Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Running on Empty

Creatively, I'm tapped, strapped and dry right now. I have two stories due and I don't have the drive to get excited about the topic. True, the topics are serious - but I don't know if it's lack of sleep, the full-time day job, or the weather, or the city of Omaha (or possibly, just, but it's getting harder and harder to get into this profession called journalism.

Journalists, writers, chefs, Web developers, singers, virtually every profession that requires you to create something out of nothing , will have its periods of burnout. There are floods of alternatives to 'break' this burnout - books you can read, drugs you can take, exercise and diet programs you can take or workshops you can attend. Still, nothing seems to be working.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Originality vs. Catharsis

In this corner - originality

I saw Sufjan Stevens last night at Sokol auditorium. I won't bother describing the crowd because even the cliches that describe these hipsters have become cliched. Messed up hair, horn-rimmed glasses and tight-fitting t-shirts that reveal their undernourished selves. These are supposed to be the people who where shunned in high school, but strangely enough, at the show - most of the audience did not make eye contact with anyone other than the people they were with or the bartender.

Sufjan Stevens and his band took the stage. If you don't know about Sufjan Stevens, he made possibly the most critically-acclaimed album of the year with Illinoise. The album is beautiful, original and heartfelt. It also has the feeling of indie smugness. You can't judge an album by its cover, but in this case you can - the cover of Illinoise has the following: crudely drawn historical figures, butterflies, a superhero (Superman, but DC has issued a 'cease and desist' order - so the cover with Superman on it is somewhat of a collectors item) and the general layout is reminiscent of a catalog ad you would see in a magazine in the late '50s or early '60s. A typical song title is "Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds and the King of Swing to Name a Few" (try yelling that out at a show).

The show was good - I stayed until 10:45 and left. The members of the band are known to dress up and act out cheerleader-type skits during their set. It looked like a high school production (which was the point). With lyrics about lost love and John Wayne Gacy, you want to let the album in, but between the cheerleading and the dress up skits, you are kept at bay. Other artists have done this (released theatrical albums with intensely personal lyrics) - the Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin comes to mind. Still, it's hard to get absorbed in such an intimate moment when you know in moment or two, a dancing bunny may appear onstage.

In this corner ... catharsis
After the show, I popped in the only album I've been listening to for the past month - Twin Cinema by the New Pornographers. It's nowhere near as original as Illinoise, but it's loud, insanely catchy and in some parts, intensely moody. Yes, Sufjan Stevens and Conor Oberst are great songwriters, but after working 11-hour days at a job you don't like, or if you're old enough to experience one of the following: not making ends meet financially, losing a job, family angst (adult-oriented - not your typical teenage angst) - sometimes you want something more immediate. That could be Lucinda Williams's ache, Tool's anger or a loud shout-out of a chorus like "salvation holdout central" from the New Pornographers. With the exception of Tool, these moments may not have the ambitions of an artist like Sufjan Stevens, and when it comes to 'end of the year' albums, I think that it's important to reward originality. But equally as important is to reward bands who are able to provide that valve of release for the listener.

Hopefully, some bands can combine both elements with their albums. Still, as I looked on at the crowd last night, I could only shake my head in caution ... Sleater Kinney are going to eat these folks alive in a few weeks...

Current listening selections...
Sufjan Stevens - Illinoise
Sleater Kinney - The Woods
De La Soul - De La Soul is Dead

Monday, September 19, 2005

I go to these forums so you don't have to...

Saturday, Sept. 17 (Omaha, NE) -

Where: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts - 724 S 12th St.

I was able to pry myself away from the exciting Pitt/Nebraska game (exciting in a 'when are we going to blow it' way) to attend a forum on The Art of Writing Funny. The forum was moderated by Omaha's own 'bar hag' columnist, Leslie Prisbell. The attendees included authors John McNally (The Book of Ralph), Otis Twelve (whose novel, On the Albino Farm won a Brit Lit Idol contest), Meghan Daum (The Quality of Life Report) and Kurt Andersen (Spy magazine founder and host of NPR's Studio 360).

Just by the practice of writing, most writers are predisposed to be self-absorbed. That was evident throughout the forum. But self-absorption doesn't necessarily mean 'full of one's self' - it also could mean one who is extremely self-conscious - and that was also evident throughout the forum. When Prisbell asked the writers about how they knew if their work was funny, the writers adjusted themselves nervously. It was like a low-grade current went through the table. Other questions, either from Prisbell, or from the audience, elicited similar reactions: "Describe your process" "How did you know you were going to be a humor writer?" "Who are your influences?"

The answers ranged from overt modesty to borderline condescension. Daum explained that she didn't wake up and say to herself "I'm going to write something funny today." McNally said humor was an almost genetic thing that cannot be defined. The only time the forum seemed to stray from the typical forum trappings was Daum's deft rant on 'chic lit.' As a writer, chic lit is a favorite topic because most every writer has an opinion and when you incorporate universal elements such as gender and age, you are bound to get a lively debate, even though this was probably Daum's 3,487th time she has talked about the subject.

