Under the Influence

Erin Morgenstern wrote a blog post the other day on how her writing isn’t just influenced by other writing, but by a varied array of sources. This really hit home with me because for a long time, I felt a little weird that my poetry and prose wasn’t entirely influenced by other poetry and prose. In fact, my writing is often influenced more by things other than writing.

Music has always been important to me, and my writing is very influenced by musicians and bands that I love. Sometimes it’s the lyrics, the way words are put together or repeated. Sometimes it’s the structure of a song, influencing the structure of a poem or story.. Sometimes it’s the way the music is sparse or how it becomes a wall of sound. Sometimes it’s the idea behind the music, the way an artist or group of artists take bits from different forms of music and put them together into something amazing. When I was a freshman at the University of Iowa, I told a fellow student and poet that my poetry was at least as influenced and informed by my favorite postpunk music as it was poems. He said that was terrible. I just shrugged. (A little over 10 years ago, my poetry–and the way I performed it–also became heavily influenced by stand-up comedy and vaudeville, as well as the Beats.)

Later in college, I started regularly reading Art in America and other art magazines. Reading about different painters, printmakers, sculptors, photographers, collagists and mixed media artists was very inspiring to me in my prose and poetry. The images they came up with, the way they worked, the ideas they were trying to convey influenced the stories and poems I came up with. And thanks to Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and a girlfriend majoring in Art History, I became very, very influenced by Dada and Surrealist poetry, painting, collage, and performance. Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces tied in punk, Dada, and Situationist ideas for me, further influencing my writing. (This all also influenced my academic work, which not all of my professors appreciated.)

I’ve been a monstrous consumer of TV shows and movies all of my life, and these clearly influence my prose and poetry. Same goes for comics. Sometimes, an idea for a story will sit in my head with an imaginary cover that looks like a movie poster or a Golden Age comic book. I often think of plotlines in terms of TV show seasons or serialized comic books. I’ve also become more and more influenced by video games, which probably started with Myst. Lately, the plot threads and high-level imagination of Wizard101 and Pirate101 have been very inspirational to me. I’m influenced by the visual design, the world building, and the story lines. I also think about the fun of game play and ponder how that can be infused in the writing and reading of short stories and novels. And I tend to approach the world- and character-building of fiction in the same way I approach it when playing tabletop role-playing games.

I’m leaving many more influences out. Honestly, it would take many blog posts to really go into all of my influences, and I’m probably not entirely aware of all of them. Who knows all the magic and madness that lurks in the minds of writers?

Reality and art seep into us in a colorful variety of ways, from a colorful variety of sources. To say that the art we create and the influences in our lives come from only one kind of source is severely limiting. And anyone who says it is almost certainly lying. Or incredibly un-self-aware. I think the best art is a collage of stolen ideas, images, sounds, sensations, memories. Get excited by things, copy them, mix and mash them up, and share what you make with others. Is there any other way to do it?


Begging for Change

If you haven’t watched Amanda Fucking Palmer‘s TED talk, watch it right the hell now:

OK? Good. Now.

I have a whole lot of thoughts about this, not all of them potentially coherent, but I’ll try and be as sensical (you know, the opposite of nonsensical) as I can be.

I love Amanda’s talk, I find it incredibly inspirational, but I don’t think it’s all that revolutionary or new. (And I suspect she’d agree with me on this.) People have been giving their art and craft away–or exchanging it for things other than money, or just asking for handouts for support–for a long, long time. Charging money for art and craft, based on that art and craft being labor, isn’t something inherent to art and craft. It might be inherent to capitalism, but capitalism is really fucking weird, and I’m not really capitalism’s biggest fan. As Hank Green said in response to Amanda’s talk, “Why is it weird to get rich off of gifts, but normal to get rich off of exploitation of need?” Although I’ve wrestled with my own embarrassment over asking people for money, I don’t think there’s anything shameful in asking for money. There’s nothing shameful in begging. Hell, every advertisement you see on TV, every tweet an author posts that links to their book on Amazon, is a form of begging. Why is one form of begging better than another? Why is one more shameful?

Personally, I’d rather give my art and craft away, even if it means I can’t make a living solely from doing it. I’d rather find ways to let people give me money rather than find ways to make them give me money. Or as Cory Doctorow put it, I’d rather think like a dandelion. But then, the idea that my art and craft were labor that needed to be valued by money has never really appealed to me.

But of course, we live in a huge, complicated society, and if you want to go the commercial route, there’s nothing stopping you from doing that (and plenty of ways in which that path is supported and encouraged). And happily, as Amanda says in her talk, the ways in which we can exchange art and craft differently are expanding. Change is good. Variety is good.

That’s all, folks!

Share With Me

What’s exciting you right now? What books, comics, games, movies, TV series, music, plays, art movements, people, places, things are thrilling and delighting you these days? If you’re excited about stuff, please share it with me (and others) in the comments. Let us all know what you’ve been reading, watching, playing, experiencing that is getting you all excited.

Here, I’ll go first. I’m currently reading (and listening to the audiobook of) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I am madly in love with this book, savoring every word and sentence and paragraph. I’m also reading DC Comics’ Earth 2 and really enjoying the hell out of it. The current season of Castle is, I think, the best yet, and the new season of Grimm is really building into a great show. Also, the new crowdfunded album by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil, is so good, I started crying tears of joy the first time I listened to it.

Now it’s your turn. Share your excitement with me!

