Thursday, October 19, 2017

Famous Typewriters (and the Things They Made)

I flew into and out of San Francisco in a day a few weeks ago. Did I tell you about it? Maybe not, it was a bit of a secret.

By far, the weirdest/best thing I found was an exhibit of famous typewriters at San Francisco International Airport. In the middle of the jetlagged night, it felt like the most important thing I'd ever seen.

4. Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof



I read The Glass Menagerie in seventh grade and adored it, although at the time I couldn't tell you why. Probably something to do with the mentally-fragile daughter, whose condition to me was scary and recognizable. When I moved to D.C., my friends Eric and Matthias used to take me to a bar called the Raven, the first time I had a regular bar, where, according to local legend, Tennessee Williams either hung out or wrote his first book. I started a lot of stories on bar napkins but never finished any.

3. Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast



I was always a little disgusted by Hemingway and a little scared of him, but Marty Beckerman's wonderful book The Heming Way did a bit to dispel it, and a bit to empower a looser, funnier sense of disgust.

2. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles



Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. In a purely metaphysical, inspiration-centric way, I identify completely with Rachel Bloom's song. I spent a while just staring at this typewriter in surprised silence (well, I was alone, so it wasn't that surprising that I was silent). Imagining his fingers on those very keys, the pure physicality of it all, the way that every time you hit a key the letter is permanently imprinted, no highlighting and deleting, no going back. Merely existing in the same place at that typewriter felt more dangerous than anything I've ever done. It was a dare never to use a computer again.

1. The Beatles, Introducing the Beatles



And the Beatles. I've never been crazy about the Beatles -- not that I don't like them! I really like them! -- I just, well, never thought they were the ultimate band or the only band that ever existed or anything like that. But also, I never thought about them writing songs. Or writing songs in an actual draft/reworking/another draft/final way. Would they write the words "I'd like to be your man," go back and forth about the word order, the rhythm, change "I'd like" to a declarative statement like "I want," and then Ringo tells you that you need a concrete image and you finally, finally type in the middle of the night, "I want to hold your hand"? Maybe that's not how it happened. But something happened. And the moments their keys struck paper, it turned into something.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

I Wrote a Book and I'm Giving It to You

So, um, this suddenly exists in the world.


It's weird when you've worked on something for years without anyone else knowing about it, and now you can. You can get it free by going right here

I hope you like it. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Make Your Story Make You Bleed

