The Talk Show: Words We Like To Watch

TalkShowHosts

Cue the applause!

Television in its simplest form is a visual metaphor of communication. Who’s saying what about who or what’s being said about what are common questions that want answers. The conversations that matter most that go unheard or have never been had, need a voice. Television caters to an audience and transmits a message they want to hear. Expectations can be made for viewers over time, keeping their attention broadcast after broadcast. No other medium does this better than the talk show.

Talk shows are presented in one of two ways: scripted and unscripted. The more popular format is unscripted which shows a mutual and genuine address between the speaker(s) and audience. In scripted productions, the experience is with little to no input from the speaker(s) as a mediator for the audience. Different levels of both make a talk show, but there’s no pleasing everyone. Some viewers like to be considered and involved while others like the vicarious, autonomous role as an audience member. At the same time, suspension of disbelief can take either type of audience member out of the experience. Instances where it’s obviously scripted, for the sake of the experience, you may enjoy the moment of it all whether or not that moment garnered a surprise. Come time for the unscripted talks, you as an audience member would hope that nothing said the whole time was scripted. Though if it were the opposite, and it was revealed to be a ruse meant for further enjoyment, so be it. Just as long as everyone is aware of it.

Hosts of talk shows are distinct in their delivery. Some are strictly news oriented, others are made for laughs and a more contemporary approach to the talk show has dealt in both, although some better than others. I can’t give much of an honest look at talk shows/hosts from before my era with the likes of Johnny Carson for example. I can give some review of those that do speak to the current times, which by now are someone else’s era. I speak mainly of Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert.¹ To be fair, there are many other talk show hosts out there that deserve attention, like John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, Graham Norton of The Graham Norton Show, the retired David Letterman of The Late Show and Craig Ferguson from The Late Late Show, Bill Maher and Larry King. Female hosts like Chelsea Handler and Samantha Bee are making a name for themselves as well. For the time being, I will refrain from talk shows that focus on food, infidelity, the morning, and anything you find your mother watching in the afternoon (I’m looking at you Ellen!) I will only showcase the late night talk show hosts.

Today, talk shows and their respective hosts are one in the same, that is, what is to be expected of a host can give off the same impression for that show. For this reason, comedy and entertainment are the popular outlets for talk shows, more so than news. During the 1960s, television showed us the real faces behind the mask that was radio. Remember the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon? People who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won. Those who watched the debate thought Kennedy had won as he kept a convincing demeanor. Nixon was sweating bullets. The same factor can be applied to talk shows. Hosts gain their comedic voice and trust from their audiences and are possibly more accepting or forgiving of jests. News by nature is rigid with little room to read between the lines, but some hosts manage to poke fun at the current events. Guests also challenge or compliment the dynamics of the host. Not to mention, the talk show announcers and coworkers make great companions to their hosts. Let’s take a look at some of these late night shows.

Conan O’Brien | CONAN | Weeknights 11/10c | TBS

Conan

He’s most likely known as the tall ginger and creepy, perverted comic… and we love him for it! Conan O’Brien got his start with NBC on Late Night in 1993. He later moved to the network’s The Tonight Show in 2009 for a short time before another host decided to change that. This reflected the talk show wars of the 1960s, where hosts competed for ratings. Business could never be mixed with pleasure, even though Johnny Carson preferred it that way, it was not a good example for his many wives, children or his long-time friend Joan Rivers. He favored his work over relationships and that standard came to epitomize the dangerous side of show business. Many of hosts took after each other, throwing witticisms at the news, doing what Carson has done. Watch Conan’s Citizenship Test and Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent. Notice a resemblance? The talk show and the talk show host were in many ways mediators of culture as it happened. We all have come to know that any news is never safe from a comedian’s point of view. Conan O’Brien is more or less news-oriented in his monologues but only on a subversive level. Some of the news and the politics shared are hard-hitting but how he pokes fun at them are not always politically mindful statements. Most of the time it introduces a matter that stands well on its own and that does not call for any personal input. The positive takeaway is that there is no sign of political or social favoritism. All news is fair gain and the more he can laugh at life, the better. Those seven months of being prohibited from airing on television was a circumstance that lit a fire under Conan. Instead of looking for work elsewhere, he decided to work at what he does best. Finding the joke might not always be funny, but laughing for the sake of laughter is what makes him so much better to watch.

The studio bits and sketches are the highlight of CONAN and where Conan’s wheelhouse shines. Even some of the interviews incorporate sketches, a common late night show practice, that make the show’s transitions much more lively for the crowd. Other interviews are a natural and spontaneous telling which is more often the case with Conan. He asks certain questions with an exaggerated confidence that seems to forgo any modesty. That hip spree dance of his at the start of the show with the jiving Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band says it all. That’s just Conan being modest; his overreactions and underwhelming reactions to the unusual and taboo are his best characteristic. As a comedian, he can seize the moment from a conversation and than move on with the rest of it or he can take his time and say close to nothing when a comment holds enough humor in itself. More than any other talk show host, Conan is the most experimental .

