Posts tagged ‘Grant Morrison’

April 28, 2011

viruses, prions and how we decide

by Sara Gran
ROK Protest Against US Beef Agreement (US beef...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking a lot about viruses lately. I think Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “media virus,” or at least he was the first to publish a book with that name. This was a pretty big idea in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s–before Rushkoff’s book viruses were already a bit of a counterculture meme due to William Burrough’s fascination with them (which I won’t pretend to understand). The idea Rushkoff presents in the book is, if I remember right, somewhat different than the way it was often repeated–a media virus isn’t just a thing that replicates itself. It’s a kind of Trojan Horse that repeats itself without you knowing, under the cover of something else. For example, every few years Calvin Klein comes out with an ad campaign so shocking, risque, and child-porn-y that the ads generate protest and are pulled from TV and magazines. This isn’t an accident. The people who do advertising for Calvin Klein know exactly where that line is, and they cross it on purpose. Your media immune system wouldn’t let in just any old Calvin Klien ad, becuase you’re too hip for that, right? But your immune system will, maybe, let in a story about censorship or child pornography. So it lets in the news about the Calvin Klein ad. But you’re infected all the same–now in the back of your head is forever the idea that Calvin Klien is so groundbreaking and daring their ads get banned from TV. Last year’s media flu shot included the technology to fight “advertising,” but you didn’t get the shot innoculating you from “news items.” Does that make sense? Calvin Klein is using this idea for not-so-productive ends (advertising blue jeans and underwear), but all of us in media and the arts can use this idea for our own ends, too.

Grant Morrison, comic book artist and all-around magician, took this idea a step further: in an interview I read with him he said he wanted his work to be not like a virus, but like a prion. A prion is the thing that causes Mad Cow Disease. A prion is similar to a virus, but deadlier–it can do its damage for years before you even know you have it, and by the time you find out, your brain is permanently altered. There’s no going back. It’s a virus times a thousand.

As many of you know I’m a conspiracy buff.  Generally when we talk about conspiracies we talk about bad conspiracies–people working behind the scenes, in the shadows, to kill presidents and control the world economy and plant stupid ideas about Calvin Klein in our head. But there are good conspiracies, too–people working to plant viruses and prions in our culture that will help us expand our consciousness and expand our conception of what’s possible. I like thinking that we can take technology and tools designed to narrow our perspective and sell us crap and instead use those tools to expand ourselves. I like the idea that even out of the dumbest corporate stuff–a Calvin Klein ad campaign–we can find something to help us change the world.

A few years ago I felt like I was floundering a little and I decided to make a mission statement for my work, which came down to defining my virus. I write my novels because I love to, and I write other stuff for money (and I love writing that stuff, too), but I felt like I needed some clarity about what my mission was. Why was I writing all this shit? To give the world a peak into my filthy little nutjob subconscious? To make money? That’s not a very satisfying plan for life! I think we need something a bit meatier than that to be happy! When I was young and depressed I had a lot of ideas about how literature can offer solace and friendship, and I still have those ideas, but that’s not something you can happen on purpose–you just bare your soul and hope that someone out there, someday, feels less lonely for having seen it. That’s not really a goal you can work towards. And important as that is, I needed something more immediate than that to make sense of my life and my work.

So I made a mission statement like business people do. I’m not gonna tell you what that mission is, because that would take all the fun out of it. But it’s not about business or money. It’s about how (and when) we think and how we understand the world around us. So now, even when I’m working on something for hire–that is, not my original stuff but stuff I’m getting paid to do–I know what my mission is and I sneak my little virus/prion in there when I can. To be clear, I’m not talking about an overt or “subtle” (quotes ’cause it’s never really subtle, is it?) political or social message in my work. I think that almost never works. Instead I’m talking more about spreading a certain point of view about the possibility of things and the nature of the world and its boundaries. Knowing my mission (to spread my virus) has made working more enjoyable and made it easier to make decisions about which projects to take on and what direction to go on in the projects I’m already working on. For example, when I’m offered the chance to work on big mass media projects where I’ll have some creative freedom, that’s almost an automatic “yes” for me, because spreading my virus to the widest possible audience is on mission. And while making money is not the core of my mission, my mission is better served if I’m solvent. I always have a million things I want to write about, and I’ve always been a little frustrated about having to narrow these impulses down–there just isn’t time for me to pursue every creative project I’d like to. Now that’s much easier; of all my ideas (assuming I’m attracted to all of them equally) I pick the ideas that are on mission to work with. If I’m overwhelmed in a book and don’t know where I’m going, my first question is how the story is best served. But if there’s more than one answer to that question, as there often is, I can narrow it down further by asking which direction best serves my mission.

Of course, if I really wanted to work on an idea that didn’t align with my mission, I wouldn’t hesitate–the point of this exercise is to serve my writing process, not hinder it. As I’ve said before, my New Year’s resolution this year was to put my intuition first in all decisions, and I’ve been sticking to it. And I treat my writing as an art as much as a craft, so my inspiration is also up there in my decision making. So my decision-making hierarchy would be something like survival-> inspiration -> intuition ->  virus-spreading. If all of those things are in line, sweet. If not, I know survival comes first (if I’m living under a bridge that’s not very good for my mission!), then inspiration (in other words, what I feel like doing), than gut instinct/intuition (the two are closely related, so presenting “inspiration” and “intuition” as two categories here isn’t quite correct, but it’s the closest I can come), then the chance to spread my virus. Of course, other factors also come into play–possible collaborators, time and space constraints, obviously money–and the math on every project is slightly different. Knowing my mission–to spread my virus–helps make all these decisions easier. If it seems like I should make these decisions based on profitability rather than esoteric instincts, well, that’s actually not possible–it’s pretty hard to predict which projects will bring you out ahead financially in the long term.  So while that’s certainly a factor, it falls more under “intuition” than anything else.

Writers, artists, anyone else out there have a mission statement? Or a virus/prion they use? If not, how do you decide what to do when you hit a fork in the road, creatively and financially?

March 17, 2011

Contracts & Magic

by Sara Gran
Land sales contract. Sumerian clay tablet, ca....

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I used to think contracts were boring. As soon as I got to a point in career where I had agents, lawyers, and accountants, I tossed it all in their laps and walked away.

Then, about nine months ago, two of my books went out of print. I thought I’d ask for the rights back and the publisher would give them. I had contracts! I thought contracts were magic, and I was right. But I was wrong about the kind of magic that contracts are. I thought contracts were a paper shield that would protect me from anyone who wanted to do me harm. When my publisher started arguing that the books were in print, because, see, you could buy them from this one website if you hit it at just the right time and asked nice, I thought all I had to do was wave my contract around. It would issue its white light of protection, the enemy would be vanquished, and I would ride away with my rights intact.

But that’s not the kind of magic contracts are. A contract is not an amulet of protection. A contract is a long, very detailed magic spell, cast by a coven of interested parties to create certain future events. A contract is created in exactly the same way as any other spell. First, you write down what you want. As Grant Morrison has famously said, that’s why it’s called spelling–the written word is believed by many to have magic powers of its own. In many mystical schools alphabets themselves –Sankskrit, runes, Hebrew–are believed to be extraordinarily powerful; for example in some understandings of Hebrew, the letters that compose the name of God are thought to be too powerful to say out loud or spell on paper; in Sanskrit, we use mantras, the repetitions of certain combinations of letters and words, to change reality (or, maybe more accurately, to ask the powers of the universe to change it for us). The next step in a spell is to  use some kind of ritual to make your words real. This is how you communicate to the universe that you want these words to be real (and of course, we don’t do this with our novels, because we don’t want them to become real!) You can burn what you’ve written, bury it, dip it honey, burn a candle over it, hand it over to a saint, or, in the case of contracts, sign it. Then you reap your rewards.

I was, to put it mildly, not happy with my publisher’s approach–all I have in life that’s worth anything financially are the rights to my books, my laptop, and a fifteen year old car. I’ve made many sacrifices for these rights and I don’t take them lightly. (Bookstores sell books. Writers sell rights.) So I read my contract. Then I read it again. And again and again and again. It took about 15 reads before I really understood it–I’d never read a contract quite that closely before, and this was a particularly complicated one. I didn’t have the protection I thought I did, but the more I read the contract, I found other ways of protecting myself–see, that’s the amazing thing about a contract, and why its magic is so complex.  It’s a ten-thousand word spell. The magic isn’t in the words as they stand alone in this particular type of spell–it’s in how the words can combine, both within and without of the contract.  So although I didn’t  have the protection I thought I did, by examining some different combinations of these magical and powerful letters, I found new ways to protect myself. They weren’t in violation of the clause I’d assumed–but there were enough other violations there that I had a pretty good leg to stand on. See, publishers don’t read contracts very closely either, and if you look close enough, they are almost always in violation of something–they don’t understand these magical, powerful spells any better than we do (or did, because you get it now, right?).  The publishers were thinking like I was thinking: we have contracts! Yeah, you did–but like me, you didn’t really know what they said.

In the end, my brilliant deductions didn’t matter for this particular case–my agent got them to reprint the books by sheer force of will, another form of magic (generally speaking, whoever doesn’t give up wins. Wish I knew that one twenty years ago!). But now I eagerly read each and every contract cover to cover. And I’ve actually started to enjoy it. I’ve realized that every single possible combination of meaning to be found in a contract not only can, but likely will, come into reality to some day. After all, you’ve virtually asked it to do so. So these are not boring legal documents that cover a bunch of whiny bullshit possibilities that will never happen. They are magical blueprints of the future you are inviting into your life. Every word in a contract you sign is a possible future for you–a turn of reality you are likely to inhabit if you choose this road. You are ceremonially announcing to the universe: Yes, let’s make this my future.  Choose every letter carefully.

(And by the way: DOPE is now back in print from Berkeley and COME CLOSER is coming back in April from Soho Press.)