When you write a story, make it about you. Even if it’s about the shidduch crisis. Even if it’s about the Baal Shem Tov. Start with something that means something to you — a statement, a feeling — and let the story grow from there.
A lot of writing classes will tell you to show, don’t tell. That’s good advice, but it isn’t all true. Telling can be a great tool. But in order to tell the audience what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling, you need to take us through the steps of your experiencing this.
And that’s a lot more easily experienced by telling your reader where you were at one point — not just saying you were, say, a college dropout who refused to eat any food aside from bacon, but describing why bacon was so important to you, telling us in detail how each stick was as long as your hand and had little bumpy ridges and ghostly shivers of white fat, and how the reason you ate so much of it was that your college was Porgsley’s School of Pig-Thumpin’ and they gave it free to all the students, and not only does it conjure memories of happier times, but you sneak onto campus and get free bacon and it’s the only time you ever see all your old friends.
Then — and only then — are we prepared to hear about how you gave it all up to be kosher.
We, as frum writers, as Jewish writers, or just as writers who are somewhat preoccupied with issues of faith and belief, are especially susceptible to epiphany. I saw the light! G-d spoke to me!
It’s such a tempting idea, this sudden mental switch or a realization-from-on-high that affects you in a way that makes you stop in your tracks so fast that dust clouds rise around your ankles, and then — for reasons that are often hard to explain and sometimes so totally otherworldly that you can barely explain them to yourself, let alone write a story about them for other people — you’re a different person than you were before.
That’s the essence of a story. Or, it’s very close to being the essence of a story. What’s missing from your revelation is the story itself.
**
Remember The Matrix? Remember when Keanu said “whoa” a lot, and then Morpheus explained to him for like 20 minutes that all of humanity is living in little electric aquariums and the machines took over and we’ve forgotten what it’s like to rebel….and, my friends, that is a good freaking way to tell.
But The Matrix also made the telling itself into a story. Instead of just saying that there was a war between people and robots and people are sleeping through their lives and they don’t realize it, the filmmakers told it as a process. First the situation was this. Then this happened. Then, here’s another element that complicates it. They explained the situation like building a building, telling one step at a time…and then, before you know it, you’ve got a whole freakin’ skyscraper of a story.
**
Stories don’t have to be about somebody changing. That’s not where the energy of a story comes from — the energy comes from tension, from the moment just before whatever’s going to happen, happens. Sometimes it will happen. Dorothy rescues the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, Moses tells Pharaoh to Let My People Go.
And sometimes it doesn’t happen. When Joseph’s brothers come to him, they tell him there’s a famine, they need his help — the whole time they’re begging him for food, we aren’t thinking, Is Joseph going to feed them? We’re thinking, Is Joseph going to reveal his true identity? When he sends them away, with the troubling mission of bringing back his brother, the tension mounts. The question is still, is Joseph going to disclose the truth, but now it becomes, Is he going to tell his brothers the truth AND what the hell does he need his baby brother Benjamin for?
Stories within stories.
But if every story were about a character changing, they’d be predictable. They’d be boring. Sometimes stories do get that way. We know this as readers. Instead of thinking, is the main character going to realize he’s wicked and have a change of heart, we’re thinking, when’s he going to get to the change of heart and make everything better already.
Recognize that feeling? That’s called boring.
To keep the reader on her toes — and, even more importantly, to keep ourselves on our toes — nothing can be predictable. We need to keep ourselves guessing.
At this point, you’re probably saying, duh, Matthue, all you do is watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and read books, your life is more fiction than nonfiction, how do you build character moments in my True Real-Life Personal Essay? Well, it’s true that you’re probably not as exciting as Buffy,* but that doesn’t mean anything. I forget who first said this, but there are some people who can tell a story of walking to the corner store to buy bread and make it more tense and emotional than your mother dying, and there are some people who can talk about their mothers dying and it sounds as boring as going to the corner store.
When you start to write, set your boundaries. Tell your audience what’s at stake. If it’s a blind date, tell us about every date you’ve been on before. Is this your first? That raises the stakes even more. Tell us your dream date as a child, tell us all the ways that this date is nothing like that — for worse or maybe for better. If it’s about your kid waking you up in the middle of the night, tell us how desperately you’re craving sleep, how bad the day has been, or how good, or how you haven’t seen them at all. If it’s a story about being hungry in the middle of the night, tell us about what you ate that day, or didn’t eat that day. Tell us how much you love, say, chocolate-covered Bamba. Tell us how it’s the last packet and you and your parent/child/wife/roommate are fighting over it (or if they’re asleep, tell us how bad they’ll kill you if you eat it). Look for tension. We’re in galus, the world of exile — tension is really not that hard to find. It’s everywhere.
And if there are problems, embrace them. There’s a rule that I’m making up as I write this that says that the sadder or crazier or weirder you look on paper, the more awesome you are in real life. There’s a reason Tom Cruise is okay with getting beat up horribly in his movies, or that Woody Allen always makes himself look pathetic (well, don’t use Woody Allen as a barometer). You’re the hero. Make yourself vulnerable. Make stuff happen to you. As far down as you push yourself as a character, that’s how far you can rise up your story.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Touch Press Games Apparently Just Released 30 of My Video Games, Which Is Cool But Emotionally Confusing


You know those video games I worked on for 4 years? The company, Amplify, was jettisoned by News Corp. Steve Jobs' widow bought it. They turned into a new company called Touch Press, and they are finally releasing the first games today on the App Store.

Via EdSurge:
During its heyday, Amplify touted its orange tablets as the tool that would transform digital learning experiences in school. Yet the company’s most impressive offering may have been its games. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company invested more than $25 million to partner with talented developers who built 30 learning games covering math, science and English Language Arts.

Unless you were a reporter or play tester, however, it was hard to get your hands on them. Only one title was available in the consumer market. The rest required a school license sold by Amplify.

The fate of the games seemed in limbo in Sept. 2015 after News Corporation sold Amplify. But now they have found a new home. Today, Amplify announced that it is merging its games division—the team and its assets—with StoryToys, an Irish developer of children’s learning apps, into a new company: Touch Press.
It's weird. I haven't touched them in years, let alone played them or worked on them. I'm not sure what condition they're in or what other games they're going to release, or when -- hey, I didn't even know they were out until someone in the office forwarded me a forward from another forward.

But I'm glad. I'm really glad. Like one of my coworkers said, "This is like seeing your kid graduate high school after his mother took away your visitation rights for the last decade."

But, hey. Now they're on their own. And I can finally stand back and kvell.

[go here to play them - free, I think!]

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Behind the Scenes at Noshland

I wrote a new short story on Hevria -- well, okay, half a short story -- but I have the whole thing in my head, and I'm, like, 98% sure that I'm going to post the other half in 2 weeks. Or next week, if Elad lets me.

