Paris. Part of the reason was because it would be cool to see familiar places in a film, since we got married in Paris this May. In reality, this film was a fascinating study of what I think is a big factor in why people choose genres like steampunk or dieselpunk. This movie nailed in particular the way writers, intellectuals, and artists in general tend to look backward. The previous era has an intellectual and aesthetic halo-effect for thinkers. We get sucked into thinking the present is boring and crude. Maybe a psychotic version of this is responsible for end of the world prophecies. I mean what is an end of the world prophecy but “the present sucks, nothing of value exists beyond the golden age I’m stuck to” on bath salts?

By the way, normally Owen Wilson annoys me, but this movie made me respect him a whole lot more. And I totally got sucked into my modernist fetish when he went into Shakespeare’s bookstore and talked about Joyce . . . mostly because I did the exact same thing when I went into that place.

But fantasy authors don’t give a shit what Woody Allen thinks, right?

The Diesel Era (Not in Paris or New York though)

This line of thinking made me stop and look around my own environment. I saw no shortage of modernist wonders in Europe. Train stations and other banal things that had been built in my favourite era all had some kind of significance, and it reinforced the pedestal I had put this other era onto. However, in Western Canada, I noticed that the diesel era looked a lot different.

Western Canada functioned in three or four capacities at that time: mines, lumber, agriculture. Also training camps for soldiers during the wars. It was not a cultural centre. Engineering and technology might have piggybacked on the industrial things going on, but there was no Chrysler building or anything like it built anywhere East of Ontario. It was also pretty swell to build internment camps back then, and British Columbia had a few.

So my current town does have a palpable aftertaste of the era. I don’t know that it ever will shake that. It’s kind of cool, but the significance of this town lies in a wartime military camp (this is where my office is), and an internment camp.

The contribution of this training camp was huge. Not only did soldiers train here for both wars, but you can still see markings on the range to guide pilots practicing strafing runs. The lake and much of the undeveloped land is full of unexploded ordinance. There is a lot of history here.

It just looks nothing like what our ideal version of the era is. This goes for most historical buildings in the interior too. There’s very little steel, very little concrete, and nothing whatsoever that shows inspiring designs ripped from Howard Roark’s libidinal frustration. It’s all big wooden timbers–like seriously, you’ve never seen timbers this large. When you don’t know how to properly engineer a building, you just choose the biggest members you can find to be safe. Stuff was slapped together by cowboys, not heroically fashioned by an army of steel workers. You can go into a 600 year old palace in europe and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. Here, you go into one of these structures and are instantly hit by a mouldy pong that refit after refit hasn’t been able to clear.

Now this doesn’t apply to all historical buildings or other issues. Victorian architecture is much stronger throughout, especially along the railway–see Banff Springs and several buildings in Winnipeg. Also there are quite a few impressive Victorian armouries across the country. It’s not like I’m accusing us of being behind or too poor, because that’s definitely not the case.

I just wonder: where were the architects, writers, surrealists, and petty-bourgeois adventurers? I have no idea, besides New York and Europe.

This leads me to ask myself: why spend so much mental energy in that era then? The look? Not really–as I frequently mention, I hate wearing costumes and don’t find myself wishing I could get away with wearing pants up to my goddamn nipples and putting axle grease in my hair. Maybe it’s the explosion of advances coupled with the traumatic shakeup of war–a kind of uncertainty that somehow warrants some optimism. But then again, you could say that about any time period. Everything is always moving towards nothing in particular. Unless, I guess, you’re one of those dudes who sell end of the world prophecies.

It would be interesting to ask people who are into *punk genres if they actually would like to live in the particular era they like to read about. You know, like Owen Wilson in that movie I was talking about.

Are these genres actual nostalgia in the pathological sense? Look, I realize that 99 percent of the people who read this and have read my book would just shrug and say “eh, they’re neat stories. I don’t think about it more than that.” Like I said though, I don’t like to do anything that isn’t interesting. If I wrote books just because they were neat and didn’t have some complicated structure of thoughts behind it, I’d have gotten bored with writing ten years ago.

In summary:

Nostalgia is a trap, but being human is full of such traps so it’s probably not something to worry about unless you’re thinking about ditching your wife for the 1920s. I guess. Well, thanks Woody Allen!

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I admit, I didn’t check the date of the last post. For sure one, if not both, of my readers have likely by now assumed that I’ve been completely swallowed by the non-writing world of contract management, never to be heard from again. This is so terribly overdue that it’s pretty embarrassing.

Well, I’m here at nearly midnight after a long day of renovating the condo I don’t live in and am not allowed to rent out to prove otherwise. Sort of.

 

Where did I leave off? Something about being in Europe and getting married and all that? Yeah, the awesome travelogue I’d planned didn’t pan out. This is a failure I’m happy to display to the world, because it’s the best failure possible: I was too busy travelling to be able to write enough. Sure, I amassed some haphazard notes, but the statute of limitations on turning them into something interesting has lapsed. And that’s okay–unless you’re travelling as a professional and part of the reason you’re doing it in the first place is because someone’s paying you to write about it, why the hell would you spend any significant amount of precious time abroad writing, even if it was one of your passions and few things you’re good at?

Robert Heinlein pulled off a great travelogue. Tramp Royale came out of an entirely different situation–I don’t think most people travel the way Heinlein did. The ones who kind-of-sort-of-do these days often seem insincere and tend to be weird social media personalities who use their fantastic travel plans to build up some YOLO-ish persona, often with some charitable lip-service thrown in just in case anyone is cynical enough to doubt their sincerity. No, Heinlein did it with genuine curiosity and enough intelligence to write something meaningful from it. You should probably put down whatever you’re reading and check it out.

Me? I just stumbled around Paris and Germany with my wife and had a good time. I didn’t even take many photos. Why would I? The way I see it is that the human eye has better resolution than any camera; therefore it is redundant and wasteful to spend time making digital images when all I have to do is sit back and chill for a bit if I want to revisit those experiences. Typical INTJ hubris, I know, but it is what it is . . .

Speaking of hubris, how about that title? Yeah, I don’t mean to invoke The Stephen King in a bad/stupid/clueless/ham-fisted way. But the point right now is that I’ve been sucked into the real world, or Babylon, or whatever you like to call it. Writing is always there, especially in my chosen field. This is probably something most people with adult jobs intuitively know, but since I’ve been writing “professionally” for so long, of course I’m going to view it more mechanically than my coworkers.

Part of my education included a technical communications course. Everyone hated it, but to me it was a refuge. It was the only course where I could sit back, enjoy a break, and occasionally pick up something new. Actually, I picked up more than anyone else in the class did . . . I guarantee this. The hubris didn’t last long, because soon it became obvious that writing at work was nowhere near the same as writing novels.

I kept a certain amount of cockiness, sure. But because I had a million words of fictional crap behind me, my weaknesses in real world writing soon magnified in my editor’s brain and I had to take it seriously. During my work term job interviews, I had to sell myself on communications skills because I’m a 30-something with average grades, and that was all I had to show for it. My pitch relied on this, and yet in reality, writing effectively in the real world is one of the most difficult things there is. It’s confusing because the standard is actually so low, yet the stakes are high: in the world of building things, legal contracts and specifications, one small oversight in precision can result in a bridge collapsing and reputations crushed, not to mention money and jobs lost.

These are all things our instructor told us. But it’s such a complicated thing that merely being told these things amounts to . . . not much. This is really the advantage being an experienced fiction writer gave me–the tools to see the value in being told I didn’t have a clue and why it was important. I don’t blame the other guys for thinking it was all bullshit. It’s not like calculating the point of failure on a column . . . if you haven’t written much, some guy telling you that writing in the workplace is important isn’t going to be all that convincing, especially if you’re a boss at math and aren’t intimidated by dynamics.

I should have gotten this clue a couple years ago when I’d first attempted to document travel. It was an obvious failure, but for some reason I didn’t take it seriously enough to analyze exactly why.

Going further–if you only have to deal with words, you’re lucky. Take drafting, for example. It’s writing too. Or, in the politically-correct parlance, “communication.” Now, talk to most draftsmen, and they’ll probably tell you to fuck off and stop talking about bullshit, but it’s true: drafting is a form of writing, and similar to what I’d learned above, isn’t about whether or not you can draw something. Beside me I have a small drawing of a very simple post and concrete pad setup. I volunteered to make an awesome CAD version of the sketch my coworker had made and used for a project. I’ve been staring at it for a couple days wondering just what exactly the best way to communicate the intention of the drawing is. Still haven’t drawn much. This isn’t a discussion about drafting so much as it is a reality check about non-fiction communication–I’m left with the same sense of bewilderment as when I need to write something detailed, fast, and simple for work. Just like I whipped up some crazy-assed psychoanalytically-based experimental fiction that was terrible, my final drafting project in school featured a feverish isometric drawing of a house. If you’ve ever dealt with building houses, you probably know that a complicated isometric drawing is about as useful as a weight-loss supplement. Like my experimental writing, it looked cool on the page and took a lot of technical thought and effort, but in the end meant nothing. My project overall earned a poor grade despite the effort, and all because I missed the point: to communicate the idea properly and nothing more.

 

But hey, I have a backlog of fiction ideas that I could (in theory) crank out in no time and with little effort. I have more ideas than I’ll be able to write in my lifetime if I were able to write fiction full-time. You’d think that some published fiction and the confidence that comes with that would make you an All-Encompassing-Great-Writer.

The point of this post is to assure you that such an assumption is horseshit.

 

The next time you read a good DVD player manual or see a good set of house blueprints, take a moment to appreciate real-world communication. It’s even harder to find than good fiction.