bricklayer on the tower of babel

March 15, 2009
In early February I spent some time showing Leonard some parts of Boston. (Incidentally he and his wife Sumana are collaborating on editing Thoughtcrime Experiments, a very cool exercise in "best of the sci-fi 'slush pile'" excavation.)

The conversation was great and wide ranging-- Leonard's an author (both technical books and sci-fi) and that set a neat stage for some of our talk. (The mandate to write about the following has been haunting my Todo list for over a month.)

I feel like I have two problems with writing, and why I feel I'm so poor at coming up with plots:

The first is... I dunno, this air of "inevitability" I get when I read summaries of existing plots. I get this a lot when I read through TV Tropes (currently my favorite way of entertaining myself via iPhone.) It's an odd sense of fate, a feeling of "Es Muss Sein", it must be, this story could not be otherwise. So it was written, so it was done. (Maybe this creates the frisson I get from reading "alternate universe"/"elseworlds" type stuff) This sense creates a bit of writer's block in me, because I want to make something new, but I don't know how it has to be, and I'm worried I'm going to get it "wrong".

The second is a tendency to fall back to the same story/plot... I find myself inexorably drawn to the theme of people working on some corner of some great task, a task so monumental that none of them can really grasp it, and maybe none of them will see its completion. You really see this in the poem Bricks that I wrote in college, about a bricklayer on the Tower of Babel. (This may have been heavily influenced by a story from Omni magazine, a realistic account of the building of the Tower, and they hit the dome of the sky (holding back the deluge, the same used to flood the Earth in the Noah story)) It also shows up in Young Astronauts in Love.

There is a subtheme of this, the idea of being the "other man", the one doing some interesting artistic work, but the one who loses the girl and the fame to the real genius. I wrote a Loveblender ramble about that in 1997 (!), seeing it in both of the movies Henry & June and Backbeat:
What struck me about both films was the accomplishments of the 'supporting characters'. Both works end with texts going over the lives of the people portrayed. Anais' husband Hugo, portrayed as a loving but stifled banker, was an experimental film maker whose films are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Klaus Voormann, who loses his 'soulsibling' Astrid to the loose-cannon artistry of Stuart Sutcliffe, went on to create the cover to The Beatles' Revolver album (OK, not my favorite piece of album art, but still...) and played Bass in Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. To me, these ending texts are really the saga of the other men, the ones whose loves might've been the ones immortalized in film decades after the fact, if only fate had been different.
I guess it's not quite the same as the Tower of Babel plot, but they might spring from the same root, the acknowledgment that I'm not headed for greatness or cultural immortality, but the hope that I can contribute to some overall project and theme.

Leonard shared his "go to plot" with me, a melancholy "we had something nice, and it's nobody's fault, but it's all messed up now". We're not quite sure if this is the one he cited back in February, but it's a powerful idea, a kind of bittersweet failure of synergy. He uses it on a personal scale in Mallory and on a planetary/cosmic scale in an upcoming work about a planet of dinosaurs.

Does everyone have an overarching plot like this? A narrative that they find compelling above all others? Does it seem to spring from reality, or does it inform how you view the world you're in? (For many I think Religion tries to provide this for its followers.) It's the story you tell about yourself, it's the story that lets you make your own world, it's the story you use to make up new worlds.

So...what's your story?

Only what can happen, does happen.
Dr. Manhattan, in the Watchmen movie.
Compare to "Nothing unreal exists", part of Spock's re-education in Star Trek IV. Though JZ thinks it sounds more like the original Murphy's Law "If it can happen, it will happen"
Last night during Watchmen I jotted the todo note "united states chef". I wish I had some idea what I meant by that.
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Thomas Edison - the Annotated Watchmen (notes for the comic) - sigh, a whole little blog charting the decline of my high school-era hometown.
Do you think America's goal of an egalitarian, up-by-your-bootstraps society is tied into how English dropped the you/thou distinction?