Curb Your Disbelief

To the person who stumbled across my blog by entering the search term: “What was Bruce Campbell’s nom de plume in Burn Notice?” I believe the name you are looking for is either Sam Axe (his character’s name) or Chuck Finley (his character’s alter ego). And from what I gathered from the show (which I loved and need to rewatch soon) Chuck Finley basically ran Miami. It is my firm belief that he could easily win election as mayor, based on his extensive experience in cleaning up (and blowing up) most of the streets and neighborhoods of Miami-Dade County.

 

Chuck Finley for Mayor. Because he's probably already in charge anyway.

Chuck Finley for Mayor. Because he’s probably already in charge anyway.

 

Not sure how that brought you here, my dear guest, but I guess I mentioned the show more than once. Anyway, I hope that answers your question and you’ll come back again soon!

But let’s talk about Burn Notice for a bit. It is easily one of my top ten favorite shows of all time. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. Binge watch that thing. It’s perfect for it. Spy shows are generally better when binge watched, because the over-arching world-threatening plot lines can often get hard to follow when only tuning in every other week or so and having to wait several months for the next season. But even in bite-sized chunks, the show does very well – in fact, I think that’s where it shines. The formula of a super-specially trained agent forced to find his way when completely out of his natural element is a compelling hook, but add in the elements of needing to rely on his mom, his ex-girlfriend and his best friend after being accustomed to a life of self-sufficiency and the show not only exists in the real world, it thrives in it.

Although it was a great show, there was one thing that always bothered me about it. How did Michael, Fiona and Sam always get away with what amounts to limited urban warfare without law enforcement eventually stepping in and calling shenanigans? Or at least the media? Seriously, these three carried out a sort of vigilante justice with such extreme prejudice against property (but rarely life, which was cool in an A-Team kind of way) that I found my suspension of disbelief severely taxed.

But how important is suspension of disbelief? And what is it? Coleridge, the guy who coined the term, explains its necessity: “…a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Basically, it’s a “I know this is gonna sound crazy, but just bear with me” contract between the author and the reader.

I mentioned in a previous post how I noticed some authors making obvious betrayals of this concept. Although it bothered me enough to make mention of it, it actually didn’t stop me from enjoying their books. That is, I found a work could still be entertaining and yet somehow violate this “law” of good fiction writing. Same with Burn Notice.

It’s the “human interest” part that is the most vulnerable to betrayal, in my opinion. The “semblance of truth” not so much. For instance, if you tell me a man can fly and don’t bother to explain why, then so be it. It’s a bit of a hurdle, but my suspension of disbelief is established. I see that you’re writing fiction here, so we’re good. But if he can fly and no one else can, then you should at least let me know that everyone else wonders about it from time to time. I know I would. Wouldn’t you? And perhaps people even seek to discover why your character has this power when no one else does. But if everyone just accepts it without a second thought, then I’m no longer sure the people that are in your book are human. Which is fine if they aren’t! But that would be the explanation I would need in order to keep my disbelief at bay. That was what bothered me in the example I gave previously and also what bothered me in Burn Notice.

Buildings exploded. Boats exploded. Shots were fired. A lot of shots were fired. Yet the cops were always somewhere else and when they presumably finally showed up, there were no witnesses? We live in a world where private surveillance cameras are extensively used, helicopters and drones flying around and a citizenry hyper-sensitive to terrorist attack, yet our heroes continually slip under the radar. Hmmm.

 

"What? Another huge fireball? I swear, no one in this damn town knows how to light a charcoal grill."

“What? Another huge fireball? I swear, no one in this damn town knows how to light a charcoal grill.”

 

And yet I enjoyed the show. Why is that? Because I wanted to see Michael, Fiona and Sam do it all again next week. The magical formula worked. Even though the suspension of disbelief was violated by ignoring the critical element of natural human curiosity (not to mention the entire institution of law enforcement being at least somewhat interested in doing their jobs) I still had a good time.

And how did the creators manage this? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, because it directly applies to writing fantasy. In the world of Grant Scotland, I often have to wrestle with how much disbelief I’m asking the reader to suspend. A fantasy world seemingly asks for all of it. All fantasy stories take place in worlds that are very clearly not our own. You have to earn the reader’s trust from word one in order to get them to invest themselves in your world. But I think the way you do that is the same way the Burn Notice writers did it. Verisimilitude.

That is, despite that show having one glaring false representation of reality, the show also had many more truths. Michael’s complicated relationship with his mother. His craving to get back the life he had, despite it being obvious he can never go back. The very human conflicts he was drawn into each episode. The motivations of each character are the same as any real world person you might meet or hear about. These are the things that keep my disbelief suspended. If the conflict is human in nature, then the occasional lapse in realism is forgivable.