Long-running characters on CONAN include animator/graphic designer Pierre Bernard, stuntman and stunt coordinator Steven Ho, executive producer Jordan Schlansky (a personal favorite of mine), and of course the one and only dog who uses celebrities as his own chew-toys, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Conan possibly has the best cast of oddballs out of the rest of the late night shows. He brings unabashed bread to the table and people can’t get enough of it! He is brutally honest with his humor and has subtle moments of self-awareness that make his show even funnier. Guests are unrestrained when it comes to Conan’s shoot-the-breeze attitude, but it always pertains to that guest. The show eases people into a fun lull when interviews begin and it keeps them awake for further, unexpected laughs. Jeff Goldblum’s interview shows a complete understanding of the Conan complex. The female guests on the show go along with the creep factor surprisingly well. Many times they have an easily skirted topic that Conan likes to chase.

Conan’s Remotes are pitted in culture wherever he goes, whether it be Armenia or South Korea, his outreach has no bounds and he’s worth watching because of it. The audience gets involved with segments, a notable one called Audiencey Awards, sometimes reaching that awkward, uncomfortable level of comedy Conan stands for. It even reaches a level you can’t come back from, which is another advantage to watching Conan’s show. When something said is too encroaching, he will detest it with the same sense of pleasure he gets out of being the creep. Sure it’s hypocritical but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Andy Richter has been Conan’s announcer since their Late Night debut and he seems to be the only late show announcer to join guests for their interviews. His his timely third wheel interjections are always welcomed; the show wouldn’t be half as funny without him. It’s the lighthearted, easy-going talk show you can go to bed happy with. Yes, you can have sex with your eyes just by watching CONAN. After seeing his autobiographical movie Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, it shows how dedicated he is as an entertainer. You wouldn’t see it as much on TBS, but he has a drive that does not stop for anyone who isn’t fully committed. As Johnny Carson fought for his talent, so did Conan O’Brien. Life for him is improvisation and as he put it, “act as if this is completely normal.” Conan accepted what came his way from NBC and turned it around by working hard as the showman he cares to be.

Jimmy Fallon | The Tonight Show | Weeknights 11:35/10c | NBC

JimmyFallon

America’s beloved goofball as I like to call him, Jimmy Fallon got his start in show business on Saturday Night Live in 1998. Notable for his celebrity impressions and comedic music, Fallon earned a spot as the host of Late Night after Conan had left in 2009 until becoming the host of The Tonight Show in 2014 after Hot Wheels collector Jay Leno had his fill of air time. The Tonight Show is in all honesty a variety show more than anything else. Creativity is this show’s middle name and it’s obvious that the SNL experience found its way here. Announcer Steve Higgins is a veteran writer and producer from SNL and has also been beside Fallon since his talk show beginnings. Celebrity games and skits are the highlight of the show, but the traditional opening monologue established by the show’s first host Johnny Carson still holds true. Fallon is the host most aware of pop culture references and sets out to incorporate them into the show. There’s popular segments like Thank You Notes where back-handed compliments are presented as gratitude, Hashtags involves unusual tweets from Twitter, and Wheel of Impressions has guests perform their best impressions of other celebrities. Games are abundant on the show, so much in fact The Tonight Show could be its own game show. Each are different from the rest, some using clever wordplay and others just plain antics. The Roots are the distinguished late night band with their appropriate musical cues for those special moments and needed background jingles. Jimmy Fallon has himself a jack-of-all-trades night show.

When he isn’t playing games, the real fun is invested in the comedy bits, be it an Emotional Interview, Word Sneak, or Real People, Fake Arms. Fallon takes guests out of their comfort zones with a friendly-neighbor innocence and some play along with the skit and others roll their eyes doing their best with what they have to work with. Either way, it makes the host laugh, sometimes more than the audience can. People say Fallon’s laugh is forced and I can understand why hosts would want to humor their guests, but it seems consistent with him. Laughter is unique to each person and it could be that it’s just his natural laugh. Then again, it feels like compensation for his nervous but humble spoken voice. Every now and then, he gets that same puppy dog inflection he had since day one. Looking past that, Jimmy Fallon definitely upholds being a genuine host and that’s a good thing for his viewers.

When it comes to audiences, The Tonight Show has much diversity. Fallon is the piped piper of pleasing everyone. Young people enjoy the simple yet clever use of the internet culture with games while older audiences appreciate the attention towards celebrity guests and the show’s form of comedy. By accommodation, younger generations will stay longtime viewers and in turn become an older generation for the show. No longer are the days of Johnny Carson where The Tonight Show was reserved for adults and restricted for children who had to meet curfue. To his credit, Fallon lives up to the array of characters and skits that Carson introduced. The interviews are hit or miss however. Relating to a guest, especially when you’re a talk show host, is already a hot torch to pass. How Carson carried out interviews was an ordinary albeit auxiliary process. He always gave the guest the most speaking time with him returning little input. Vice versa, when a guest spoke a yarn, Carson knew how to sew them back together. Jimmy follows the first step, but arguably lacks in the latter step. What Fallon does, besides laughing as a response or even interrupting with a joke, he takes a longer time responding and the longer he takes, the more he bombs. Bombs for Carson were found primarily in his monologues, which the audience respected even more than the jokes presented; it gave them a chance to see more of the Nebraskan boy they’ve come to love. Fallon’s bombs are the slip of the tongue or candid snapshots from elsewhere that somehow find their way into the conversation.

