Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Star Trek: An Outsider's Perspective

I’ve decided to make more of an effort to keep a regular blog. It won’t be as much of a “writer’s blog” as I’d hoped, but that may eventually change. Right now, I’m going for more of an editorial/review/whatever blog. So…make that your typical blog.

For years, I never paid much attention to the Star Trek series. It was on TV once in a while, especially at late hours or awkward time slots like 2 pm on a Saturday. From what I saw, it looked interesting, but as a diehard Star Wars fan I felt like I was sinning by even peeking at the bridge of the Enterprise or genuinely enjoying an edited-for-TV version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Trekkies and Jedis tend to mix as well as oil and water. For the most part, I didn’t watch the show in any of its incarnations because while the concepts were interesting, the episodes were tedious. Star Wars had a big budget with a simple plot. People on Star Trek monologued on scientific theories I lacked the capacity to understand.

After years of avoiding it, I've decided to give it a chance. Somehow, watching shows like Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, and Battlestar Galactica has given me greater patience and a maturity for character-based drama without constant CGI and special effects. They’ve allowed me to appreciate a show for its atmosphere. I’m more ready for Star Trek now than I was when it originally aired. With today’s advantages of online forums and podcasts, the Internet has also allowed me the luxury of discussion about the show instead of just going off my own reactions. Reading and hearing why others appreciate something helps you see what redeemable qualities the show offers that you might have overlooked. It allows for more connection with other fans, which is a good thing because of all the fandoms in existence, I can think of none more shunned by society than the Trekkies.

I started out by watching season one of the original series and The Next Generation. TNG had less episodes and held my attention better so I finished it faster.

What to say about season one of The Next Generation? Well, like most shows of the 1980s and before, it’s episodic. There’s some character development that happens over the season and some light story arcs, but for the most part you could jump in at any point and it would make little difference. That has something to do with limited recording technology at the time (no Tivo, get set to engage your JVCs!) and the fact that DVD releases six months after season finales were still years away. That makes it a challenge for any viewer to watch a full season. That takes dedication, especially with 25 episodes. You’d certainly be shirking off some responsibilities in that time if you wanted to catch every episode. Each is a self-contained mystery or challenge that is presented and resolved within 45 minutes. It’s harder to watch a show like that for 5-6 episodes in one sitting, whereas most plot-driven shows these days fly by like a good book you can’t put down.

Season one certainly has its flaws. Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner are great, but it felt like the writers were uncertain as to what to do with some of the other characters, especially Wesley Crusher.
I know a lot of that has already been said before. What kept me going was the atmosphere that season one created. It presented a lot of info, but major features like the Federation and some of the major alien races was presented in an easily-accessible way for the uninitiated. TNG had holodecks, interplanetary diplomacy, and a successful utopian society. Optimistic utopian societies are a rarity in science fiction. So often writers, this one included, speculate that our worst is yet to come and that we will not evolve, but devolve and only become more corrupt. Seldom does speculative fiction tell us that the best of our society is yet to come. TNG’s approach is incredibly refreshing in that respect.

Best episode: “11001001.” I also really enjoyed “The Big Goodbye,” “Conspiracy,” and “The Neutral Zone.”
Favorite character: Jean-Luc Picard hands down. 
I think his leadership outshines even James T. Kirk’s. Patrick Stewart gives every episode his best, even if the episode itself is less than quality like “Code of Honor” and “Angel One.”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

At last, a lazy, unedited update...

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining
"I suppose I ought to try to do some writing."-Jack Torrance

I've been stricken by the inevitable summer slump. This happens every year. After school, I fall into the trap of thinking, "I've earned a break," and then I take a long time off from writing. Not good. Writing is less about hitting the prosaic, first draft home-runs and infinitely more about repetition. To paraphrase Wendy Torrance from The Shining, it's simply a matter of settling into the habit of writing everyday.

An update on me and my busier, lazier life:

Probably the most important thing that's happened to me lately was receiving an email informing me I was awarded the Lakeside Lab Writing Fellowship. To date, this is my biggest writerly accomplishment. For the first time in my life, I feel like I'm not lying when I tell people that I'm a writer. When I told my Minnesota friends and family, most of them responded like good Lutherans: "What does this mean?" A writing fellowship, as far as my understanding of it goes, is a kind of award where you receive a grant/scholarship/stipend. In my case, I'll get to stay in a cabin at Lake Okoboji between August and the end of November. During that time, I'll be writing like crazy. I'll also do a few writing workshops with the locals. I'll be working a lot on my nonfiction, nature essays (hoping to do at least one a week), as well as tinkering with my sci-fi novel and some more literary short stories. The blog posts will for sure be more frequent while I'm there.

This first part of the summer has found me working once again in Plymouth, MN at Data Recognition Center. There, I grade state-standardized tests on a computer. It's not the most stimulating job, but it's nice to have a temp job for awhile and the projects typically have some gaps, hence why I'm posting this on a Thursday at 11 am. The job is a 40 hour a week job, and I have an hour drive there and an hour back. I've also been making an effort at running/biking a few times a week and my weekends have been fairly busy as well. I'm also kind of hooked on watching Doctor Who. What all of this translates to is that my time to write is a lot more limited than it's been for quite some time. During my long drives to work, I've been listening to podcasts on writing. They're mostly sci-fi based, so it's helpful for me as someone trying to break into the sci-fi genre, but I still feel that there's a lot of great info even for non sci-fi writers. Adventures in SciFi PublishingI Should Be Writing, and Writing Excuses are my favorites so far. Author interviews on these podcasts kind of make me feel bad about my recent lack of writing. Some of them manage to produce a high quantity of work, keep up a blog, work a full time job, and be parents. I've got Doctor Who, exercising, and a large friend group. Jeez, I'm lazy. I'm thinking the trick for me is to really get going on a project to the point where I want to keep working on it. I'll be done at DRC in mid-July, and finally have some solid chunks of time to write, but still it's seriously time to crack the whip.

That's all for now. I'm going up to the cabin in a few hours for a week filled with small construction projects, catching up on my reading, experiencing nature, and hopefully some writing. I'm bringing my laptop. Hopefully it won't be just dead weight in the suitcase.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


One of the undergrad ceremonies at UNI
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go.”
-Dr. Seuss

There weren't as many people at the Graduate ceremony as at the undergrad ceremonies, but I'd guess probably around 1500-2000. On Friday evening, I had the distinct pleasure of giving the commencement address to the Graduate college. It was great to be recognized for my work and to share that writing with so many others. I think it was the largest crowd I've ever spoken in front of. The more I think about it, the story of how I got the job is pretty interesting.

In 2009, my teaching position was eliminated. I'd always told myself I wanted to go back to graduate school at some point, so it only seemed like the best time to do it. I looked around for MA in creative writing programs and found that there were basically none in Minnesota, but a few in Iowa. I came down here for a visit and that settled it. Though I didn't know anyone, I took a gamble and moved down here. In the fall of 2010, I registered for classes but was unable to get into one of the ones I wanted. As a replacement, I registered for an ecopoetry class which ended up being one of the best classes I had at UNI. During the class, I wrote a series of responses to books of poetry we read. They were assignments, but I enjoyed writing them. One in particular stuck out. My professor Jeremy Schraffenberger said I had a very natural nonfiction voice and encouraged me to present the brief paper at the graduate student symposium. I took second place in the creative division, then in the fall of 2011 I presented the same paper at the Spiritus Loci conference in Anderson Indiana, where I took first in the graduate student creative division. In April of this year, I got an email from the president of the graduate college asking if I could perform the graduate commencement speech. Excited, I told him I would and he remarked that he'd particularly enjoyed my essay at the graduate symposium. It's so interesting to me how it all worked out. I came here knowing almost no one and ended up receiving recognition for my work by the university in front of so many people I never knew. I am so grateful to those who helped me along the way. I know I wouldn't have made it without their encouragement.

