Zack and his bum from the upcoming THE DAY MY BUTT WENT PSYCHO cartoon which will begin screening in Australia towards the end of this...
RUN, YOU GOIT.
Also, I absolutely love that you’re open minded on this. Gives me hope for much of fandom. :D
There is an attitude often expressed on the internet that pulling apart symbolism is a waste of time. It’s probably the most common stereotype directed at Arts students - that they read too much into things, overcomplicating the simple and searching for meaning where there is none. There is an image online in which a frustrated student declares that “blue curtains” in a novel may simply be “blue curtains,” without equally standing for the main character’s inner turmoil and sadness. What the author meant is that the curtains were blue.
So I was interested to sit down this week and watch Room 237, a movie that explores several interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. The interviewees on the program all had their pet theories about the film - unpacking sexual symbolism, the creation of a minotaur’s labyrinth, Native American history, or arguing that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing for the government and dropped hints in the film to reveal his secret. One “expert” plays The Shining backwards, overlaying the images of the film in reverse order, searching for symmetry. The responses to the movie range in believability, but it is most certainly difficult to reconcile them all. Some of them must be just plain wrong, though all come across as absolutely sincere.
I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for the interviewees on Room 237, particularly the ones I found myself convinced had way overloaded the film with their own meaning. Stanley Kubrick, I am sure, intended very few of the insights they presented. It seems like such a shame to hyper-analyse parts of a film that were almost certainly not crafted as part of the story’s fabric. As one lady spoke in terms of joyful revelation at a poster in the background of the film that to her certainly showed a minotaur, and not a skier, I found myself thinking that she merely had an overactive imagination. Some of these people had dedicated huge portions of their short lives to watching, re-watching, and picking apart the mysteries of The Shining. And for what?
And that’s when I found my answer. For fun. What Stanley Kubrick intends is really only half of the picture. The things that make us gasp with delight and horror in cinema are partly the connections we make in our own head. What the author or the filmmaker or the musician means is significant, but often not nearly as significant as what the creationmeans to us. However right or wrong the theories in Room 237 are, they add layers to the film, and offer new ideas to explore. Whether the things discussed were intended is not nearly as interesting as whether they matter.
When we, as fans or students, pull apart a text, or analyse it (even over-analyse it), we do so to give it a personal meaning. The artistic experience is not about seeing things as they were, or are, but seeing them in a way that is ours alone. This is why so many articles and blog posts and reviews can be written on any topic - as the creator’s creation it lives only once, but in the minds of its responders it lives a million lives, reborn new each time. We load it with who we are here and now, and it becomes what we need it to be. There is a beauty in that, I think.
That’s my interpretation of Room 237, anyway. But perhaps I’m reading too much into it.
When is it okay to publicly declare the trauma a story has put us through? On a forum I visited recently, a user posted the identity of Harry Potter’s “Half-Blood Prince,” and was asked to “tag their spoilers” by another user. It started a fight about what’s immune from being spoiled. What about the ending of The Sixth Sense? Or the Star Wars trilogy? Even if you haven’t seen them, everyone knows how they turn out by now, right?
Last year I was staying with a family who had a twelve year-old son. A tele-drama was playing one evening about the Tasmanian mining disaster in Beaconsfield, and we were all watching. When I pointed out that one part of the program was an actual news broadcast from the time, the son turned to me.”Did this really happen?” he asked. I was astonished. “What?! You don’t remember this being on every station every day of the week? You don’t remember any of it?”
"Well, he was six…" the boy’s mother reminded me.
It’s easy to imagine that everyone else on the internet is the same age as we are, or at the very least sixteen. If they haven’t seen the iconic cultural artefacts of our time then surely they deserve all of the spoiling we can give them - after all, how dare they not read and see the things that we have read and seen. How dare they not know how Bilbo got the ring in The Lord of the Rings. How dare they not know about the events in the final episode of Breaking Bad. Yet the internet rarely discriminates against the young, and fails to protect them from these parts of the stories we love so well. Before they are old enough to see it, read it, hear it, or understand it, the generations below us might easily find the final revelations somewhere online. None of us are born with our favourite tales already inside our heads and hearts. We find them. And we must be sure to find them the right way.
Spoilers, largely, serve no-one. You either know the event that the person refers to because you’ve already experienced it the way the writer intended, or you don’t. Sometimes it makes life easier to just spit it out, but caution should be advised. Think of the kids. Think of the people who, like you, have a huge number of things they have always wanted to get to, but just haven’t quite yet. The irony is that if you are talking about a spoiler, it’s usually because the event shocked you, and you want to share your surprise, horror, or excitement with somebody else. You share it because it mattered, and it’s precisely because it mattered that you must not share it. Art is like food: once it’s spoiled, you can’t take it back. Wield your passions with kindness.