That’s not to say Jimmy Fallon isn’t a good host, but as the host with the most, one would expect a better interviewing process. Unless a political figure or notable celebrity hits the hot seat, it’s not usually a retentive occasion (which may be the case for most talk shows). Sometimes things got personal with Johnny Carson, whether it be an outright statement or disguised joke about his business affairs or wives. Other times he just had laughing fits during the show. Jimmy almost had a history with Nicole Kidman and couldn’t stop laughing with Bradley Cooper, both of which I consider Fallon at his most natural. These expectations of an overt shyness from Jimmy is endearing to the viewer, but with that sheepish presence it can be easily construed as a host who tries too hard to earn empathy from his audience. Watching Jimmy Fallon for the legacy of The Tonight Show is watching him only through a Carson-lens. Fallon has no business hiccups or hurdles as of yet and there’s no telling if it will be as controversial as Jared Leto replacing Carson instead of David Letterman. Comparisons and minute details will be made, but there’s no accepting that Jimmy Fallon is the next or even the modern Johnny Carson. Both may share a shy spirit and have all the adornments of games and comedy sketches, but one thing is certain: Johnny Carson is the King of Late Night and Jimmy Fallon is the Kid of Late Night.

Jimmy Kimmel | Jimmy Kimmel Live! | Weeknights 11:35/10c | ABC

2016-05-24 (6)Jimmy Kimmel is the guy you want to have a beer with. He’s also the guy who talks about your sex life. The rugged, relaxed and risque talk show host was given his own show in 2003, the first revival for ABC late night programs. Unlike most people in show business, family and friends are off limits. Kimmel on the other hand has them involved in the show, such as the late Francis “Uncle Frank” Potenza, security guard and sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez, and childhood friend Cleto Escobedo III from the house band Cleto and the Cletones. Jimmy Kimmel Live! is not an ordinary talk show in that it settles somewhere between brotherly love and intrepid approaches towards comedy. From making kids cry to confusing them and seeking those same kids’ expertise, it’s hard to say where Kimmel stands as a comedian (at least morally). Even his nephew Wesley stars in the show’s “The Baby Bachelor” and there’s already a follow-up “The Baby Bachelorette.” No child is left behind on this show. Kimmel has that average Joe aesthetic, making him more approachable than most other hosts. That may have something to do with him being the longest running talk show host on late-night television so far, but being the common man can wear thin after a while. The family appeal shouldn’t fool you, the vicarious pranks accommodate his shifty way of humor. Humor isn’t necessarily dry coming from Kimmel, it is observational but his observations are too obvious. Taking blind people to shooting range to prove they too have the right to bear arms was uneventful not because they shouldn’t carry weapons, it was only for the act itself. The blind can use guns but it seemed pointless despite the right to do so, which isn’t very funny. Can moments like this be funny? Moot as this may be, the traditional style of a talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! promises seems absent at times.

The interviews have the charisma of a fish swimming downstream. Guests have about as much lead as Kimmel does, and even he falls behind when it comes to promoting them. However plain the show might be, he is the most friendly and family-oriented talk show host out of the rest, so there’s always a humanizing treatment of guests and audiences. Kimmel’s interview with Gordon Ramsey does not show anything new about the acclaimed chef other than his ability to taste foods allowing him to properly cook them. What better to test Ramsey’s tasting chops than to have him eat Girl Scout cookies, right? Will Forte’s interview went well, had some depth surrounding the actor’s happenings but still felt less. As a viewer, there is no balance between comedian and TV hosting Kimmel. Kimmel’s personality can be provocative yet penitent, although subtle, in certain segments. His Youtube Challenge provokes his viewers and turns them into victims for amusement. The most popular victims are none other than children during Halloween. Parents are to pretend to have eaten their kids’ Halloween candy and to record their reaction to hearing this. Most kids are screaming their lungs out and the few that take it so well, bless their hearts. Mean Tweets takes on a the form of masochism where celebrities read mean tweets from their Twitter. It stands to reason that Jimmy Kimmel doesn’t shy away from being the reprehensible comedian or the spokesman for the follies of internet users. He is painfully self-aware as a host and because of this, there is no problem of reliance on the audience’s part. While viewers may relate to the lighthearted pranks, I wonder how many of them are vicarious enough to be sadists and to a greater extent masochists.

Breaking boundaries and building a semblance of a talk show out from the deconstruction of it might be something the gruff, trouble-making host has in mind. Nothing extreme like Jerry Springer or a housewife brawl waiting to happen. Kimmel’s show would just be the hybrid love child of those TV shows. Now it’s not always that bad, but it’s surprising to see how willing people are to claim their fame despite it being only the fraction of a minute and for much less than that. What saving grace does the show have then? Guillermo Rodriguez is a security guard but he serves as Jimmy Kimmel’s sidekick instead of his announcer Dicky Barrett. This Mexican is muy cómico and he’s not afraid to show it. Comedy sketches share a similar exaggeration in their performances, but Kimmel likes to make cameos for when he dresses up or wears prosthetic makeup. The most recent one was a parody of Super Sweet 16 and, my favorite of his, Toddlers and Tiaras. These were accurate portrayals of convoluted broadcast stardom one episode at a time. Parodies on Kimmel’s show are all in good fun and rarely promote other movies. They do however promote lesser known actors. I would give Jimmy Kimmel Live! a rating, but it looks like we ran out of time.