You say your evil necromancer villain wants to turn everyone into zombies so she can rule the world with absolute power and security? Really? Who would even want that? Who would want to rule over a world of zombies? Seems like it would become tiresome and boring quite quickly. Think about it. Who would she talk to? Who would praise her wise and righteous rule without her having to tell them what to say? Who would cook anything for her besides brains?

 

"Welcome to Chez Braaaiiiiins, My Queen! Tonight's specials are beer-battered brains, brains au gratin and brains stroganoff. And for dessert - brains a la mode."

“Welcome to Chez Braaaiiiiins, My Queen! Tonight’s specials are Beer-battered Brains, Brains Au Gratin and Brains Stroganoff. And for dessert – Brains A La Mode.”

 

No. Her motivation isn’t human in nature, so the reader can’t bring himself to care. But what if she sought to create an army of zombies to seize power and institute kingdom-wide reforms that would usher in a new age of discovery and enlightenment? What if she succeeds and then has to destroy her own zombie army in order to be loved by her (non-zombified) people? Would she finally surrender power to accomplish the fullest extent of her well intended but misguided purpose? Or would she find that the heady brew of power was too intoxicating of a tonic to give up and thus insure her own eventual downfall?

See? Now you got me. I don’t even care if there’s any semblance of reality behind how she’s turning people into zombies. You’ve got me hooked. That’s a story I want to read.

So maybe suspending disbelief isn’t as important as just curbing it a bit.

 

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That’s all for now! Thanks for visiting. As always, feel free to express your thoughts below in the comment section.

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Talent vs Training

There’s a common misconception that people who engage in a “creative” line of work – to whatever extent – are “talented.” I put both words in quotes because we’re going to talk about what each of them means. It’ll be fun. I promise. Why? Because writing about words is fun!

What? It isn’t for you? That’s strange. It is for me. I wonder what could be the difference between us? Why would I enjoy thinking and talking and writing about words when you don’t? Is there an innate difference or does it have more to do with our respective life experiences? Is it Nature or Nurture?

I have no idea. People smarter than me can answer that. What I’m more interested in is defining what the terms “talent” and “creative” actually mean.

What got me thinking about this topic is a confession a friend of mine made to me one day. He used to be an artist, but decided for one reason or another to give it up. He said that the thing that bothers him, even to this day, is that people who look at his work always exclaim that he “…has such talent!” Followed by “Why did you give it up?” He’s bothered by this because, according to him, what he did had nothing to do with talent. He possessed no innate ability to draw or paint. He simply put in a large amount of time developing the skills necessary to produce art. At some point, he decided it was no longer worth the time and effort, so he gave it up. In short, he doesn’t believe in talent. The only thing that makes someone an artist is the willingness to devote the time required to be proficient at it.

 

Yes, yes. Prodigies. Blah, blah. The exception that proves the rule. They're all wonderfully mystical little turds. We're moving on.

Yes, yes. Prodigies. Blah, blah. The exception that proves the rule. They’re all wonderfully mystical little turds. We’re moving on.

 

Although I largely agree with him, his view is a bit too utilitarian for my taste. I actually do believe there is an innate trait within each of us that could be described as talent. But it has nothing to do with natural ability or even an artistic endeavor (where the term artistic applies to drawing/painting/writing/sculpting/music/pooping – oh! You didn’t know poop was an art form? Allow me to enlighten you. Go ahead and click that link. I promise you, it isn’t what you think) Instead, talent is that drive within each of us to like what we like, but to an extent where we care enough about whatever we like that we want to see it done well.

When I was but a minor Tone of Voice, I would read books and think to myself “You know, this is good, but I think I can do better.” Such arrogance! But I began to write and of course it was awful, but I kept at it. I would compare my writing to published authors and when it didn’t match up in terms of enjoyable reading, I would bother to find out why and correct it. That process still holds true. Even to this day I know that my writing isn’t as good as some others. I stare angrily at books I thoroughly enjoyed reading and think incoherent thoughts of rage.

“Why you do this! What? How? Why you do this how? I hate you so much I want to eat your brain and think your thoughts and steal your keystroke tappings, you minor deity of wordsmiths! Your mortal form is crazy sexy typewriter! I must mate with it!”

 

Something like this, but with more... ummm... ink.

Something like this, but with more… ummm… ink.

 

After I calm down and the bloody red mists dissipate and I dispose of the bodies, I think about what I liked and if it was something I could do. Could I do it better? Would I do it differently? Would it be better or worse if I did it differently? Would it be worth my time? Oh hell, I’ll just go write and find out.

To me, THAT is talent. THAT is what makes a person decide to devote time to a “creative” endeavor. It isn’t because they can sit down and instantly make art with their hands and thin air. It’s because they actually want to put in the time to see if they could make something beautiful.