This may not be the best time of year to write a book. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo for years before the stars finally aligned and I didn’t have exams in November. That said, I’d also just handed in a thesis, and NaNo started the week after. But I wanted to do it. Really badly wanted to write a book - not just start a book, but finish one too. So I did.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, a competition in which writers from all around the world commit to starting and completing a novel in a single month. It’s hard and it’s hectic, but it’s not about perfection. It’s about trying the long form and reaching the end from the beginning. It is, in essence, an exercise in persistence.
Many of my friends started NaNoWriMo with me last year and didn’t make it. Sometimes their stories got away from them, and sometimes their lives did. But every person who left me behind made me more determined that I wouldn’t join them. I would finish what I started. I kept writing.
When I wrote the last word on the last page, I jumped up and danced. The novel I had written was not brilliant, but it was a novel. Reading it back a few months later, I was surprised at how it had come together. Bits needed fixing, cutting, or elaborating, but the bones were there. I could not - from re-reading - remember which days were the days I went skipping into town for coffee at 11am having already written for the day, and which days I had spent feeling like death, up at midnight drinking hot lemons and coughing into tissues while I typed with whatever hand was free and prepared to move.
NaNoWriMo is, I think, only the beginning stage of a long journey. And that journey is easy to put off; after all, there is always an excuse not to write. If you haven’t already started, you are a few days behind. But if you find yourself thinking, Maybe not this year, or, I would if it wasn’t this month, then I must ask you: If not now, then when?
Remember that even if you don’t make it - and I hope that you do - writing is like running, and you get better because you do it, no matter how easy or hard it is, or how you feel afterwards. If you have a book in you, and you’ve always wanted to write it, the best time to start is now. Good luck to all of you.
I heard an interesting story this week on my favourite podcast, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. In 1950, a man named James Hampton rented a garage in northwest Washington. He mentioned to the garage’s owner, Meyer Wertlieb that he had a project to work on, and as long as the rent kept coming in, Wertlieb didn’t care what Hampton was up to. Hampton was a night janitor, lived alone, and spent most of his spare time toying around in the garage. He had very few friends, and was a quiet and humble man.
In 1964, James Hampton died. A month later, Wertlieb noticed that the rent on the garage hadn’t been paid, so he travelled round to see what had happened. When he opened the door, he discovered a sprawling, glittering piece of installation art. It filled the garage completely, and was made from pieces of scrap that Hampton had collected: foil, cardboard, broken mirrors, old lightbulbs. Although consisting of more than 180 separate pieces, it culminated in a central throne, inscribed with the words, Fear Not.
Hampton had inscribed on the objects surrounding the throne, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the United Nations’ General Assembly, and it seems that he was convinced that he was charged with the task of creating a throne for the return of Jesus. The garage also contained a notebook titled: St James: The Books of the 7 Dispensation. It is not written in English, but a special language of Hampton’s own devising (not so far deciphered), with the word ”revelation” at the end of each page. In 1970, the whole installation was anonymously donated to the Smithsonian art museum, where it can still be visited.
What amazes me about Hampton’s story more than anything is his secrecy and solitude. Whether or not he felt that he was divinely compelled to create such an object as the Throne of the Third Heaven, as far as we know he never showed it to anyone while it was under construction. His family had no idea that it existed until they came to claim his body.
So much of what artists do is a desperate attempt for attention and validation. We complain constantly that we are taken for granted for the work that we do, underpaid, under-appreciated; producing great stuff but still waiting on our “big break.” Yet it’s sobering to think that out there somewhere is a man in his garage, building an enormous structure that no-one will ever see until his death - quietly and anonymously making something that he finds beautiful. Seeking no-one’s validation except his own, and perhaps the divine. No matter what you think of him or the structure that he made, I think that most of us could learn a little from a man like James Hampton.
People say that there are rules to writing children’s books. Firstly, the children have to win. Seriously, they’ve gotta win. Secondly, adults are often absent, but they are largely nice: especially the ones who are responsible for the children (who, as I have already mentioned, have to win). Thirdly, the narrator should get out of the way, and not use big words that children wouldn’t understand.
Now not everyone follows the rules of writing children’s books, but it’s pretty rare to find a writer who bold-facedly breaks every single rule immediately. As soon as The Bad Beginning opens we are greeted with the sentence, “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” The blurb describes the novel as “extremely unpleasant,” “filled with misery and woe,” and suggests that “there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down.” It actively tells you to go away. Lemony Snicket is a writer who knows the rules, but he is also a writer who knows his audience. He knows that his audience doesn’t like rules, and he knows that his audience doesn’t like being told what to do. Tell them a book is sad and awful and that they simply must put it down and leave it alone, and there is no surer bet than that they will open it up immediately and start to read.