Stephen Colbert | The Late Show | Weeknights 11:35/10c | CBS

2016-05-27 (9)The King of Satire Stephen Colbert is known for The Colbert Report, which started as a parody for The Daily Show until it became his own show in 2005. Aiming at the often political atmosphere of the news under the caricature of a conservative reporter can reveal the truth of the matter through satirist humor. Still the same old Stephen Colbert, packing his quips as a modern Jonathan Swift while making up new vocabulary such as the popular term “truthiness.” Wordplay is also his forte, as is his tongue-in-cheek jabs at his Catholic faith, which coming from Stephen Colbert’s character is easy to believe when he isn’t associated with himself, Stephen Colbert. Separating the two and discerning the character from the man is not easy however when both draw upon each other. Breaking character has been common to The Colbert Report in the past and has never had to before since satire is meant to show the folly of mankind when it happens, not to ridicule it. Even though it’s funny to catch someone slipping on that immortal banana peel, blaming the man over the banana is natural. That’s what satire does, it observes and celebrates and condemns problems as they surface to the potential of being laughable. Doing something opposed to the conventional wisdom that has found itself in the wrong many times is satire’s attempt towards adopting a better change. The truth is at hand, one joke at time. The great thing about Stephen Colbert is all the things that make him great (as he would say). No, the great thing about him is that nothing he says makes you feel politically inept to be a part of his conversation. Granted he is the most political of the talk show hosts, that doesn’t stop him from having an audience who seeks entertainment. Satire covers the playing field of culture evenly and carries over into subcultures close and far.

Colbert’s attention to ethos makes sure audiences who aren’t aware of the politics of the day understand their perfunctory nature. Speaking of nature, precocious and playful Stephen enjoys prodding and dissecting the news like the frog that it is. Or is he the frog and the news the fly? Which ever way we croak at it, Stephen Colbert knows how to hop, skip and jump through the news like the anecdotal amphibian he was meant to be. As soon as David Letterman left The Late Show, Colbert took the reigns in 2015 and has continued to progressively update the show with the framework of his previous television incarnations. Monologues and segments at the desk involve only him and revolve around the current events as they happen. Some props and skits are incorporated to heighten the joke, but it mainly relies on himself. No other person has claimed to be his sidekick, not even his uncredited announcer. The closest he has to a sidekick is the bandleader Jon Batiste of the house band Stay Human. Stephen Colbert has been a one-man show but his friends always compliment his delivery.

The highlight of the show has to be the diversity of guests. Other than the sought after actors and celebrities, The Late Show welcomes a variety of guests such as distinguished theoretical physicist Brian Greene, former cabinet holder as the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, eccentric but introspective James Spader, rapper Killer Mike raises an important message about prejudice and how to change separation among diverse backgrounds and communities and many more creative and thought-provoking guests. On rare occasion you get to see an interview not dominated by the political aura and even if it ends up being surrounded by politics, it is a refreshing look into a different person’s point of view. Sketches and studio bits are at a minimum with Colbert and feels residual after the concluding punchlines of the headlines. When they are presented as a separate whole rather than a portion of pseudo-news anchoring from the desk, it becomes acceptable. Telling the joke with an additional visual can be unnecessary or it can help at times. Colbert’s coverage over the election season however satisfies both comical cues. It’s been the talk of the town, and more aptly, the laugh of the town. Politics is putty in his hands! Stephen Colbert brings an even dose of humor and hoopla relevant to the masses.

Who Do You Watch?

Looking at the individual host, the overall tone of the show can be understood. Matching TV personalities can be an easy trial and error process or it may take a few nights of each host to understand them in full. Conan O’Brien is the traditional comedian who provides jokes for the long haul of the show. The bulk of his comedic style are jests and the show has a free-to-be-silly attitude throughout. Conan is the traditional host with jokes as his one and only arsenal whether it be improvisational or not. Jimmy Fallon has the variety show and harks back to the skits Johnny Carson once performed. Segments are in great numbers being just as creative as the last. Entertainment is at the core of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Kimmel is the practical joker who thrives on sketches more so than personal jokes. Carefree thought with small considerations makes things more spontaneous and honest on the show. He deconstructs the traditional talk show and reconstructs his own amorphous mode of a talk show. Breaking the mold is seldom found with talk shows and Jimmy Kimmel Live! continues to find its own mold. Stephen Colbert is a satirist who is socially and politically aware of the times. Although he is a political comedian, his delivery fulfills laymen and lexicon terminology while adopting cultural references where need be. The Late Show has undergone a Colbert Report transformation but delivers noteworthy content all the same. Late night television is different than day time television since the discourse of the day can be further expounded on at night. Another reason could be that night-time television has more energy if not an exact amount that the day unfolds. If you’re not a night person, you might become one with a night show.


¹ I also exclude other shows for having never watched them.

The Pistachio Is Lucifer’s Seed

 

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Wonderful Pistachios? I must of got the Woeful brand by mistake.

Food, it’s one of the basic needs and functions that we’re built for in this life; to consume, to replenish. Early on and so I’m told, since my memory doesn’t fall anywhere prior to being four-years-old, I didn’t eat most foods packed in my school lunches. Some salted and sugar snacks like pretzel sticks, crackers and Fruit Roll-Ups were secondary to my mother. The fruits that did not make it into my digestive system were her main concern. For the rest of elementary, lunch was comprised of meats, grains, and gummy treats. A strawberry’s natural sweetness was replaced by a Fruit Roll-Ups’ artificial sweetness; you could taste and equally smell the sugar-infused difference.

There were no excuses for my not liking nature’s colorful candies in disguise. Lunch boxes lacked the high-ended freezing and heating capabilities that are available today. I didn’t notice half the time because of the art print on the flap of mine. No, not even the lunch box could hold the fault in my poor palette. It was simple: whatever healthy fruit of choice was eaten, not one was found to be pleasing. Again, this is according to my mom and teachers she says who have noticed the habit of not eating close to none of my lunch. Often discussed were the healthy portions meant to be eaten, as if that was all that mattered in a lunch. To this day, I never hear the end of this, especially since I’m older and can actually describe foods by their textures and tastes. My mother refuses to accept this change just as I refused what she gave me to eat. There’s no need for regret mom, I came around. Now I know why I still don’t like fruit very much.

Before people start thinking I’m nuts, the title stands true. What I ate, or was exposed to, was trial and error. I eat one food over another not because I won’t eat it, but because it’s the better alternative. So was my thinking. I know that fruit snacks aren’t actual fruit, but the packaging is kind enough to say otherwise. I didn’t eat certain foods because I couldn’t match the feeling it gave me to eat it. All I knew was that it had an unexpected, sometimes overpowering taste I didn’t want my tongue or stomach to handle. I blame this sensation of dislike on the other good eats I could have had at an earlier age. I limited myself to three food groups, dairy, grains, and meat. Fruits were less to come by than vegetables, but both had their fair share of disappointment. Deciding not to eat something only because you don’t like it and nothing more is within reason but without explanation. Saying I don’t like strawberries because their too sweet and seedy gets the point across. That doesn’t mean I discount the benefits of the fruit, it just means I would much rather an apple’s sweetness over that of a strawberry. The foods I chose not to eat were out of paranoia that they would all share a similar disgusting taste. Trying more food has made up for lost time, all except for the one food I can’t eat: the pistachio.

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This is how I felt on the inside.

I can’t tell you why I decided all of sudden to have a try of this nut. It might have had something to do with their cheerful advertising, a party-in-your-mouth promise from what I gather. Late one night I had my first pistachio, an hour later, Lucifer’s seed was planted. My tongue was tingling and had a chalky after-taste. My voice started to lose its cadence and all attempts to speak sounded hollow yet as if there were still signs of phlegm when there were none. My throat had no discomfort but I could tell it was easier to breathe through my nose instead. My stomach cramped and my upper back felt like it was being pinched by a giant. Needless to say, I was having an allergic reaction, the first of any, to this green twerp of a seed.

With the feeling that knocks you back, I couldn’t believe I found my kryptonite. Usually allergies are discovered at an early age and in some cases allow immunity to the allergen over time. I was not so fortunate. To my knowledge, there are no other nuts that have given me trouble, so why the pistachio? Allergies to peanuts are the most common allergy and that comes as no surprise. The specific class of nuts I could also be allergic to belong to, like the pistachio, to the tree nut family. Cashews aren’t something I remember eating, but I must have been offered it at one point. Almonds I know I’ve eaten but only on some restaurant dish I couldn’t imagine needing as much or in cereal or oatmeal. Almond soy milk is another variation I’ve eaten as well and there hasn’t been any adverse reactions. Cross-contact between peanuts that I wouldn’t otherwise be allergic to could become an allergy, but I won’t be chancing that.

It sucked having to sleep through that nausea-filled night. Moving around felt stiff by morning, but much better than that first hour. In hindsight, I probably should have went to the hospital since it was in no way an overreaction. With all seriousness, see a hospital. The times I chose not to try new foods might have been my safeguard, but had I never eaten anything before I wouldn’t know if I was allergic for certain. I don’t know how susceptible adults are to allergies when compared to children but I do know one thing, allergies are met with apologies. You get your feelings hurt but in the end you get the closure you deserve. Now if only I could forgive pistachios…

The Write Space and Where To Find It

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Welcome to my workspace.

WordPress recently posted a piece on bloggers’ writing spaces. I wrote a research paper on spatiality, taught by Dr. Christian Beck, and his course gave much needed insight into the interactions and awareness of one’s place in a space and space in a place. With that said, I’d like to add to the conversation regarding those in the humanities. Writers give birth to other worlds, some like our own, seemingly without ever missing a beat. To readers, writers are indispensable gatekeepers of the senses. Just where do they find the words that spin such a yarn? Behind a desk or in a comfy armchair, there are places we would never consider a working space, let alone a writing space.

The obvious place to start would be the desktop. The act of writing before the printing press was comprised of copying original texts in their multitude by hand. As literacy increased among populations, so did the demand for writing. A natural response to the ease of reading included easing the writing process. Finding a surface to write on plagues our existence as writers. Asking to borrow someone’s back, using a wall, the ground or another book are all uncomfortable and tedious options. After the printing press catered to its readers, the invention of the desk did the same for writers. Writers finally had a place to settle and sort their thoughts. The desk became synonymous with thinking and tinkering, a literal benchmark for business.

It is an accessory more so than a piece of furniture. What work and play is performed on and in the desk makes it your place, which directly influences the space it is found in. What you call a desk too is a mental representation of the physical, actual object called a desk. For instance, you could find yourself at a local eatery and begin jotting notes down surrounded by complete strangers. Wherever you are out in public or inside, you can set up your ideal space within a place. This is the common case of signifier (desk) and the signified (desk). A kitchen table can become a desk within a few solitary moments until, of course, others wish to join you for its opposite purpose which is exactly my largest intolerance. I want a space that reflects my manners and preferences sans interruption. I do not need to carry the clutter in your chatter that filters through one ear and the other. What I do need is seclusion and silence, but sometimes you cannot be granted such a simple request. It requires a certain headspace[1], a mental wavelength that weighs more by comparison of the tumultuous strangers near and far. If you can prioritize your thoughts and project them closer and further than the ones around you, your headspace will go undisturbed.

People also find the alternative of background noise helpful to their thinking. Not necessarily a distraction, but noise in the form of idle shuffling or small talk or television can be empowering to the writing process. The sense of dissociation takes over and the words written turn into acrobatic spurs and sudden inspired bouts. In an instant, all you need is yourself. I don’t always feel this way, in public or in the company of friends or family, and because of this I don’t even get to write sometimes. To have others in my vicinity or vacant from it is a dependency. The way I combat this liminal state is through headspace. Thinking about the physical makes the space around me either more ideal or stagnant; it depends on what I think of or attribute to the physical. Photography and daydreaming can be therapeutic means for revamping the approach towards writing. I have a photo of my two-year-old self[2] in a circle of books on my desk that I look at every now and then to make sure I see myself, to make sure I’m still there. No wonder we want an office with a view or take a peek outside the window during class. Having a chance to slow down and reassess our place in space and our space in that place makes our time there all the more compatible.

Along with convenience comes comfort and we all can agree that comfort ranks high on the priority list. Though for some writers, the regimen of a cozy, fireside lull is enough to get words out and onto the page. I have the option of not only a desk but the neighborly warmth of a floral, fanback armchair. You could melt in that chair and not fall asleep which I’ve enjoyed all the time. On the chair’s side I keep a lap-desk for when it comes time to write. It hasn’t gotten to the point where I’ll be half awake or fast asleep on account of my trips back and forth between the chair and desk. The table I’ve shaped into a desktop has been deterritorialized into striated space or a measured, occupied space. The furniture chosen as an accessory has a preferred purpose of a desk (drafting and writing) but can also function as the known purpose of a table (eating and socializing). The top of the desk/table is striated by the belongings that rest there as well. Cluttered desks or organized desks can say a lot about the headspace. Even a desk named Taylor has a lot to say. What do I make of my bed then? To put it simply, I sleep there. I’ve never had the lamp angled the right way to avoid going blind and after sitting up for a while my bottom and lower back give which results in my legs falling asleep and then myself. Sure it’s comfortable for a time, but not long enough before I feel numb and ready for a nap. By the same token, I keep my phone near my pillow when I sleep if I ever have a thought that needed to be saved for later. I should keep a journal or notepad nearby as well, or the current notes that occupy my thoughts daily to keep them coming during sleep and after, something Ray Bradbury called theatre of the mind. Writing should come as an impulse, a surge of energy no matter where you are situated and even if reaching that ideal writing space is never fully realized, it can always be in your sights, always somewhere in front of you.

The striation of my space helps me in two ways. The dynamic I have between my desk and chair is met with two different perspectives. If I need to focus for long periods of time, and that goes for lengths of time that leave you oblivious to any cricked neck or back, I will sit at the desk and belt out as much as I can. When it comes to reviewing and taking a fresh look at the writing before I set out to do it again, I sit in the chair. The process at times goes in both directions where the chair will help me focus and the desk will be for revision. The makeshift desk and the armchair are places inside my headspace, as well as in my physical space. The individual artist is flexible and constrictive, lenient and stubborn. Everything and anything is fair gain and the easiest bit of discrepancy or excuse to hyperbolize over. That stack of books needs to be off-kilter. The yellow sticky note should be wear the green one is. The cat cannot meow between the hours of awake and asleep. Whatever conditions must be set out, adorn them to yourself. In time, the space will become a reflection of the headspace.

When it comes to writing, or any hobby or profession, orientation affects performance. If this is true, then quality is dependent of quantity. I like to think of my desk as, at certain moments, “controlled chaos.” Some disarray is fine by me since I’m the only one who needs to make sense of it. To the neat freak it looks like a papercut waiting to happen. Minimalism is an idea I’ve been working at and seeing less gives me more; taking away unnecessary desk ornaments for instance helps me get to work. I have paperweights that I’ve never used, so off the desk they go. It also allows more accessibility and flexibility for necessary resources. The space goes defined on a physical level and also, arguably more so, on a mental level. What is made of that space will be ultimately thought about. In thinking about your space, you take it from being a fictional, ideal space and make it a realized, physical space. The variations of ideal spaces are countless and to make that stance are podcasters Rojé Augustin and Muy Lang Ung with their show The Right Space. It’s an introspective look at the artist’s workspace and they have a good amount of episodes to listen to now. Episode #101 introduces screenwriter Craig Pearce with his views on collaborative and individual work and his current space. Something to also look forward to is Pearce’s admiration for William Shakespeare and his shared love of words. You can skip to the twentieth and thirty-fifth minute for the talk about each and subscribe to the podcast for free over on iTunes.

When I come to write, be it in my chair or table-turned-desk, I say it depends on what I think of the space outright. I don’t harbor too much on the space I find myself in, with or without discrepancies. Some sentences are thoroughly thought of while others may be natural, spontaneous and without pretense. I find some momentary distractions motivating and rejuvenating to the writing process and others just distracting. After a long-filled page typed or written I take pseudo-breaks or move onto a different activities that might or might not relate to what was just transcribed. In some cases, it will be full on breaks that are unrelated from the task at hand, sometimes dealing in the eclectic through trivia or other research topics. These are rewards more or less for when I found inspiration or am still on the search for it. Placement and positioning within my space aren’t so much meticulous as they are practical. Any choice is personal nevertheless, and so is your space. Therefore, what you think of space is what becomes of it and what you make of it is a reflection of who you are.


[1] Headspace is the subversion of physical space with abstractions or mental space.

[2] Reminding myself where I started is always a kind refresher to where I am and will be.

 

David Shields’ The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

 

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

© 2016 davidshields.com, all rights reserved

I was first introduced to David Shields by my Creative Writing professor Laurie Uttich. He recently attended the Master Artists-in-Residence, a program provided by the Atlantic Center for the Arts. I did not have the pleasure of going, but had Mr. Shields as a guest-speaker during one Spring semester lecture and I have to say, he is relaxed when it comes to speaking. He tackles topics of controversy, such as social stigmas in Jeff, One Lonely Guy and untold traumas in That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, treating them with direct language while offering simple resolutions. Shields’ works are comprised of what he calls a literary collage, a collection of personal selections in the form of emails, exchanges between people and friends and the like, coupled with background knowledge on the subjects he discovers more about.

He enjoys working with the taboo, taking the unspoken and private matters and making them public and establishing a point of interest. During the lecture he shared a quote from Immanuel Kant, borrowed by Isaiah Berlin (I forget whom he attributed it to), and it was, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” David Shields’ goal as a writer is to find trauma’s answer; what is the root of it all and how do we treat it? Most of his books are their own answers dealing with their own traumas, but what better realization to have than the one that affects us all: mortality.

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With every life comes the inevitability of death, and in accepting as much, no one harbors on death, but instead embarks on life. David Shields charts life with his experimental autobiography and biography by giving his account of his enduring ninety-seven-year-old father’s life along with that of his own. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead explores what it means to be mortal and where it leads. Through his remarkable fact-checking, Shields is able to connect both his and his father’s lives to meticulous accuracy and accordance to scientific research on aging. The moments of memoir in his book should also be noted for their journalistic approach. Considering his father is not always forthcoming with his feelings or personal history, he manages to ease his father’s stories out of him with his father’s rich but short-lived dialogue. Most of the dialogue is enough to serve as supplement for immersion into his father’s life and the quotations, in great numbers, he picks and pulls from history is much appreciated insight.

Shields’ book is divided into four sections of life: Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, and Old Age and Death. To start, Infancy and Childhood offers early development statistics, proving a rapid beginning of life. For example, “Babies are born with brains 25 percent of adult size… by age Ⅰ, the brain is 75 percent of adult size.” His father’s knowledge is then matched by the scientific fact from his teachings in the Midrash where a baby enters the world with clenched fists to show inheritance and where on the day the baby leaves this world his or her hands are open showing nothing has been received (6-7). Shields recounts his father’s near-death collision with the Long Island Rail Road. Being saved that day brought life to Shields and in turn made it possible for him to experience the birth of his own child.

Facts establish Shields’ expository on the subject of aging and dying between his experience and his father’s, showing an uncanny resemblance to each other through these short pieces of memoir. Dialogue in the large format of famous quotations are also rendered applicable to the direct dialogue of Shields’ friends and family. A quote from a friend’s daughter about being a frog becomes a call to observe that in each person is this “animal,” this body to claim. Shields is careful to provide his own understanding as well: “We are all thrillingly different animals… The body—in its movement from swaddling to casket—can tell us everything we can possibly know about everything” (23-26). From Adolescence, there is the newfound attention and curiosity of one’s self one wants to explore and, with great surprise, discover. Shields’ definition of self is through the body which “has no meanings. We bring meanings to it” (74). The human condition is blatantly described as the body, out-in-front and unashamedly aware of its mortality, and in turn, its immortal inclinations.

Further in Adulthood and Middle Age, the watershed moment of aging, one does not have to like the first sign of becoming an elder. One can however embrace a better feeling of it by being rapt with the body one’s given rather than reprimand the limitations setting in. Instead of settling at the age of 56, Shields’ father with the love of baseball pitches to his son and his friends with an unnerving strength (97). On the other hand, sometimes limitations are made. The alcoholism F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered for example, may have been further provoked by his low white blood cell count: “Beginning at 40, your white blood cells, which fight cancer and infectious diseases, have a lowered capacity… F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died at 44, wrote in his notebook, ‘Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40’[1] (96). Midlife crises do not have to be tragedies, they can be triumphs. According to Shields, the body is a temporary vessel in that the “survival instinct and the reproductive instinct are opposed” (125). Survival is due in large part to reproduction and without it, survival is at half-mast (127-128). Shields’ father in his 80s challenges this reproduction-equals-survival mentality with his own attempt at love: “‘Lady, it’s high time to get on with the rest of your life, whether it’s with me or anybody else’… I told her that I needed and wanted the love and warmth of a good and fulfilled relationship…” (133-134). His father believes life does not stop for reproduction or after it; life keeps moving forward. What keeps Shields’ inner animal or sense of body going is one of his many “hoop dreams” where he finds his “animal joy” or love of life most from playing basketball (135).

Lastly in Old Age and Death, much of what was gained gradually in youth has now reached its same peak, only this time at the decrepit level. For instance, the “brain of a 90-year-old is the same size as that of a 3-year-old” and sadly, Shields’ father is not able to combat this faculty (143). All is not lost in old age for the reason that most accomplishments vicarious and small are worth the effort of living. His father’s love of sports gave him direction in his life (216). Aging was not so much the concern as was the business of living (186). The repetitious pattern of fact-checking, dialogue and memoir compliments the order of life Shields presents in his novel. In this way, he exhibits life as it is lived and how close it can resemble the life of others. All that is left to do is live life.

You can watch David Shields talk about his book here. He also has a Tumblr and Twitter.


[1] A low white blood cell count may suggest the development of cirrhosis, a possible affliction for Fitzgerald: http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/cirrhosis

Write Anything

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It’s been two years since the start of my blog.

I admit, it was two experimental years, but this time it will be different. That’s the intention anyway. Blogging can be a strange plane of existence. It is much different from the headspace you get when you have a pen and pad in hand. As I sit here writing (or typewriting for the hipsters out there, or not, you be you!), I notice that staring at a blank screen with the insertion point cursor bar blinking awkwardly in place excites me. Its allure can be entrancing.

We both want that exchange of Rubik’s cube speed, key to finger, finger to key. I almost got sensual there; not all sex sells ladies and gentleman. When ever I take to the keyboard or loose-leaf paper, I don’t necessarily take to it with a certain urgency, although at times I would like that precious thought to surface. For me, writing is more like LEGOs. You have this beautiful creation on the box and when you open it up, what do you have? Bags of bricks waiting to be assembled, step by step.

Writing can be a weary endeavor, but it is a fun kind of weary. The effort you put into it is a reward in itself after you come to see your final project and say with disbelief, “I wrote that?” The goal is to surprise yourself, and then when you least expect it, surprise others. Why a blog then? A few reasons actually. Blogging, like writing, is a lot like hunting. It can catch your feelings and thoughts in an instant or it can go on a long chase to get the words out of you. I have been on a chase for two years and some of you will attest that is not very long, but I will say this. The hunt has me excited and the game will only just be out of reach. What good is writing if I can expect it all the time?

To blog is to write, no matter how trivial it may sound to the person who asks. All the more reason to show them its purpose. I think of the blog as a short assignment, somewhere you can serve your thoughts as appetizers before the main course hits the table. Blogs of course are not limited to just words, we can read pictures, music, people, any topic can be read and written about. If you can read, write, and if you can write, please read. Which leads me to the pursuit of voice: who am I speaking to?

Hopefully somebody, preferably you. No not you, you. Yes, the collective you. Audience is the people who decide to relish in the task of reading you, watching you, suspending their disbelief with you. Consider yourself as audience, think of all the fans, fandoms, and fanfictions you find yourself a part of and ask, is this something I would want to partake in? Write for you and in turn you will write for the collective you; you just won’t realize it.

When I was first starting out, most of my posts were reflection pieces. They were “a day in the life” without any real takeaway for anyone else but myself. The original plan was to establish advice for readers from my experiences, but only so much wisdom can come from a first-year student in college. Observations were made but the semblance of advice was left to be questioned, or so I asked the readers. I’ve decided instead to make Wiggins’ Words a literary blog since English Literature is my major of choice. Not only that, what I’ve read and written over these couple years has been, I feel, the start I was looking for.

The blog embodies not only your reader, but yourself. Being a writer must be the best job description in the world, you get to be so many things! Now, it will just be you, your keyboard, a screen and your friend insertion point. Then, it will be readers and writers who share in the commonwealth of the thought process you set out for each other. Again, that is the vision and it’s good to keep it in your sights. What I’m writing here right now could be just the spur of the moment. It could be a thorough and time-consumed post. It won’t be any of those things however, if you don’t write anything.