Pop Philosophy

All things must pass.

Babble on and on They say that it takes an artist his whole life to make his first record and only a year to make his second, which may explain why sophomore efforts typically feel incomplete and ill-conceived. The same could be said for writing your second novel -- unless, of course, your second novel was written like your first, in one month.

This November marked the third annual National Novel Writing Month, during which dedicated masochists attempted to write 50,000-word stories in 30 days. Like last year, I took up the challenge offered by Oakland resident and NaNoWriMo leader Chris Baty to produce "quantity not quality," joining the rallying cry of "No plot? No problem!" But unlike last year, I had a lot of company.

In October 2000, 140 people signed up to write; this year, that number ballooned to 5,000, mainly due to the exuberant presence of Web loggers and a large increase in media attention. The LA Times wrote a glowing profile, which the Oakland Tribune reran (after scripting its own headline and subhead, in which it misspelled Baty's name -- twice). NPR's All Things Considered and KQED's California Report both broadcast features; and The New Yorker is scheduled to publish a "Talk of the Town" blurb next week on a N.Y. NaNo writing party. (See and hear it all at www.nanowrimo.com.)

As for my novel, I was nervous. Last year I borrowed liberally from my own life. This time around I was determined to create an entirely fictional tale, a modern San Francisco version of Romeo & Juliet in which the star-crossed lovers hailed from the usually separate worlds of indie pop and techno. But did I have 50,000 words in me about made-up characters?

Happily, I did -- in fact, the process was easier than last year. I sat down at the computer every night and 2,000 words flopped out like rumpled clothing from a tipped-open suitcase. The local music landscape helped considerably. My female protagonist, Zoe, frequented a happy hour DJ club called 121 Spinna and wrote "missed connections" notes to a Web site called Carlsspot and took the male protagonist, Jasper, to see the band Lunchpail at the Top of the Mound. Jasper's friend played in a noise band called Corpse Unraveled, while Zoe's pal Felix hosted parties where girls in Army surplus pants mixed E with Red Bull. Meanwhile, the pair made fun of each other's crowds, capping on the "sweaters and haircuts" of the indie kids and the techno dancer who moved "as if his arms were made of balloons and he was trying to form them into animal shapes."

Strangely enough, as I was writing about these cross-cultural lovers, my background-music tastes evolved as well. I found that the best music for high-speed word spewing came from downtempo acts like Wagon Christ, Bonobo, and locals Bo Square, groups that normally sound too mellow and same-y for me. Now the languid voices and hypnotic drones pumped up with hyper beats worked perfectly. Still, they didn't help me answer the main question I got from contest bystanders: "Why?" There was no prize, no publishing deal; we were deep-sixing our free time and our wrist health for nothing. But on day 23, I realized what was so incredible about this experience. Each time I'd approached the keyboard, I'd had few ideas about where the story would go, yet I'd always found something to write about. I felt like I'd tapped into a part of my imagination that had lain dormant for ages.

But most of the time when people ask me why, I tell them this story: As Baty and I were leaving the Oakland kickoff party on Oct. 28, we passed a middle-aged neighbor on the steps of her apartment. She asked what kind of event we were having. "A nerdy novelist party," Baty told her. "Novelists aren't nerdy," she responded. "They're sexy."

All things must pass George Harrison, the youngest Beatle, died last week at the age of 58 from throat cancer. Unless you grew up in the mid-'60s, you may not appreciate the sadness of Harrison's passing or the cultural pervasiveness the Beatles once held. In Anthony Scaduto's Bob Dylan biography, Dylan recalled how he was driving through Colorado and heard a local countdown in which the Beatles had eight of the 10 top songs -- "In Colorado!" he remarked. In a 1968 issue of Rolling Stone, Langdon Winner wrote, "The closest Western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released." It is unlikely that any musical group will ever have the sheer impact the Beatles had.

For his part, Harrison wasn't the most loquacious Beatle or the most prolific or even the cutest, but his contributions to the Fab Four cannot be overstated. He was one of the most tasteful and concise lead guitarists in rock history, he was the first Beatle to take LSD, he pushed the group to give up touring and concentrate on recording, and he was a damn fine songwriter. George Harrison, a world gently weeps for you.

 
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