Snicket layers his books with gothic darkness, adult ineptness, terrible uncertainty and a broad stack of literary references. The novels are so crammed that it almost feels like he’s just throwing things together - but the books are far too clever for that to be the case. Mysteries gradually unfold and connect, and everything from the dedication to the next book’s preview are layered with complicated clues. The thirteen book series starts strong and never flags, but more importantly it never condescends. When Snicket uses a word that he thinks his audience might not understand he identifies it and explains it, but does so in such a way that even those who do know the word will find his definitions hilarious. His children are quicker, smarter and more resourceful than all of the adults they are surrounded with; all they lack is the power to change things. They deserve better, but we never know if they will get it.
Lemony Snicket became a favourite writer of mine because he showed me that rules are made to be broken, as long as they are broken by someone who knows what they’re doing. The Bad Beginning is as engrossing as it is unique, as funny as it is sad. The lesson that can be learnt from a writer like Snicket is that if you write well - write confidently, and stylishly, and with as much skill as someone who is following every rule of children’s fiction to the letter, even if you aren’t - you can really write whatever you want. Just make it special. There aren’t really any rules to writing children’s fiction, except maybe one: tell a great story. And Snicket can manage that.
Most videogames feel like a roller-coaster. You keep moving faster and faster - sitting in the dark, hands clenched, palms sweaty. Most videogames build to a climax. You play them to win.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS is not like most video games. It’s the sort of game that really only Nintendo can pull off with such great success. If most games are like a rollercoaster, Animal Crossing is a Zen garden. There is no clearly definable end-point, no goal beyond what you decide to do for yourself.
It’s really all about decoration and collection. You collect animal friends and neighbours, sending them letters and doing favours in order to keep them happy. You collect fish, bugs, and other items in order to decorate your house, sell, or donate to the initially incredibly sparse museum. If it sounds kind of dull that’s because…well, maybe it should be. But it isn’t. Particularly on 3DS the world pops like a beautiful storybook. It’s calm, dream-like, and friendly. In the world of Animal Crossing, there is rarely any need to rush.
I’ve had the game for three days and although I have been told that many of my town’s secrets take at least a week to reveal themselves, I am already finding it hard to cease exploring and chatting to my characters. This is the way that the game is designed - things happen on various days and in various seasons, so that if you play it for a couple of days and stop, you actually miss most of the experience. This is a pretty arrogant gamble for a game but it pays off perfectly, even if it can be devastating when you abandon it for twelve months or more and log in to find the animals shocked to see you back, and the ground littered with weeds and dead things. Luckily Nintendo releases a new iteration every few years, and part of the appeal of each new release is a fresh start to the game. It seems likely I will last a little bit longer this time around. It’s bigger than ever, and taking on the role of mayor is a nice touch - you now have more control over what happens in your town, and can change some of the things that were previously set in stone in the Animal Crossing landscape.
Animal Crossing is a game to be treasured because takes its sandbox style and embraces it. There is nothing wrong with having a hectic day and retiring to a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat FPS or street racing simulator. We’ve all been there. But this week I was reminded that, even more so, there is nothing wrong with retiring to the animals, picking some fruit or catching a fish, and exploring the delights of your very own digital Zen garden, that you can take anywhere, in the back of your pocket. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Hi! Right now, unless you already have it, you want to make sure you get a copy of a book called On Writing by Stephen King. I should stress, you want this book even if you don’t like Stephen King. One of the great things about King is that he doesn’t mess around with his advice. He’s clear and funny and wise, and he won’t talk down to you. Sure, his repertoire contains multiple stories about evil cars, but when it comes to the philosophy of writing he is no-nonsense.
Other books you might want to take a look at are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Robert McKee’s STORY (McKee is a great speaker, get the audiobook if you can). The order I’ve put these in kind of builds in terms of how complicated they are, so if you place them all on order and STORY comes first (and you haven’t read a book about writing before), maybe step back a little and wait for King.
A final note: These three authors, like all writers about writing, will contradict each other, and, sometimes, contradict what you feel inside yourself. This is the big problem of books about writing: there are no rules, so you just get one person’s preferred method. Just as all of these people write very different novels, they’ve got different perspectives and styles for the act of writing too. Don’t be afraid to take what works for you and leave the rest. There’s no point dancing in someone else’s shadow. If you’re going to write, you’ve got to enjoy it, and that means finding your own way. Good luck!
This little fellow, hanging out with his brown flying pig, is me! Okay, so obviously he’s a game character, but it does get a little bit more complicated than that, because this time the game is a little thing called HabitRPG.