Here is the final copy of my commencement speech for UNI for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Commencement Address
            President Allen, members of the platform party, faculty members, ladies and gentlemen, fellow graduates.
What does it mean to be a graduate student?
            The combination of words sound like an oxymoron. When I first heard them put together, they had me confused. I thought, if you’ve graduated, then you’re done, right? There’s no more left to say. I’d heard of people getting their Master’s Degrees and college professors having earned their doctorates. We’ve probably had a few people in our lives that have expressed similar confusions about the term “graduate student,” and more to the point have been confused as to why we needed more schooling.
            “Aren’t you done, yet?”
            “How many more years do you have to go?”
            “What more is there to possibly know?”
            The decision to become a graduate student is not an easy one. It’s a bigger commitment than a bachelor’s degree. It demonstrates a seriousness about the work you choose to do. The most obvious feature of it is taking more classes, many of which require deeper and more challenging work than undergraduate courses. It means more stress in our lives, writing longer papers, doing more research. For some, it may mean the difficult task of working a full-time job while taking night classes, leaving them with more than one boss who expects nothing less than the best. It means taking comprehensive exams and writing thesis papers which require months of planning and development. It may mean taking out more student loans or stretching our financial budget to the point of eating cheap dinners and experimenting with whatever food’s left in the fridge, wondering how long a carton of eggs or a gallon of milk will last past their expiration dates and asking ourselves one of life’s most important questions: am I a Ramen person or Easy-Mac?
            Being an English major, I’m fascinated by word origins and their meanings. Naturally, I looked up the term “graduate” and found that it was derived from Latin, meaning “to take a degree, or a step.” How poignant. What is the life of a graduate student, or the experience of graduation but just another step forward towards our own life goals? We have gone through the long hours of high school, the years of our undergraduate work where many of us had our first “real-world” experiences, endured the countless hours of extra study and stress that accompanied us during graduate school and now have arrived here, taking the next step.
            A big question facing us now is what next? Some of us are going to continue with the current jobs we have as more informed and more productive workers. Some of us face the task of joining and rejoining the workforce, looking for jobs and getting ourselves out there, slowly building ourselves up in new positions. Some of us still have more schooling ahead at other universities and institutions. 
But in the years to come, we will all take one step together. We will continue to learn. Graduate school has been about learning and furthering our desire to learn. At UNI, with the aid of professors and administrators, friends and family, we’ve culminated a wealth of knowledge. To be a graduate student must mean we have an interest in the fields we’ve chosen, enough to go back for more, but also that we have a passion for learning, for wanting to know more about the world around us. You can’t spend four or five years as an undergraduate, followed by more schooling without that passion. Ours is the practice of expanding our minds as a way to better ourselves and our environment. We are addicted to information.
In the years to come, it must surely be our task to continue that passion, to feed that addiction. We all know that learning is a life-long process. We know that it doesn’t stop at graduation. It doesn’t stop at the stage, or when you get home, or even settle in to a new job. We cannot afford to lose this desire. Once that flame goes out, it may be hard to relight. Once that flame goes out, we get too comfortable with ourselves and may lose our capacity for empathy and compassion, our need to understand others.
            Today is graduation. Today we are getting another degree. Today it can be visibly proven that we know more than we did years ago, when we first started and may have faced criticism from the naysayers. “Aren’t you done yet?” they’d asked us. Our response to that question, even today, is “no.” “What more is there possibly to learn?” they’d ask. And, even today, the answer is “much.” Graduation is taking a step forward in our education, but it’s not the last one.
            Thank you and good luck to the class of 2012.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On the Subject of Biopics

Sylvia Plath

“I write only because 

There is a voice within me 

That will not be still” 

On the Subject of Biopics

The other night I was by myself and a tad bored, so I did what typically comes naturally for me. I hopped on NetFlix and browsed their “New Releases” and “Recently Added” movies. Finding few things of interest there, I started looking for movies about one of my favorite topics: mental illness. Psychology has always been a fascinating subject for me and as someone who is addicted to creating fictional people with interesting problems living in interesting situations, I love learning about how the brain works. I didn’t find a lot on NetFlix after doing a keyword search and then I started to realize what I really wanted to watch, one that for some reason I’d never gotten around to renting over the years.