But what is a “creative” endeavor? Isn’t every action that creates something creative? Does not a programmer create code that does something wonderful? Doesn’t an electrician create an electrical something-or-other in order to produce light and power in a pleasing manner? When people have sex, do they not create babies? Even if they don’t, aren’t they still creating something they enjoy?

Now, I’m not such a pie-eyed dreamer that I would say all things are creative endeavors. No. When I help mop the floors of the pizza joint, I don’t imagine I’m creating some new form of cleanliness for the floor. I’m simply cleaning up the mess. And trust me, I have tried to come up with some way to make it more palatable to my imagination. No luck. Worst part of the job. Emptying the trash is more satisfying. I hate that damn mop.

 

"Ain't no picnic for me either, bub."

“Ain’t no picnic for me either, bub.”

 

I also hated programming. I tried it in a couple of careers and I was terrible at it. Even when generously coached, I still struggled. Why? I just didn’t care. At every obstacle to achieving success, I would veer away from the task at hand and waste time and daydream. Even in the brief moments of clarity when I grasped some fundamental concept that could move me forward toward being a better programmer, I found my mind would soon wander. It was certainly a creative pursuit, but I just couldn’t get myself to care enough about it to doggedly pursue it. The level of interest in that particular suite of skills just wasn’t something I was either born with or given the necessary coaching at an appropriate age. Either way, it was obvious to me that I didn’t have “talent.” When I looked across the cubicles and saw the people who were absorbed in lines of code for hours at a stretch, it was easy to see who did.

Relevant to that observation is what I hear as possibly the biggest complaint from writers of all stripes when people ask them “Where do you get your ideas from?” As if there is an easy answer. As if ideas spring into being and fall into our laps like some fruit that grows on a mystical tree in a magical garden to which only we as writers have access.

“Did you go to the Word Garden to select your next story idea?”

“No, I was too busy today. I’ll go tomorrow.”

“Ah, but tomorrow’s harvest may not be as good.”

“True, but it is already too late in the day. No doubt the current selection of Story Fruit has already begun to spoil.”

No. We, like the programmers I mentioned above and my former artist friend, have no such access to a ready pool of solutions and imagination. Instead, we have to bang away at our keyboards for hours until something actually starts to make sense and could conceivably be interesting to some hoped-for prospective audience. It seems to me this holds true for anyone involved in the act of creation.

Yes, there are certainly occupations that have little to no room for “creativity.” But, I would argue that most occupations do, and we shouldn’t quibble about it. If you are engaged in the creation of anything other people can or will consume, that’s art. Even if you just keep your creations to yourself, if it’s something that you consume alone, it’s still art. It still took talent to make it. Why? Because you cared enough to try. Beyond that, you cared enough to try hard enough to make it something you like. And that thing – no matter how small or weird or banal – is a beautiful expression of talent and creativity.

 

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Again you have graced me with your time and attention! The honor was mine. As always, feel free to express your thoughts below in the comment section.

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Let your talent and creativity feed the Amazon review box and the delivery driver’s hand!

You Are Candy Coated Sex Chocolate!

Apparently, the title of my last blog post was a little off-putting. Hardly anyone even clicked it. I thought it was provocative, but I guess most people were provoked to stay away instead of come hither. Therefore… ahem… Come Hither You Deliciously Gorgeous Embodiments of Perfection and Divinity! You’re all beautiful people. I love you all. You’re beautiful and lovely. I love you because you’re so beautiful.

 

"Quit stealing my material or I'll sue."

“Quit stealing my material or I’ll sue.”

 

Oh, go ahead. You’ll probably win. Doesn’t matter. I’ve got naught but a moldy pile of zilch in a rusted bucket made of discarded aluminum siding. Wait… does aluminum rust? No? Why is this rusting then? Awww… Just my friggin luck. Stupid bucket.

But seriously, that post wasn’t negative. It was meant to be informative. Sure, there was some frustration expressed about people who feel entitled, but mostly it was about persevering in the face of adversity and staying focused on what’s important. I found it inspiring, anyway. However, I also found it very interesting that the title could have such a repelling effect. It’s… revealing. I haven’t had so few visits since I first started this blog.

Oh, by the way. Happy belated birthday to This Tone Of Voice! Yes, it was February 16th of last year when I gave birth to you! I’m not at all sure you were worth the effort, but since that holds true for most things in my life, it doesn’t stop me from wishing you a very happy One Year Anniversary! Yaaaaaaaaaay!

Balloons! Confetti! Cake! Jello-shots! Adorable baby pictures! Schnapps shots! Presents! Shots of some sort of alcohol nobody can pronounce or remember! Embarrassing stories! More shots! Regret.

Ummm… Where was I?

Oh, yes.

We live in the soundbite culture, my fine-figured and excellently attired friends. We don’t have time to sort through the glut of information on the inter-tubes to find something of interest. If the title and/or first few sentences don’t capture our attention, then we’re moving on.

Probably to a cat video.