HabitRPG starts with a pretty simple premise: Games are fun, but getting things done is not fun. Is it possible, perhaps, that getting things done would be more fun if it was more like games? It turns out, really excitingly, that the answer is yes.
In HabitRPG, you create a character and then set three types of goals. One is your “To Do” list. Finish those and you get points and coins that you can spend on rewards. Another is “Habits.” These ones have either a positive or negative effect and don’t go away, they stick around and encourage you to behave yourself. Last are the “Dailies,” and I find these ones to be the most effective. You set which days you need to do them on, and if you fail, you take a hit to your little character’s health. If you succeed, you get points, and the more days in a row you succeed, the more points you get. As you go, you pick up little parcels here and there, and eventually start collecting pets, which keeps things interesting on another level too.
Even as a basic To Do list with a bit of intrigue the site is great, but I use HabitRPG for everything. Exercise, food, writing, learning, I pump them all in there. I’ve believed for a long time in turning big challenges into little games to keep me motivated - breaking my uni assignments down and marking my progress on a decorated chart above my desk. But Habit RPG makes it simple, and it keeps adding it up. My little guy is on Level 11 now, and I refuse to let him fail. I’m doing the chores I’ve been putting off because I’m invested in the game. If you want to make someone do something, give them a chance to win at it.
I’m not sure that HabitRPG would suit everyone, but for me it’s perfect. Very simple and slightly goofy, it just adds a little bit of colour to the things that must be done. For anyone who finds themselves stalling on something that they really should have done ages ago, it’s a great solution to provide that little extra kick in the pants. And it’s free, so you should give it a try. For now though, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some things to do.
You can find HabitRPG at: http://habitrpg.com
One of the few memories I have of Grade 3 is a weekend spent reading and laughing in the sunroom of our house. On the Monday I went to school for show-and-tell, and all I wanted to talk about was this book with the orange cover. I got up in front of the class and told them what happened in one of the stories: a boy trying to fill his shower with water by piping silicon in all the gaps. After what must have been an arduous five minutes my teacher made a suggestion: “Why don’t you bring that book in tomorrow, and you can read the story to the class?”
I don’t quite know what happened after that, but within weeks the shutters between classrooms were being pushed back, and I was reading Andy Griffiths stories to the whole grade. It sparked a love in me of not just reading and writing, but of telling - of playing with the pauses and the voices to get the biggest impact, the loudest laughs.
Books like Just Annoying don’t win awards, even if maybe they should. They are considered too base for that, too much in the realm of low-art, and definitely too silly. They have reputation for being the sorts of books that groups of boys will read, and then they won’t read anything else. They don’t - it is argued - encourage children to move on to “literature.”
And yet for me, they did. In fact, it seems impossible to me to separate the person I’ve become now from that little boy reading Andy Griffiths stories to an increasing audience. That boy is discovering one of the great joys of a book like Just Annoying: it’s primal. The story works if the audience laughs. The story works better if the audience laughs harder. Good comedic writing gives the writer and the person reading it a feedback loop. It shows what works, and there is no greater joy for a writer than a story that is working. Andy Griffiths’s stories work, and I got to share in that. I have no doubt that it’s a major part of why I wanted to be a writer myself.
In many ways it might be a good thing that no-one in the realms of literary criticism takes notice of people like Andy Griffiths. It’s all part of the package. Just Annoying is a “naughty” book, full of rude jokes and nasty graffiti around the pages. It is bad for you, in the same way that video games and french fries are bad for you, and not good, like homework and sprouts are good.
I don’t believe any of that for a second. But I believe that other adults believe it. And where other adults believe it, children will believe it. So while the adults are chastising them, the kids can delight in a world of carefully and beautifully crafted silliness, a gateway drug to the power of stories, and a glorious end in itself. It will be all the more delicious because we told them it was bad for them - and if there is one truth it doesn’t take a writer like Andy Griffiths to teach, it’s that kids love what’s bad for them.
On a sunny day,
I sit on the pavement outside and cut my fingernails.
The ants come up through the cracks in the concrete,
And they take the nails away,
One by one,
Back down through the earth,
Bearing them above their heads like flags of conquest.
I don’t know what they do with these little bits off my hands.
Maybe they use them as pillars to line tunnels,
As doors for rooms,
As large knives,
All I know is that they take these pieces of me, and they use them.
People sometimes think that I am in denial about death,
And that I don’t have any conception of an afterlife.
But I’m not.
And I do.
When the end comes,
When your turn is over,
You close your eyes,
And the little pieces of you,
Are broken apart and carried away,
Back into the system,
To become part of something new.
It is balanced,
It is beautiful,
It is perfect,
And if you want to know how it works I suggest that sometime,
On a sunny day,
You cut your fingernails on the pavement,
The ants will come.