Sylvia, directed by Christine Jeffs, stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the poet Sylvia Plath, and Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, her husband. I’ve always loved reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry since I first encountered it. Sadly to this day, she remains one of that unfortunate series of poets I love, but have only read in anthologies. Plath herself seems to be remembered by the laypeople more as the tragic artist figure than for her moving, confessional poetry. Like Anne Sexton, Hart Crane, John Kennedy Toole, John Berryman, Ernest Hemmingway, and Virginia Woolf, Plath’s death was a suicide. People seem to know that she stuck her head in an oven and few can name her poems, let alone their topics. I wanted to watch Sylvia because I wanted to know more about Plath’s life and I simply don’t have the time or the inclination to read a biography. For the most part, I also think Gwyneth Paltrow is a talented actress. As an added bonus for me, some of the movie was filmed at Cambridge University, a place I enjoyed visiting on a trip to England, and also where Plath attended college on a Fulbright Scholarship.

I watched the movie half the movie and was enjoying it. Paltrow’s performance was deep and believable. I found it an interesting casting decision for the filmmakers to include Blythe Danner, Paltrow’s actual mother, as Plath’s mother. If you watch movies by yourself and have a laptop, you probably do what I do and look up the film’s Wikipedia page during a lull. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s only surviving child, her son having committed suicide in 2009, was outraged at the making of the film. She even went so far as to write a rage poem which she published in Tatler. Frieda Hughes’s issue with the film might not have been so much with the film itself, but the making of it. Understandable. They were making a difficult time in her life into entertainment for the public’s sake. I stopped watching the movie after I read that, feeling a little guilty but also realizing it was time to leave soon anyway. I’m sure I’ll return to it later.

I think Frieda Hughes’s complaint is an accurate one for her to make, based on her experience. I can’t even imagine some of the emotional pain that Frieda has had to go through. Making a film of those experiences forces a person to relive that time in his/her life. I would imagine that Holocaust survivors shy away from films about Auschwitz. Some may even be upset that they are made. The frustrating thing about biopics is that they often overdramatize events at the altar of entertainment. People’s lives rarely have “arcs” like they do in fiction, so character arcs are created and teased out in order to make a story.


Well-made biopics also can be informative and encourage learning. After having watched John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, I feel more informed on some aspects of the Revolutionary War and have the urge to sit down and read 1776 over the summer. Having watched the first half of Sylvia, I know more about aspects of Plath’s life, some I’d forgotten and some that were totally new to me. Biopics have a tendency of being formulaic at times, but those that are approached with respect for the person of interest are worthwhile. It may suck for people like Frieda Hughes, but I feel that if it informs others about a person’s life and most importantly makes the person in question more sympathetic, then all the better.

Check out this moving video of Plath reading her own poetry.

"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath

Monday, April 23, 2012

Writing "Place Poems"

iowa by Orangexmas,

Writing "Place Poems"

Writing poetry is, admittedly, not my first love. It's actually one of the most challenging forms of written expression I've attempted. Don't get me wrong, I love reading it and I like writing it, but I typically default into nonfiction mode or the comfortable, king-sized bed of fiction. Prose just allows you to breathe more. It allows you to wander a little. It's a passive parent who lets you go over to the neighbor's house. It gives you an hour to convey a message. Poetry is more assertive. It has no time for long strings of adjectives. It demands you know the exact meanings of words. It gives you five minutes to explain yourself and it had better be good. A lot of times, you can salvage a story. Sometimes a poem fails outright. On top of that as well, not everyone enjoys poetry or "gets it." I haven't met one adult yet who has told me they don't enjoy reading short stories or novels. Some people prefer one over the other, but everyone seems to find something interesting. That probably has something to do with how many different styles and genres are out there. There aren't nearly as many published poets as novelists and a simple perusal of the poetry section at your local bookstore will prove that.

I'm lucky. I rarely get writer's block. That's not to say I don't get stuck, but I'm comfortable with moving onto something else for awhile and then coming back. I don't get the kind you see in movies where somebody is so stuck they can't put a single sentence down. With poetry though, I find myself getting stuck quite often. Writing poetry is, as I suppose with any art form, a task that lightens the more you do it. I haven't been much of a believer lately in inspiration. I think it's pretty overrated to be honest and it can stifle your creativity when you sit around waiting for it to happen. The best thing to do is usually just to get something out and revise later. That's surprisingly hard to do with poetry. It's harder to fake than fiction. It's so emotion based that I can't always pull it off. And yet that strain is something I know is good for me. It's always worthwhile to challenge yourself. The more poetry I write, the more I can feel it informing my prose.

My latest poetic endeavors have been concerned with writing a series of ten poems for my Frost/Hearst class. Inspired by both of them as poets of place, I decided to try my hand at writing my own Midwestern poetry. So far, it's going slowly, but surely. One of the most valuable things I feel I've learned about my own poetic goals is to speak the truth as often as I can. I'm addicted to telling stories, so naturally last year when I returned to poetry I was breaking out my storyteller tools, making up abridged fictions. One was about the history of a Russian watch, another was about sharing an afterlife with Dracula, another was about kids playing Rock Band, and more than a couple were about insane people, the easiest topic in the world for me to write about. The poems I wrote that are drawn from real experiences are so much more valuable and important. For this project, I'm trying to write two poems about South Dakota, three about Minnesota, and five about Iowa. The Iowa ones are tough. I don't feel as connected to the land as I do in other places. I know I've learned things about nature there, but it's hard to bring it out when you're right there in the midst of it all. The Romantics felt the need to remove themselves from nature in order to more accurately talk about it. I can understand their point. When it's right in your face, it feels trivial.

Two weeks left of graduate school and then I have to rejoin the real world. Wish me luck.


Monday, April 16, 2012

A New Blog and the Anniversary of the Titanic
History seems to have a way of repeating itself for me. To date, this is the third traditional-style blog that I've started. One I did a long time ago in my undergrad and it was basically just me rambling on and on about the unimportant miscellany that concerns a 20 year old cynic. I suppose I've still got some of the cynicism, but it's considerably softened over time. My second blog, well that lasted maybe a week or so before I got bored. Blogs seem to sink when you set unreasonable goals for yourself and lack the motivation necessary to continue. I post once in awhile on Tumblr, but mostly just about Mad Men or Audrey Hepburn/Marilyn Monroe. I feel a lot more motivated to write these days and so I'm relatively optimistic about this one. Currently, I'll shoot for once a week (Sundays/Mondays) with vacations and illnesses being the only possible exceptions.

And now onto the second half.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. To celebrate, I watched half of a special on the History Channel. Not much, I know. I can't even remember the last time I watched the James Cameron movie. For as long as I can remember, I've had an obsession with the Titanic. I'm like a Titanic hipster. Even when the epic, multi-million dollar film was released in 1997, (I was fourteen at the time) I was well versed in Titanic lore. I knew that the ship's captain was E.J. Smith and that it was to be his last voyage. The ship was designed by Thomas Andrews. The owner was J. Bruce Ismay who posed as a woman to board a lifeboat. Isidor Straus was on board, a co-owner of Macy's. The richest man on board was John Jacob Astor, a member of the Astor business family. They were pretty big back in their time. Astoria, Oregon was named by them. You've got to figure you're doing well if you get to pick the name of your own town. Those facts are just the surface of my knowledge of the Titanic. Somewhere tucked away in a tube at my parents' house is a poster of the wreck of the Titanic signed by Robert Ballard, the man responsible for discovering the wreck in the 1980s. My gracious aunt knew how much I liked the Titanic and she picked it up for me. Apparently her company did some work with Ballard.

What interests me about my obsession, as well as the obsession of many, many other people, with the Titanic has to do with respecting the dead. Is it disrespectful for us to explore the wreck? Is it in bad taste to have museum displays dedicated to it? I have a pen that's got the prow of the Titanic on the back end. I like it, but it's a little tacky. I quite enjoy Titanic memorabilia. People sometimes compare the impact of the ship to 9/11. I would never collect 9/11 memorabilia. It's too recent. Too personal. I can connect with it so much more than the Titanic. I still think it's mostly in bad taste to make 9/11 films, although Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was a good movie. It must have something to do with time, I suppose. But still, I'd also feel a little uncomfortable with Pearl Harbor memorabilia. It must have something to do with not only the passage of time, but also knowing people who lived through it. I will never meet anyone directly impacted by the sinking of the Titanic.

Out of all the incarnations commemorating the Titanic, I think Thomas Hardy did it best in the following poem. Enjoy!


The Convergence of the Twain
(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" ...

            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.