Or a meme.

With cats.

Now, I’m not judging that sort of thing. I’m just as much a victim to impatience as anyone. But what has that culture yielded us, I wonder? What has that short-attention-span, please-entertain-me-now-but-just-for-like-a-minute, skip-the-middle-paragraphs

DON’T SKIP THE MIDDLE PARAGRAPHS!

-SKIM-some-middle-paragraphs, decide-if-it-is-worth-a-Facebook-share-in-under-thirty-seconds world ushered into being? What could it be, I ponder? What popcorn pontificator and glib giant could rise to prominence in such a milieu?

 

trump2

“I love it. Keep talking. You’re fabulous. You’ve got fabulous readers. I love them.”

 

They are fabulous, aren’t they? They’re savvy and bright and witty and charming and oh-so-pretty. So pretty and witty and whiiiiiiiiiiiiite. Wait! Ummm… Briiiiiiiight. Yes, that’s it.

Bright.

Is the thing.

That they are.

I won’t bother to ask “what happened?” We’ve been on this road for a while. Ever since the 24 hour news cycle began we’ve been devouring ever greater amounts of information in ever smaller doses. We distrust experts because although they know more about their specialties, WE know more about everything else. So, that’s like, a lot, right? We see experts as ivory-tower intellectuals out of touch with how life actually works. The people we trust now are the people who have an instant answer to anything we ask them, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. In fact, the more ridiculous the better. Why? Because it makes us feel better that at least we know more than they do.

So, we’ve decided we can’t trust the experts and we prefer to surround ourselves with people who sound dumber than us. Is it any wonder so many of us now support a guy like Donald Trump… for president? We already suffered through the “Well, at least I feel like I could have a beer with him” mentality that got Shrub into office. Do we need to punish ourselves further? Has Obama been that blandly successful (or blandly unsuccessful, depending on your viewpoint) that we need to elect someone who has all the attributes of a terrific American Gladiators spokesperson?

Apparently, we do. We crave more grist for the 24 hour news cycle. We can wrap our heads around “war” and “terrorism” and “security” but nobody’s interested in discussing complicated trade treaties or delicate foreign relations maneuvers or sweeping domestic policy initiatives.

BOOOOOOORING.

And this is the result. Here we go, my noble and well-groomed and magnificently poised fellow citizens. We’ve got just what we’ve been craving. Our hunger for a constant flow of bite-sized controversy has delivered us to this point. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for shaking up the establishment to get some much needed reforms, but if that’s the main reason you’re voting for Trump, you might want to give the whole thing another think. After all, when you’re on the same side as white supremacists and New World Order nut-jobs, you kinda have to ask yourself if that’s really the pack you want to start running with.

On the other extreme, I hear some people whispering about fleeing the country if Trump comes to power. Please don’t. If there would ever be a time your country would need you to stay and fight – with voices, protest signs and words, mind you, not guns – then this would be it. Remember – it’s YOUR country, too, damn it. If it’s the people’s will he gets into office, then so be it, but that doesn’t automatically mean the Constitution gets torn up. Hell, even Hitler had to burn the Reichstag building. As for me, if we get President Trump then he and everyone else my little blog can reach are going to hear about what I think of the whole damn clown show as often and as loudly as I can write it.

Besides, Cape Breton is too far north. If I flee anywhere, it’ll be south.

 

"Good. I'm going to be putting up some great hotels in Cuba. They'll have lovely food and great people. You'll love the people and have some great food."

“Good. I’m going to be putting up some great hotels in Cuba. They’ll have lovely food and great people. You’ll love the people and have some great food.”

 

And that’s the thing. If you don’t think Trump would mostly just use the Oval Office to set up new ways to license his own name or build hotels every-goddamn-where like the world was his personal monopoly board, you really have failed to pay any sort of attention whatsoever.

But all drama aside, a part of me suspects/hopes Trump is a Democrat spy sent to rip the GOP apart. Like maybe he agreed to do this mostly as a dare from Obama, although I’m sure the President meant it as a joke at the time.

He was never intended to assume the presidency. Problem is, since it looks like he actually can do it, I doubt Trump is going to back away from it. His ego isn’t built to refuse an offer like that, no matter how funny the joke would be.

But man, what if he did win the Republican nomination and then just threw up his hands and said “HA! Fooled you!” and then ran off to start producing a TV documentary about the greatest prank of all time? If that’s the case, I’m not at all sure how to go about living in a world that awesome.

Well, here’s hoping.

 

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Thanks for being a statuesque idol filled with a creamy nougat of awesomeness! I deeply appreciate you allowing me to bask in your radiance! As always, feel free to express your thoughts below in the comment section.

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Don’t let the world wait another second to read your next brilliantly-worded Amazon review and don’t let that grovelling delivery driver leave without offering him a pittance from your gracious and finely sculpted hand!