Project 365 2: Electric Boogaloo

I’ve got one day left of my “365 Days of Neff” project, my daily self-portrait thingamajig. After thinking about it and asking for input, I’ve decided that for 2012, I’m going to write a poem a day, at least one page in length. I’ll be handwriting them in a notebook (I hate writing prose by hand, but I can’t write poetry any other way) and either transcribing them and posting them here or taking pictures of the pages and posting them to my Flickr account (I haven’t decided which yet).

I’m jazzed about this because writing poetry uses different parts of my brain than writing prose fiction or writing blog posts. I want to get back in touch with those parts of my brain and push myself to try new things in terms of poetry. We’ll see how it goes.

Get ready for “365 Days of Neff Poetry”!

What’s Next?

We’re almost 3/4 of the way through the year. I can see the end of my “365 Days of Neff” photography project. I’ve really enjoyed doing it, and I feel it’s made a real impact on my life, helping pump up my self-esteem and remind myself that I really can be consistently creative and productive.

So I want to do another 365 day project in 2012. I don’t want to do photography this time–it could veer away from “creative project” into “boring routine.” I want to do something different and new. I’m wavering back and forth between writing a poem a day or writing a blog post a day. Either one could really push me away from the comforts of writing when I “feel inspired” and into the realm of “desperately trying new things to keep from being boring and repetitive.”

I’m open to suggestions. Which would you guys rather see? A poem a day or a blog post (which could be poetry or could be a personal anecdote or an essay or a review or a short bit of fiction or…who knows?) or something else? Throw ideas at me. Let’s see what sticks.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

I beat myself up a lot (both privately and in public) for not being more creative on a regular basis. But I just posted my 141st self-portrait of the year. 141 days in a row of photographs. I haven’t missed a single day.

Ease up on yourself, boyo. You’re doing better than you think you are. And all of you out there who think you’re not doing well? I bet you’re doing better than you think you are. You just need to look at the positives at least as much as the negatives. Give yourself credit where credit is due.

Slings and Arrows, Pratfalls and Triggers

I really think Community is one of the best shows on TV right now, for a variety of reasons. Last week’s episode, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” was one of the best of the best. It was hilariously funny, but also very touching, and it was more accurate in the way it portrayed people playing Dungeons and Dragons than most TV shows and movies. But for me, one of the most interesting things about the episode, which I wasn’t expecting at all, was how uncomfortable I was watching it. It triggered some pretty bad memories of being bullied in high school, and in parts of the episode, I could feel myself getting angrier and more anxious as I watched. I had a physical response to some scenes, and it wasn’t entirely pleasant. But by the end of the episode, I relaxed and I really appreciated all of the ways, good and bad, in which the episode got to me.

Which brings me to Penny Arcade. I was pretty late getting onto the Penny Arcade bus, and after reading it regularly for about a year or so, I gave up. While I found the strip incredibly funny sometimes, I just don’t play enough video games to really get most of the jokes. So I pulled it out of my Google Reader and haven’t read it since. Which means I missed a particular strip that touched off a pretty big internet kerfuffle: the “dickwolf” strip. I actually learned about it from a post on my pal Steve Lawson’s blog, which led me to the Debacle Timeline website. I read the original strip and a number of the responses to that strip. I’ve ruminated over this for the past few days. Today, I realized what I really think about it all.

Here goes…

I don’t think rape is particularly funny. In fact, I think it’s pretty horrific. While I’ve never been raped (knock on wood), I have friends who have been, and I’ve seen some of the after-effects of it. I find the casual use of the word, such as when pundits complain about the government “raping us” in this way or that, to be pretty moronic and insensitive (not to mention hyperbolic beyond all reason), and I don’t find most jokes about rape to be all that funny. Having read a number of Penny Arcade creators Jerry and Mike’s responses to the criticism of their comic, I absolutely think they could have responded in ways that were much more sensitive and understanding, much less sarcastic and defensive.


I absolutely, positively do not think art and comedy should be safe. They’re not here to make us feel comfortable. They’re not here to help us avoid our fears, our anger, our darkness. It’s not the role of the artist and the comedian to avoid people’s bad triggers. If a comic strip like Penny Arcade or a TV show like Community makes you feel uncomfortable and forces you to deal with your own darkness, it’s not failing, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. That doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it also doesn’t mean your dislike is the fault of the artist and the comedian. Art should be, on some level, offensive. Comedy should be, on some level, offensive. And it’s the responsibility of the audience, not the artist and comedian, to know where our boundaries are between “I’m uncomfortable, but I like this” and “I’m uncomfortable and I hate this.”

Like I said, I don’t find most rape jokes funny. (Although I thought this joke was pretty damn funny, and I retweeted it after laughing my ass off.) I’m certainly not going to tell anyone that they lack a sense of humor (or are “too uptight” or whatever) because they are offended by rape jokes. But that doesn’t mean rape jokes are objectively unfunny, it just means I personally find them to cross the line from “good uncomfortable” to “bad uncomfortable.” And if an artist or comedian crosses that line too many times for my taste (like, say, Andrew Dice Clay and his “misogynistic asshole” routine), I stop watching them. I change the channel (literally or figuratively). I don’t blame anyone for giving up on Penny Arcade because of a rape joke, but I refuse to accept that it’s Jerry and Mike’s fault that other people were offended by their comic. It’s not their job to avoid people’s triggers. It’s their job to hit them.