I asked about whether or not living in a specific region of the U.S. made it easier to write humor. After all, most of these writers either grew up or lived in Omaha - and have since moved (with the exception of one writer who still lived in Omaha). Most of the panelists said 'no' - your internal voice does not have anything to do with where you live. I would disagree. Ted Sorensen once said Nebraska was a place to leave - or a place to die. Virtually all of my friends are trying to get out of Nebraska. But, I would sense that ingrained sense of modesty or inferiority that comes with living in Nebraska would stay with people long after they left. For instance, yes, you leave Nebraska for New York, where you are surrounded by the literary elite to inspire. But then you are constantly surrounded by smug, vapid literary snobs who are willing to tear your work to shreds. You are also surrounded by figures who dwarf you in terms of artistic merit and financial success. It's like having someone compliment you on your salsa, then having that same person throw you in Les Halles kitchen (Anthony Bourdain fans will recognize this kitchen) and asking you to hold down the saute station for a Friday night dinner shift. That tangent aside, McNally did say that living in North Carolina for three wasn't a funny experience, however.

Anyway - I need to give you a reason to read this - so writer's who are looking to break through, listen up - here are the responses to the question about what a writer needs to do in terms of sending their materials through the proper channels to get noticed...


- Magazines. They are expensive to publish and they usually have a backlog of talented (or connected) writers waiting for an assignment. There are a handful of magazines out there, but in general, about 125,000 books a year get published. If you want to play the odds game, you're probably going to have more success trying to get a book published, so indulge and write that book you've been wanting.

- Putting too much pressure on yourself. Daum said that even as a published writer, she occasionally has trouble making ends meet. If you are looking for your writing to be able to afford you a car payment, house payment and food, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Yes, J.K. Rowling did it. But you are far better trying to make yourself happy as a writer.

Tips to be a writer - the 'do's

- Start local. There are plenty of alternative, local publications you can write for. Stop looking for The Atlantic Monthly, get a foundation built with stuff like local rags.

- Be prepared to write for free. There are tons of places, like, and the current favorite,, where you can turn into a writer and build up your writing muscles by being a critic or a columnist. You can gain a following. You can experiment. Just don't expect to get paid.

Advice from the attendees -

Trac, author of Ponderings from a Gemini Redhead on and I came to a shaky conclusion about trying to make it as a writer... avoid the literary world. Most of the people in this world are in their own cocoon. After 15 minutes of a literary-oriented gathering, you get this 'wanting to crawl out of your skin' sensation after hearing some members of this community talk just to hear them talk or keep referring to 'their work.' Writing is all about experience. Hang out with as many people outside the writing community as you can and surround yourselves with people who have strong bullshit protectors to keep you humble.

Current listening selections -

Sigur Ros - Takk

Radiohead - Hail to the Thief

The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

This crappy decade

I went on the eight-year plan for college in the '90s. Sure, a lot of it was part-time because I had to work two jobs to pay my way through school, but I would say at least two of those years were slack-filled. Skipping classes to play Street Fighter II on Sega Genesis, skipping critical fraternity meetings to catch Dazed and Confused for the fifth time and skipping classes to get an album review in for the college newspaper. I would say for the most part - people tend to have the most nostalgia to the decade they went to college - or the decade when they were in their 20s. It shows because you'll notice by the time these 20-somethings reach their 40s - you'll see the mainstream culture shift.

Remember when everyone made fun of the '70s and vowed that decade would never 'come back' like '60s nostalgia? Now that's happening with the '80s - a decade that for all purposes, can stay buried (with the exception of Bloom County, Nintendo, Transformers and college rock bands like The Replacements, The Pixies and heavy metal staples like Slayer and early Metallica).

There was tons of garbage produced in the '90s. Ace of Base, Vanilla Ice, boy bands, Michael Bay movies and Independence Day to name a few. But there were a few moments where it looked like the unpopular geeks in the '80s could overshadow the popular jock circuit. Take the explosion of the Seattle scene - sure it sounds formulaic now, but there seemed like there was a time when everything was possible - Mazzy Star getting a top-ten album, Morphine was getting played on the radio and a movie like Pulp Fiction could surpass $100 million at the box office.

People who have come of age in this decade were greeted by September 11, 2001, then a debilitating recession, then a war, then another war, then hurricane Katrina. And we're barely at the halfway mark.

If the '70s were the 'me' decade and the '80s were the 'Go go decade' and the '90s were the .dot com decade, I have no idea what to call this decade.

Still, I hate to leave people on a down note, so here are some things that this decade has produced that will make me look back (somewhat) fondly at this decade:
  • The outpouring of generosity from strangers time and time again - from Sept. 11 to the tsunami to hurricane Katrina
  • Blacklisted, by Neko Case
  • The Harry Potter series for getting kids psyched about books
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Political protest is still alive in well with stuff like 'The Daily Show'
  • 24

Current listening selections -
Lucinda Williams - Live @ The Fillmore
Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
A.C. Newman - The Slow Wonder
Kanye West - Late Registration
The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema