Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Wikipedia

The Darin Morgan files

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Darin Morgan in The X-Files episode "Small Potatoes"

Yesterday, I finally listened to the fantastic interview between Kumail Nanjiani and the writer Darin Morgan, which took up nearly two full hours of the former’s ongoing podcast about The X-Files. If anything, it was too short: Morgan came fully prepared with stories about his brief tenure on my favorite television show of all time, and they only managed to get through “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” (They’ve promised a reunion to cover “War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and I’ll be awaiting it even more eagerly than the next installment of Serial.) I’ve written about Morgan here before, but I don’t think I’ve made it clear how great my debt to him really is: if I were to make an objective list of the writers who have most influenced my own work, he’d rank in the top five. And I can trace it all back to one line in “Humbug,” after a circus performer performs an impromptu eulogy at a funeral by driving a railroad spike into his chest. After the rest of the crowd has dispersed, Mulder observes, still seated: “I can’t wait for the wake.” And while I was already a fan of The X-Files, something in that moment opened up a new world of possibilities: it’s no exaggeration to say that my sense of the genre’s potential been quietly but permanently expanded.

After listening to the interview, I turned, naturally enough, to Darin Morgan’s Wikipedia page. I was primarily interested in learning more about his current gig—the show Intruders, which, like most of his recent work, was produced by his brother Glen—but I ended up being confronted by something strangely familiar. It wasn’t until I’d opened the page and read the first paragraph, in fact, that I remembered that I’d created that article more than ten years ago, back in Wikipedia’s wild early days. (It’s a reflection of how important Morgan is to me that this article was one of the first I contributed, right after the one for mix tape.) And I was a little startled by how much of my original text is still intact, although unseen hands have done a helpful job of providing necessary references and citations. This is a reflection both of Wikipedia’s curious inertia, in which some pages can go untouched for years, but also to the apparent stasis of Morgan’s own career. Ten years ago, I was able to accurately describe Morgan as a writer best known for six offbeat episodes of The X-Files and Millennium, and that hasn’t really changed. Since then, his only visible productions have been two episodes of the show Tower Prep, one episode of Those Who Kill, and his aforementioned work on Intruders—the latter two of which aren’t even listed in the article yet, although I’ll probably add them if I have a spare moment later today.

Charles Nelson Reilly and Lance Henriksen in "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense"

So what happened? I’m hoping that Nanjiani and Morgan will discuss this further in their next chat, but the reason isn’t hard to pin down: it’s some combination of the natural uncertainty of a writer’s life and Morgan’s own discomfort with the television medium. Trying to write for a living, particularly in Hollywood, is so tenuous an enterprise that it’s not surprising to find acclaimed writers—even those with Emmys—toiling for decades without any new credits to show for it. There are countless examples of screenwriters who made one big splash and haven’t appeared anywhere since, and this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been working: for a given writer’s name to end up on a movie, not only does the script have to survive the development process, but all the ensuing factors involved in production and arbitration have to line up just right. If anything, it’s more surprising when it happens than when it doesn’t. The conditions in television are somewhat different, but in his interview with Nanjiani, Morgan reiterates that he never felt especially comfortable in the writer’s room. (After seeing the first dailies for “Humbug,” which were nothing like what he’d seen in his head, he was physically distressed to the point that he nearly got into a car accident on the way home.)

What’s funny, of course, is that Morgan has continued to work in television ever since, albeit sporadically, and he says that his experience on The X-Files was by a large measure the best he would ever have, even if he wasn’t able to appreciate this at the time. (He notes that his episodes were shot with a minimum of network interference, whereas his scripts these days come back with pages of notes, and his thoughts on this are enlightening in themselves—he thinks that the constant threat of cancellation has compressed the timeline in which a television series can evolve, creating enormous pressure on writers and executives alike.) It isn’t hard to imagine a world in which Morgan had a career more like that of his old colleague Vince Gilligan, or even of Charlie Kaufman, whose work he anticipated by half a decade—and under far greater constraints. And the fact that he hasn’t serves as another reminder of how much lies outside a writer’s control, regardless of talent or recognition. This isn’t a lesson that Morgan needed to be taught: from “Clyde Bruckman” on, one of his great themes has been how little we can influence or understand the tricks the world plays on us. I don’t know what Morgan’s life has been like in the ten years since I created his page on Wikipedia, but I suspect that it would make an interesting movie. And Charlie Kaufman would probably get to write it.

The mix tape mentality

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It’s always hard for an author to predict which of his works will endure. My novels will hopefully survive for a while longer as physical objects, but whether they’re still read ten or twenty—or five—years from now is another question entirely. The January/February 2004 issue of Analog, which includes my first professionally published short story, is already looking pretty yellow, and it’s only a matter of time before the same fate befalls most of my other author’s copies. None of the journalism or movie reviews I did in print or online before graduating from college has survived, except in fragments, and although my more recent pieces will presumably be available for a while longer, I doubt they’ll be read much, except in the form of a random search result. This blog, too, is inherently ephemeral. But as a writer, I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve made one lasting contribution to our culture. Eight years ago, I created and wrote the bulk of the Wikipedia article for mix tape.

Looking at the page now, I can’t say I feel a lot of ownership toward the result. I haven’t touched or read it much in the years since I created it—mostly in a single burst of energy on August 18, 2004, when I probably should have been working—and without a consistent guiding hand to curate it, most Wikipedia pages start to look a little messy, as this one certainly has. The page was written during Wikipedia’s early, wild years, so the original version fails to meet most current standards for citation and objectivity. And the article, as it stands, suffers from one major conceptual flaw: it distinguishes only haphazardly between the original definition of a mix tape, “the generic name given to any compilation of songs…[that] reflects the musical tastes of its compiler,” and the more specialized and widespread meaning that has since emerged in hip-hop. Somebody should really fix this, although it probably won’t be me.

Still, for all its flaws, the article has managed to retain lengthy blocks of my own prose throughout close to a decade of revision, vandalism, and wholesale deletion. (My sections on mix tapes in popular and global culture seem to have disappeared down the memory hole, perhaps not without good reason.) And I’d like to think that the result has incrementally shaped people’s feelings about mix tapes, even without their knowledge. It’s the first result you get for “mix tape” in Google, and like all Wikipedia articles, it’s been widely cited, quoted, and occasionally plagiarized. As such, it may well end up being the most influential thing I’ve ever written, even as I’ve long since moved on from my own mix tape obsession. I spent most of my high school and college years putting together mixes, and even built a reputation among my friends, entirely undeserved, as a kind of music aficionado. In fact, my knowledge of music was probably narrower than most—it was the act of compilation and arrangement that I enjoyed.

And this explains why I haven’t made a mix in a long time. My passion for structure and juxtaposition still exists, but has been fulfilled in other ways. A mix tape, as I saw it, was a kind of short play, complete with rising and falling action and its own version of the Aristotelian plot pyramid, but now I just write novels instead. When I sit down to figure out the ideal form for a section of a book, switching a pair of chapters, deleting scenes, cutting for rhythm and pacing, it’s the same part of my brain that I engaged while seated before a tape recorder in my living room, headphones on, finger poised over the pause button—or, even better, in the initial stages of planning a mix, with nothing but a pen, a legal pad, and a handful of CDs. And when I find that perfect transition between chapters, it’s with the same kind of visceral satisfaction I felt when I realized that “Vanishing Point” by New Order could segue seamlessly into “Change” by Tears for Fears—a moment I still think about ten years after I made that particular mix. Like screenplays and collage, mix tapes are about structure, a rage for order that expresses itself in all works of art. Someone should point this out on Wikipedia…

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2012 at 10:04 am

The mirror and the encyclopedia

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The news that the Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print, restricting itself in the future to its online edition, marks the end of an era not just for the reference library, but for something far greater—the modern novel at the very least, and probably imaginative literature as a whole. It’s a change that has been coming for a long time, but inevitable as it might be, I can’t help but regard it with a sense of loss. The Britannica, as much as the King James Bible or Shakespeare, exerted a subterranean influence on world literature for more than a century, and its power was derived from the very peculiar idea of two dozen physical books, widely available in a home or library, that embodied the contents of an orderly, well-educated brain. Writers could confront it, deconstruct it, or create their own alternatives to it, but if they were drawn to or repelled from it in various ways, it’s because it was always there, an imposing physical object on library shelves.

To steal a line from Borges, most writers owe their careers to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. If there are two kinds of authors in the world—one that focuses on the self, another that turns outward for external material to process and rearrange—the latter often takes the encyclopedia, not the mirror, as the battleground where his primary engagement as a writer will take place. A physical encyclopedia is the whole world, at least in a form that a writer can readily assimilate, and it leads inevitably to dreams of reshaping reality as art. Much of the monstrous erudition of an author like Borges, for instance, comes directly from his deep familiarity and fascination with the Britannica—a stance made clear in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a “literal but delinquent” reprint of the Britannica plays an important role—and it’s hard to imagine that particular brand of universal man emerging from Wikipedia or TV Tropes, although they’ve already begun to exercise their own form of literary influence.

But there’s an important difference here. Unlike Wikipedia, with its constantly updated and expanding web of entries, the physical Britannica, with its two shelves of volumes, represented a world of information that was large, but not infinite, and temptingly static: one always had the impression, real or not, that all of it could be consumed, processed, and engaged. I’m not just talking about compulsive encyclopedia readers like Amos Urban Shirk or A.J. Jacobs, but about writers who internalized and transformed the encyclopedic model in their own work. Joyce called Ulysses “a kind of encyclopedia,” and such critics as Edward Mendelson have charted the encyclopedic urge in fiction down to its climax in Pynchon and Eco. Today, the truly encyclopedic novel is passing out of existence, or, rather, has been assimilated into our daily experience of the world’s information. Wikipedia is our real Encyclopedia Galactica, or, better, our Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and this everyday miracle has turned information into a utility like water or electricity, rather than what it used to be: a treasure hoard.

This transition can only alter the role of information in a writer’s life in fundamental ways, and I’ve already felt its effects in my own experience. Encyclopedias have played a major role in my life: as a child, I spent hours browsing in the Britannica set in my local library—I remember being particularly drawn to the Macropaedia article by William L. Schaaf on “Number Games and Other Mathematical Recreations”—and various kinds of encyclopedias were always on my Christmas list. Even today, I can’t pass the sadly pristine set of the World Book at my local library in Oak Park without pausing to browse for a moment, caught up by the illusion that it’s all here, if only I have the patience to find it. This streak of information hunger is what culminated, many years later, in The Icon Thief. And it’s unclear if my own children will ever have this experience. As open to serendipity as Wikipedia can be, it still presents the world as a network of nodes of increasing specificity, rather than a series of deep alphabetical slices. And whatever the gain in detail or expansiveness, it still feels like a loss to the imagination.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2012 at 10:00 am

Sherrinford Holmes and the trouble with names

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So work on my second novel is coming along pretty well. Research is winding down; location work is finished. I’ve got a fairly good outline for Part I, a sense of the personalities and backgrounds of a dozen important—though still nameless—characters, and…

Hold on. I have a dozen important characters, but aside from a few holdovers from my first book, I haven’t named them yet. And I need to come up with some names soon. I have just over two weeks before I start writing, but even in the meantime, there’s only so much work I can do with signifiers like “best friend” and “ruthless assassin.” (Note: not the same person.) Characters need names before they can really come to life. And it’s often this step, even before the real imaginative work begins, that feels the most frustrating, if only because it seems so important.

Naming characters is so fundamental a part of the writing process that I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more often. John Gardner speaks briefly about it to The Paris Review:

Sometimes I use characters from real life, and sometimes I use their real names—when I do, it’s always in celebration of people that I like. Once or twice, as in October Light, I’ve borrowed other people’s fictional characters. Naming is only a problem, of course, when you make the character up. It seems to me that every character—every person—is an embodiment of a very complicated, philosophical way of looking at the world, whether conscious or not. Names can be strong clues to the character’s system. Names are magic. If you name a kid John, he’ll grow up a different kid than if you named him Rudolph.

I can’t speak to the experience of other writers, but for me, coming up with names for characters becomes more of a nightmare with every story. Unless you’re Thomas Pynchon, who can get away with names like Osbie Feel and Tyrone Slothrop, names need to be distinctive, but not so unusual that they distract the reader; evocative, but natural; easily differentiated from one another; not already possessed by a celebrity or more famous fictional character; and fairly invisible in their origins. (I still haven’t forgiven Michael Crichton for the “Lewis Dodgson” of Jurassic Park.) As a result, it takes me the better part of a day come up with even ten passable names. And it isn’t going to get any easier: the more stories I write, the more names I use, which means that the pool of possibilities is growing ever smaller.

So what do I do? Whatever works. Sometimes a character will have a particular ethnic or national background, like the seemingly endless parade of Russians in Kamera and its sequel, which provides one possible starting point. (Wikipedia’s lists are very useful, especially now that I no longer have a phone book.) I’ll consult baby name sites, scan my bookshelves, and occasionally name characters after friends or people I admire. And the names are always nudging and jostling one another: I try to avoid giving important characters names that sound similar or begin with the same first letter, for example, which means that a single alteration may require numerous other adjustments.

Is it worth it? Yes and no. It certainly isn’t for the sake of the reader, who isn’t supposed to notice any of this—the best character names, I’m convinced, are invisible. And with few exceptions, I’d guess that even the names that feel inevitable now were, in fact, no better or worse than many alternatives: if Conan Doyle had gone with his first inclination, it’s quite possible that we’d all be fans of Ormond Sacker and Sherrinford Holmes. But for the writer, it’s an excuse to brood and meditate on the essence of each character, even if the result barely attracts the reader’s attention. So I feel well within my rights to overthink it. (Although I’m a little worried about what might happen if I ever have to name a baby.)

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

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