Category: Writing
Chiang Mai | The Chinese Monk

I was north of Chiang Mai with my driver, traveling to a hill tribe village in a steady and thick rain when I saw the sliver of massive stone steps cut into the side of a mountain, just visible through the jungle foliage. I asked him to stop and since the way was wet and filled with shoe eating mud, the driver said he’d stay in the car.

I climbed the stairs and saw the monk there, standing by his buckets and bowls, out collecting the rain for drinking water. He was the sole caretaker of this meager temple, a small cave and statue and run down altar. He was actually Chinese and spoke French fluently, but very little English. His cigarettes were foul, hand-rolled affairs, terribly strong and stinky. I gave him my pack of American cigarettes and we smoked in the cave, sheltered from the rain while he told me stories and lessons that I could not understand.

There were only poor farmers nearby and I doubt any tourists would stop by this tiny cleft in the mountain. This was truly a life of solitude and he was far from where he had started from. As was I but I would return to my life of cities soon enough.

We passed the time and my feet were wet and there were enough cigarettes to last us for a good while.

Hill Tribe Area, Chiang Mai, Thailand; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

Hill Tribe Area, Chiang Mai, Thailand; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

Hill Tribe Area, Chiang Mai, Thailand; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

Hill Tribe Area, Chiang Mai, Thailand; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim


Arthur C. Clarke | The HAL – IBM Myth

And I’ve been trying for years to stamp out the legend that the word, that the letters HAL was derived from IBM by one letter displacement. And of course HAL actually stands for Heuristic Algorithmic, H. A. L. But that’s a myth that I can’t quite stamp out. I think that IBM are quite proud of it so I’ve given up the attempt.

– Arthur C. Clarke, the IBM story is “utter nonsense.”

Sir Arthur C. Clark, Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1973. Copyright @ Peter Angelo Simon.

Sir Arthur C. Clark, Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1973. Copyright @ Peter Angelo Simon.


Bucharest | Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop, Bucharest, Romania; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

Sir Richard Bishop, Bucharest, Romania; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

Apologies, as this is a bit out of order, being placed in the middle of the Bangkok series, but I have just returned from a trip to Bucharest, Romania where I had the great fortune to see Sir Richard Bishop perform at a club, thirty-one years after I had seen him for the first time at a hardcore show in DC.

I’ve posted the introduction to his interview below, but if you should read the article in it’s entirety here, at The Attic. A very nice piece of synchronicity.

Sir Richard Bishop, Bucharest, Romania; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

Sir Richard Bishop, Bucharest, Romania; Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X © Doug Kim

It was 1984 in Washington, DC, at the height of that city’s legendary hardcore punk scene. We were young, aggressive and frustrated, and though not dumb, the amount of things we didn’t know were huge. We had no idea how important that punk scene was in DC. We had no idea that we were in the last year of hardcore punk, that the next year, the scene would just collapse into fragments. We had no idea we would survive and grow old and sit in chairs at desks for decades to come. And we had no idea that the visceral, instinctive and emotional wave of hardcore punk that surprised us and filled us with ideas and growling intensity was a feeling we would never feel again.

One of the great surprises was at a JFA show in DC in 1984 at the 930 Club. The small club was packed as usual for a well-known out of town band, a band whose logo was easily drawn on jackets, skateboards and walls. None of us knew the opening band, but back then, we had no information except for paper magazines and we were hungry for most any music. The opening band came out and the guitarist with his head wrapped in an Arab keffiyeh head scarf, started to sing in a high falsetto, like a feminine muezzin, chirping out a call to prayer. This went on for minutes. No accompaniment. This was at a time where hardcore punk fans would abandon their favorite bands for daring to play a song less than faster than the speed of light.

People started to leave. A few here, more there. Than a constant stream of people headed for the door. Hardcore punkrock took in and embraced many different musical flavors (The Pogues and The Butthole Surfers for God’s sake) almost because there was no place else to go. But a challenging avant-garde, experimental trio? Sometimes, people just wanted to thrash. For the few of us that stayed, and it was a fair amount, we were enthralled for next hour. All I remember thinking was, Who the fuck are these guys? And where the fuck are they taking me?

During one sequence, the drummer was standing, sticks just barely brushing the cymbals, in a trance, the band letting the tension build. When the break finally came, the drummer descended on his kit and I saw a drumstick shatter but did not see where the top half went until the guy in front of me turned around, blood streaming from his face. We filled in the gap he left and closed ranks to get closer to this crazy band. Who were they, I asked someone after the show. Sun City Girls. I bought their album that week and drove my friends nuts with it for months. I don’t even remember JFA playing.

Thirty-one years later, I was in Bucharest for a week, there to photograph the people and the streets. This musician I had met that night before took me to Club Control to watch a free, improvisational duet of violin and percussion as she was friends with the violinist. This show was an unexpected choice and I was enjoying the performance and oddly proud of the size of the crowd in attendance for such an experimental performance. Then some guy named Sir Richard Bishop came on. I had assumed it was going to be a DJ since it was a club. I had no idea. Bishop brought out a gorgeous small body 19th century guitar and started off with a song, heavy in the Phrygian mode, playing fully off of the North African mode. Unexpected again. I heard his voice in between songs. Definitely American. At times, percussive and at times, trancelike, I sat on the floor beneath the bar and let myself get taken along for the ride.

It was afterwards, outside in the terrace that I found out that it was Richard Bishop from the Sun City Girls. Well, look at that. We had both survived.


Chuck Palahniuk | Thought Verbs
Chuck Palahniuk © Jim Clark

Chuck Palahniuk © Jim Clark

Thought Verbs
by Chuck Palahniuk

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates.

And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.

Present each piece of evidence. For example:

“During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”

A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast. Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

For example:

“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”

Versus:

“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.

(…)

For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.

Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.

“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”

“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”

“Larry knew he was a dead man…”

Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.


West Village | Cafe Doma

Cafe Doma, West Village © Doug Kim, Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X

Cafe Doma, West Village © Doug Kim, Leica MP 0.58, 35mm Summicron, Kodak Tri-X


I love this girl, reading “Ivan Ilyich” at the prime corner table in Doma, her plain, blond hair parted dead center, falling in clean sheaves to each side of her face onto her black turtleneck. Her eyebrows are so pale that they must disappear in certain light, sinking beneath her milk bred skin. She is alone and her posture is proud, the book held high to her face, bathed in Vermeer light. The cafe is packed and warmed by the breath of coffee, condensation on the windows behind her, fogging the view of Perry Street into a pleasant scrim, a soft diorama of pedestrian blurs and an occasional bolt of cab yellow.

My macchiato is really good, enough so that I order a second. I never drink macchiatos unless the establishment has that snobbish, curatorial attitude towards its coffee beans and service that make it worthwhile. This four dollar cup is exceptional with its perfect dollop of foam on top of the sharp earthy espresso. I can drink coffee that has been cooking on an office burner all day long or 36oz styrofoam cups from gas stations to slurp in a car with beef jerky, but I also enjoy the self-indulgence of a cup that costs as much as a meal. I stick my nose into my second cup, breath in and exhale to add to the warm, bitter, woolish flavor in the air.

I put my headphones in to drown out the “difference between LA and New York” conversation next to me. A speed metal riff explodes in my ears and I forward to something more languid as I sip my macchiato, scribble in my book and occasionally check on the Vermeer girl by the window. My boots are almost dry and I will have to leave soon.