An Evening of Awesome redux

First, I want to say that I wasn't all that scared.  I was surprised, because it seemed like a situation that ought to have been really scary.  But getting there went very smoothly, and there wasn't really anything to be particularly terrified of. The show, by the way, was awesome.

This isn't going to be a bery directly informative post, because I don't really know how to report on something like this.  It's kind of a blur.  A big, extraordinary blur.

I really hope the opening bit was unplanned.  Or, rather, because it couldn't possibly have been totally unplanned, I hope Hank really hadn't told John he was doing it.  (John came out to give an opening speech, and Hank started singing a jingle-like routine about Carnegie Hall.  Then he kept cutting in over John's narration, and John seemed genuinely surprised, and a little annoyed, by it.  It was very funny.)

John's speech after that, which was obviously planned and fairly serious, was also incredibly moving.  More than Hank's goofy singing, I think John's speech set the tone for the night.  (Hank's singing seriously contributed to the tone, though, which is a very good thing.)

Here's a link directly to the right part of the video.  Unfortunately, apparently YouTube no longer makes it easy to link directly to partway through a youTube video, so if you're watching this at the embed below, it's at 46:00.

A recurring theme throughout the night is the idea that art isn't about convincing people who disagree with it that they're wrong, it's about letting people who are already in the kind of place that the book is about, that they're not alone.  John talks about it in that segment, listening to the Mountain Goats reminded me of that idea over and over again, and Neil Gaiman (who, holy crap, was there) talked about it when he talked about the sense of security he gets around the writing that makes him feel most exposed, because the response he gets, from thousands of people, is "I thought I was the only one."

By the way, the musical guests were all awesome.  (I nearly wrote "Apart from Hank," but that's not fair.  Hank is awesome.  I just didn't think of him as a musical guest.)  I had heard the Mountain Goats a bit before, not a whole bunch, but seeing them live is really amazing, and makes me want to look into more of their work.  One of their songs, "Love, Love, Love," has kept me thinking for a while now about that idea of art meeting you where you're at -- all their songs, but this one in particular, seem like the kinds of songs that would be perfect for someone who's at a place where it's what they need to hear.  They pull this off, it seems, by being near-completely inscrutible to people who don't necessarily need them.  Personally, I keep feeling like I'm on the edge of knowing what that particular song is talking about, which is weirdly annoying.

I had never heard the other musical guest, Kimya Dawson, before.  Well, that's not entirely true.  Looking into it today I discovered that she's the singer from the Mouldy Peaches, who I have heard before.  But I'd never heard any of her solo stuff, and it's really incredibly amazing.  She performed "I Like Giants" and "Same Shit/Complicated," and in doing so convinced me that I need to listen to way more of her music.

Did I mention, by the way, that Neil Gaiman was there?  It was crazy.  He actually tweeted that he wished he could have been there during the show, while he was backstage in order to secure the secrecy of his appearance.  He was on stage with Hannah Hart and John and Hank Green for Question Tuesday, where Hannah asked Hank questions and Neil asked John questions, and mysterious voices from back stage gave warnings about time running out.

Below this paragraph is an embed of the show -- the show part doesn't start for like a half an hour, but it's okay, you can skip the static screen that's part of the first huge chunk of the livestream video.  Nothing important happens then.

Don't forget to be awesome.

Spoilers!

I could have sworn I'd written about this before, but I can't find any older posts here.  Maybe I just linked it on Facebook.  Oh well. There's scientific research that very strongly suggests a counter-intuitive truth about spoilers:  That they improve the reading experience.  This is on my mind because Boing Boing has pointed out another study demonstrating this claim.

As a writer, and a reader, I've thought hard about the issues around spoilers.  In general, I try to avoid them as much as possible.  I once attempted to persuade someone to read American Gods, pitching it as: "It's about a guy named Shadow, who gets out of prison.  On his way back home, he meets a strange man called Mr. Wednesday -- after that, things get weird."

If you've read the book, you know that description barely even covers the contents of the first chapter, and certainly doesn't capture the heart of what the book is about.  And when I think about having described it like that, I can't help but feel like I was wrong.

Because American Gods is one of my favorite books.  I've read it several times.  But I knew it existed for about six years before I ever picked it up -- and it wasn't just a complete absence of interest.  I was intimidated, because I knew it was supposed to be challenging and elaborate and I didn't know anything else about it.  That made it scary.  It made it hard to want to read.

On the other hand, the books I find easiest to pick up are the ones where I know exactly what's going to happen -- Steampunk books still have a damn-near cookie cutter structure, and Terry Pratchett is always reliable for a particular kind of funny, social commentary, and affirmation of a worldview I want to hear celebrated, via poetic justice through a heavily metaphorically resonant plot.

I know that American Gods is a better book if you know what's going on.  There are subtle foreshadowings and clever buildups that seem totally banal on your first read-through, but are like bombshells if you know how everything ends.  The second read is just better.  That's true of every Gaiman book I've read, and every Pratchett book I've re-read.  (A lot of Pratchett, I've only gotten through once.  But I've read The Truth three times, and Going Postal seven.)