And I'm kind of overbrimming with behind-the-scenes stuff to tell you about it.

Last Night at Noshland

BY   JULY 5, 2016  STORY
noshland
Zvi needs to leave Crown Heights behind, and he is leaving it behind, but every step he takes brings him a new wash of sadness, the nostalgia sinking deeper into his brain and skin and his nose, even though he hasn’t even left yet.

And Now, the Commentary Track.


  • The genesis of the story: I love one-night (or one-day) stories, like American Graffiti and Superbad and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I like giving my stories time limits in general, like how Goldbergs had to end at the end of the summer and this memoir I'm working on goes from Halloween to Thanksgiving. That gives me a ruler to pace everything. Having a single night is even better. It's like a puzzle where every single thing that happens has to fit.
  • Yes, the name of the shop in the story is based on the dear, wonderful Nosh World, zichrono l'vrocho (the characters and even the store itself are as complete fabrications as anything can be), but another major influence in the title and the story is the book Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan. It's about a Red Lobster that's shutting down, and there's a snowstorm coming, and workers keep not showing up for their shift, and it's really sad and beautiful -- and specifically, the way it was taught to me by my professor Alexi Zentner, who has a new book out this week that I'm not sure I'm allowed to say is really by him.
  • I'm doing this sort of as a challenge to myself: both to finish something, and to put it in front of people. I've been in kind of a sad place lately. My last novel is in limbo and the new one I'm writing is taking forever, and I keep starting stories and then not finishing them. So I'm trying to vanquish my writing anxiety with performance anxiety. I've put up the first half! Now I have to finish the damn thing.
  • I just also want there to be more fiction on Hevria! And more stories about Hasidim that aren't about how pathetic we are or people running away or what a horrible place the community is. Not that this is exactly a happy story (nothing I'm gonna write right now is going to be that), but I really do like Zvi, the main character, and I hope other people will too.
  • I was working on the last part of the story this morning and I realized with a shock of horror, there's almost no chocolate. Sure, I mention ice cream once or twice, but it is in no way true-to-life to write about a snack shop in Crown Heights and exclude chocolate. There's a paragraph in the second part about a girl who buys a bag of tortilla chips, and it would make way more sense for her character to be eating chocolate, but it makes way more sense for me as a person to think of someone eating nachos:

    And she buys a 50-cent pack of chips, of Golden Fluff tortilla strips, a brand whose name has always puzzled him (no gold? no fluff?) but whose taste is undeniably solid, that perfect balance of spicy and tangy and sweet, that he once read the Japanese call umami, a harmony of flavor, the perfect culinary addiction of which he was the purveyor. He loved the boldness of Tsivia Singer’s pre-party indulgence, and the vision of her walking down the street with the umami tang on her breath, neither of which he would ever taste.



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Gobblings: The Movie (sort of)



stole a story from the Baal Shem Tov. Well, I sort of stole it. The part about it being in space, the aliens, the toy robots, the overprotective parents, and the saving the universe without the universe knowing about you saving it -- those parts I may or may not have made up myself.

(Except for the overprotective parents. That part's based on real life.)

Anyway: Here's a movie where I talk about The Gobblings and writing and how the rest of the world tells stories to put kids to bed, and we tell stories to wake ourselves up. Thanks to Daniel and David for filming it, and JAKEtv for making it real, and the wondrous people at Hevria for letting me be egotistical for a change.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Girl Can Become the King


I showed my daughters this morning's newspaper, and it was incredible to watch their faces light up. The oldest read the headline out loud -- Clinton Seals Triumph With California Victory -- and then she squealed, like really squealed, not the I-got-a-new-toy squeal but the I-did-my-multiplication-table-perfectly-for-the-first-time squeal, the squeal that says, holy shit, something in the world has fundamentally changed.

When we talked about who to vote for, I was pretty harsh that the girls weren't allowed to choose Hillary because she was a girl, and that we need to find out as much as we can about everyone, and we want to choose the best people, no matter who they are. (We followed through with this down to some last-minute Googling of superdelegates in the voting booth.) Everyone has good points and bad points, and I really don't like how Bernie probably wouldn't be very cooperative with anyone who wasn't on the same page as him, and I don't like that Hillary seems like a big-balls career politician with no guiding conscience.

But on the level of pure, simple, and direct showing my three daughters that girls can do anything, having a woman on the front page of the paper, claiming the nomination, conceivably becoming the leader of our country, it was an awesome fucking moment. I've been telling them since they were born that they can do anything. There's a lot of stuff that's still in the way, but it just came one step closer to true.


Pic: One more text from Hilary

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