Week 25, running a ladder factory
I did a pretty serious laptop cleanup this week, and along the way, found a couple of image folders I hadn’t seen in a while. One was called “moodboard” and, for this week’s art, I’ll use some selections.
The event featuring Ted Chiang that I previewed in last week’s newsletter happened, and it was terrific. A packed house at Green Apple on 9th Avenue; the only time I’ve seen that store with more people in it was when I interviewed John Darnielle, a.k.a. the Mountain Goats, i.e. an actual rock star.
Ted was humble and sweet and just very palpably thoughtful. He’s one of those people who seem constitutionally incapable of producing a tossed-off bullshit answer. (I consider myself relatively low-bullshit, but I am always happy to provide a socially-expected module of blather if it will make things light and easy. There are people who are not, a characteristic that, like a lot of good things in the world, is both frustrating and laudable.) His writing process is, at least to judge by his own description, exceptionally pure. This is a person who is alive to the strangeness of the world; who waits for an idea to haunt him; who carefully pins it to the page, wondering the whole time, “Is anybody else going to get this AT ALL?”
It was sweet to see him recount that insecurity there at Green Apple, facing down a packed house. People get it, Ted! And of course, they get it because of that uncertainty, that intellectual risk-taking. If Ted had an ounce of crassness, he might think, “Is anybody else going to get this AT ALL? They won’t. Okay then, I’ll put in a really good twist… tone down the physics… add some explosions…” And then, of course, what he produced would fall flat. There’s a causal loop at work here—almost like something out of Ted’s own stories…
If you haven’t read Exhalation, I really do recommend it. The first story made me cry; the last will stick in my head for a long time. Also, on a meta-level, I think it’s a very healthy thing for publishing when a book like this succeeds. To the degree Ted Chiang becomes a signifier, an established brand, book agents can then point and say, “See? Ted Chiang’s collection did great. My client X’s stories are almost as nerdy…” That’s a powerful tool, and one that could permit us, the nerdy readers of the world, to enjoy some great new work in the future we otherwise wouldn’t.
I was absolutely, definitely going to listen to this episode of this podcast—a hundred facts about language!—but then I saw that there was a link to a transcript and… yeah I’m going to read it instead.
It will be the year 2079.
All popular media will be consumed via implanted ear-chips.
Sloan will be sitting in a cafe. “Have you read the new book by the Chiang AI?” a friend will ask eagerly. Sloan will shake his head no. “Er… what about that new essay collection, then? The one written by a sentient swarm of bees?” Again, Sloan will have to admit that he has not.
He sits quietly.
His ears are empty.
There are people out there who are doing it really right.
John August is a screenwriter; at least some of you will know his name already. He wrote the script for the modern classic Big Fish as well as, more recently, an early version of Disney’s live-action Aladdin.
Years ago, John also took a swing at a script for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Although, like most movie projects, it stalled out in one of many identical conference rooms, John was, of all the people I’ve worked with on Penumbra projects so far, my favorite.
John is a great worker-in-public, primarily through the long-running podcast called Scriptnotes. For screenwriters real and aspiring, it’s an ongoing master class, all about craft—craft for days, craft in the most detailed and practical ways.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. John August is also the force behind Highland, an app that brought lightness and simplicity to screenplay editing. (John didn’t program it himself, of course; he’s built a small development shop, called Quote-Unquote.)
AND THEN—be still my heart—for use with Highland, he commissioned the creation of a new font called Courier Prime. So like, if all those screenplay drafts absolutely must be set in a dorky monospace, at least it can be a better dorky monospace.
You can see the appeal here, right? The combination of practical excellence with a deep curiosity about tools that extends into making, and sharing, his own. The generosity and—more importantly—the discipline to distribute expertise and attention.
You’ve heard the metaphor about like, having gone up a ladder of achievement, do you leave it in place for others to follow, or pull it up behind you? You are supposed to leave it in place, obviously—but/and there’s at least one other option, which is, having reached the higher level, you establish a small ladder construction shop and just start, like, tossing them down!
For years now, John August has been running a ladder factory.
Enfont Terrible is a tool—a toy?—created by Javier Arce and it is extremely fun. Here is my glitch of the font Forma, which I recently received as part of the Font of the Month Club:
Kishōtenketsu: a classic story form; a plot without conflict. How in the WORLD did I not know this term??
She lives farther up the coast and only comes through our town once in a while, but when she does, it’s an event.
Meaghan O’Connell has got a VOICE. She’s one of those writers who can offer a block of text (with really very few line breaks) about anything, truly, and you gobble it up; you can’t get enough. Her most recent dispatch is just—ah! It’s wonderful. What a mind. What a voice.
In addition to its basic and appealing Meaghan-ness, the dispatch is an exemplar of one of my favorite genres, the “narration of an interaction overheard in public,” or perhaps, if we must, the “OH” for short.
This is a genre of tweet, too—it used to be more prevalent—and for me, they are gold. Exactly what I want from the social internet. I want to be like Varys with my network of informants, except instead of court intrigue, they’re bringing me news of conversations in cafes, small kindnesses witnessed. Shadows on sidewalks.
If there was a way to set up a social network for these little sketches alone—moments in public; concise reports of humor and grace—and really enforce that standard, it would be the only one I would ever use. It’s not possible, of course. You have to just appreciate the OHs where you find them.
The AI-generated quest stories have been arriving in mailboxes all week and, gosh, what a delight. Thanks, again, to the thousand or so people who raised a hand to receive one. It was—is—a very strange experiment.
In particular, it’s interesting to see people selecting snippets of their custom-generated stories that they think are worth sharing—either just sending them over to me, or posting them on Instagram or Twitter for a wider audience. (I’ve been sharing some examples on Twitter.)
Books and stories are social objects. Around any text, there’s a halo of attention, a complex rainbow gradient like one of those aura pictures—different kinds of attention, at different times, from different people, for different reasons. That attention matters. A book—a story—is not merely its text. As if! It is, instead, at minimum, its text, plus its package, plus its aura of attention. (There’s probably even more to it; that’s really is just the minimum.)
These AI-generated stories arrived quite “naked” —almost pure text, in a flimsy package, with no aura to speak of—so it’s been their readers who, by evaluating them and sharing the bits that are fun and/or funny and/or strange, have generated almost all of their value. Which is interesting! I don’t have a master theory here; I’m just thinking out loud about what I’m seeing.
This week, I wrote up some notes about how exactly I produced the stories, and you can read those here..
June 2019, Oakland