Yet, still.

I can't bring myself to spoil books for people, especially not without a huge amount of forewarning.  And I don't fully understand why, but I have the beginnings of a theory.

Reading a book you already understand a little bit is very nearly always a better experience than reading it the first time.  Certainly, any great book is better on the second read than the first, and on the third read than the second, and so on.  Stories by brilliant writers are better when they're seriously considered in the fullness of their context and outside the linear fact of their narrative than they are if read as though you were simply living the life of the narrator once, the way we live our own lives.

But that better experience is available an unlimited number of times, in whatever context and however much illumination any reader wants.  Once a reader knows the story, they can explore it from a huge number of perspectives.

The fresh read, the version of the story that you only live once, is available only that one time, only the first time you read a book.  And that opportunity is so fragile that it can be broken even without getting to the book.

We use stories to build the narrative of our experience, and we use stories to create shared experiences within our communities.  [Spoiler Alert Final Fantasy VII] There's a whole generation of gamers who experienced a shocking, tragic moment at the end of the first disk of Final Fantasy VII when Aeris is killed by Sephiroth, permanently.  That kind of shared experience is nearly impossible to replicate in such scale outside fiction, and I think a lot of people, myself included, are afraid that spoiling stories takes away the power of a story to deliver that experience.

The subsequent reads, watches, or plays of a work of fiction are deeply personal experiences, and they have more power to enrich the lives of the audience than the first pass ever does.  But the first time through is the work's best shot at creating a community -- at giving people a shared, lived experience that connects them in a meaningful way.

The moment of beautiful surprise in the middle of Zombieland, the way The Fault In Our Stars ends, the way understanding builds itself sideways in the City and the City, these things create the experiences in fiction that connect us.  I don't know if that would still work if stories were spoiled more often, and I think a lot of people (myself included) aren't quite ready to risk trying it out.

Bleed on the page

I just asked Neil Gaiman a question on Tumblr, and I don't know if he'll answer.  But it turns out that Tumblr's question box has a word limit and doesn't offer html, so I had to edit it down quite a lot.  So, here's the long version, because I like it, and in case any authors might stumble across it and have an answer.

The question:

There's a piece of writing advice that I've never really been able to get my head around.  I most recently heard it in a Harlan Ellison interview on YouTube[1. Dark Dreamers featuring Harlan Ellison, part 2, part 3] -- it's something like, 'Writing is easy -- just open a vein and bleed into your typewriter.'[2. The ask box also didn't allow paragraph breaks.]

I suspect that it's not literally meant to mean, "Write with your own blood, and some dark god will grant you a story that sells," though I could be wrong. (I didn't know that the ideas newsletter from Schenectady was real.)  But it's vague, in the way that "Dig deep" is vague -- I'd be surprised if this advice didn't[3. This is where I got cut off.] make perfect sense to anyone who already understands it.

Still, having not made it work so far, I don't know what it's supposed to feel like.  And if it is a metaphor, then there must be other metaphors that mean the same thing.  So, my question is:  do you know of, or can you think of, any other way to say what "Open a vein" says?

EDIT: Neil answered

Here's the original question, which I probably should have copied before submitting it:

Has the writing advice, "Open a vein and bleed on the page," ever been any help to you? It makes sense to me in a sort of abstract way, but I feel like I can't connect with it. Do you know any other ways to say what that means, which might be clearer to someone who doesn't quite get it when it's said like that?

And here's Neil Gaiman's answer:

Not really. “Write stories you really care about, as well as you possibly can, that other people might want to read” has proved much better advice over the years.

Fountain Pens making a comeback...ish

(Via Neil Gaiman on Tumblr) The BBC reports on the recent trend of fountain pens steadily increasing in sales, exploring the reasons such an arcane writing device might be coming back.

[...]the rush to fountain pens is not part of a wider handwriting boom. Sales of ballpoint pens are stable.

[...]

Somehow, the fountain pen became a luxury item and found a niche.

If a president signs a treaty, they don't do it with a Bic Cristal. If you give a loved one a pen, your thoughts might be more fountain than ballpoint.

[...]

And those who buy them for themselves are making a very self-conscious choice. They are saying: "I want to write in the old way."

This makes a lot of sense to me -- I've heard similar stories about the resurgence of vinyl sales even as CDs decline in the face of mp3s.  There seems to be a meme growing as technology affords us more convenience, that some things should be done the hard way, should be earned, should be a meditation in the doing.

I've also heard a lot of complaints about this kind of thinking.  I remember a magazine I read once, about tattoos, in which an older artist complained about the way young artists glamourized some old kind of transfer paper, which was apparently horribly unpleasant to work with.

Maybe it is just cheap nostalgia, and we're holding ourselves back for fear of the future.  But I think it's probably more complicated than that.  I know that I enjoy writing with a fountain pen from time to time, and Neil Gaiman gave a side interview in the BBC article about writing with them:

I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.

Link back to the full article