The Arena: The Break Down

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Last night the final results for the A Writer’s Recluse Arena Competition were announced.  I did not win.  I did come in second though, and that’s fine.

 

The first time AWR held the Arena I told one of the other members, via private message, that if I made it to the finals I was going to win with a love story.  I did, and I did.  This sort of set a personal tradition for me in the sense that now, in all the Arena’s (and some other competitions) I set personal challenges to win them with something a little more experimental.  Perhaps this is the reason I don’t win often.  Or perhaps this is my personal justification for allowing myself to not win often… I don’t know, that’s something for a psychologist to sort out.

 

This year, after several aborted attempts elsewhere, I told myself that if I made the finals I was going to win with a Comedy.  I’m bad at comedy, it’s not a thing I do well in text.  I’m told I do an alright job in person; that I’m a “funny guy” but when it comes time to write jokes, they tend to miss their mark.  I’m aware of this.  That’s what makes it a challenge.  Anyhow, here’s a little breakdown of how this year went:

 

ROUND 1:

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not proud of this.  That hasn’t changed.  The original Intro I was given to work with was interesting, but… not perfect.  In it, a beggar is confronted by a man who claims to be a “Futures Salesman.”  It’s a cool idea, this idea of a person who literally sells Futures.  There are some pretty wide ranging interpretations and implications for what this means and where this idea could go.

At the time I was given this intro I was in the process of determining the course of my own future.  Some things were not going well for me, professionally.  Work had become an exercise in frustration and endurance.  I was coming home at night angry and defeated and just in an all-around foul mood.  Not super-conducive to quality writing to begin with, but pile on top of it an Intro riddled with typos, inconsistency and a seemingly random assortment of story parts, and you end up with me getting really annoyed.

I found myself writing and re-writing this particular entry over and over; each time trying to incorporate every element of the Intro I was given while at the same time not contradict any element of the Intro I was given.  I try to do this with my own work; not introduce details which go unused, and not contradict myself.  This particular Intro made those efforts largely futile.  I went around and around with myself, arguing with myself, making jokes to myself, and just trying to make an unpleasant experience a little more enjoyable.

Ultimately, I decided the most interesting part of trying to make this work was the actual process of trying to make it work; my inner dialogue.  It was the most honest expression of how I was feeling and what I was dealing with.  Also, due to the way the first round of the Arena was constructed, I knew that even if I came in last place in the first Round I wasn’t going to be eliminated; so long as I submitted something.  So I did.  I’m not proud of it.

 

Round 2:

Probably my favorite of the four pieces I wrote and the one I was able to spend the most time with.  Round 1 had been cathartic, helped me vent, got some of the gunk out of the machinery so I could get into Round 2 feeling a little more… clean.

The Intro I was given involved a pair of gentleman, post-grad students, taking a taxi into the African bush in search of “witch trains” and there was some mention of a missing girl.  Another cool idea.  In the intro it makes mention of existing African folklore regarding these witch trains.  I figured rather than dive into this half-cocked like in Round 1, I’d actually do some research; look around for this existing folklore and see if I could pull any inspiration from that.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be a wild goose chase.  All I found about witch trains was this old CreepyPasta someone had written that had some really good reviews even though I couldn’t get to the end of it because I got so bored. From there I looked into the history of the railroad industry in South Africa which led me to the mining industry in South Africa which ultimately led me to this NPR interview where the author of this book about gold discusses what are known as zama-zama or Ghost Miners.

Now that is interesting as hell.  I listened to that interview about four times until I figured a way I could fit these Ghost Miners into the narrative.  Over the course of three nights, from about 10PM to midnight, I sat outside on my lanai writing.  I was nice, sitting there in the dark, in the quiet; it helped me to empathize, I think, with the characters as well since they spent much of the story in the dark, in the quiet.

Honestly, I don’t think this story could have come to me at a better time.  The drama at work was coming to a head; I was tense and unhappy.  But the act of researching this piece provided me with a distraction, the act of writing this piece (in the cool, fresh-air and silence of the Hawaiian winter night) allowed me to unwind, and the unassailable positivity of Kagiso helped keep my spirits up.

I finished this piece about two days before I quit my job.

Unfortunately, this piece is tainted by my second guessing myself.  I had originally written a different ending which I shit-canned in favor of circling back to the witch train element of the Intro.  I was so concerned with getting dinged for not incorporating the Introduction that I felt like I had to come back to it.  Ultimately, I think, it hurt the final product; the reviews agreed with that assessment.  I still advanced to the third round based on the strength of the rest of the story; but I should have trusted my gut.

I’m going to re-write that original ending and make a few other touch-ups and this one will be going in the Free Reads.

 

Round 3:

Coming off of Round 2, and into a new job, I was feeling pretty good.  This piece, tentatively titled “A New Model” was a lot of fun to write.  I sort of red-herringed myself with this.  The focal point of this Intro was Daniel’s birthday; or rather, his wife’s struggle to find the perfect gift for his big 4-0.  My own birthday was approaching at the same time so I was giving some thought to the passage of time.  I played around with the characters of Daniel and Cara, exploring their relationship and rapport with one another until I arrived at this bit of dialogue where Daniel says, jokingly, “Maybe I’ll buy a motorcycle. Or trade you (Cara) in for a newer model.”

Originally it was just a set-up for a joke about his advancing age, but it sort of stuck with me and I asked myself, “What if you really could trade people in for a newer model… Like a cell phone?”  That led me down a very strange rabbit hole of exploration.  The story took on a life of its own from there (which is the best thing a story can do) and I ended up touching themes I hadn’t really expected in what had begun as a pretty lighthearted little narrative about a 40th birthday.

I decided to go with my gut on this and not try too hard to incorporate the Intro, since doing so bit me in Round 2, and I think it paid off.  I got a little bogged down in details in a few places; but I kind of felt like certain things needed to be explained… The reviewers disagreed.  The execution isn’t perfect, but I really grew to like the idea and it got me into the Finals; so no significant complaints.

 

Round 4:

And we’re here, at the experiment.  Can Adam write Comedy?  The short answer is “No.”  I gave it a go, though.

My Intro was this very gritty, detail heavy, scene of just incredible violence.  There was blood everywhere.  Two things were happening here in my head; the first, I had committed myself to writing a Comedy. The second; violence is just not inspiring to me.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a violent story.

To me, violence is a failure on a philosophical level.  Violence happens when people fail at being human and become to primeval animalistic things.  I can be entertained by a certain degree of cinematic violence; but it’s not inspiring.  And that’s where I landed with this; cinematic violence.

I wanted to deconstruct the typical action movie character.  The guy who “saves the day” by just murdering everyone.  I originally wrote this as though it was taking place in a real life action movie.  As though reality actually played by action movie rules so long and the camera was on.  Michael, our “hero” is very into his role as the over-wrought action star.  The brooding anti-hero who plays by his own rules.  The other characters, though, don’t seem to be on the same page.  Michael is the only one who really seems to be on board with his role; he has these expectations that he’ll be rewarded for his behavior and doesn’t see that he’s done anything wrong.

I think this is where it failed on a structural level.  In order to do what I wanted to do, I needed everyone to either be “in” the movie, or “out” of the movie… But everyone hovers in this sort of in-between limbo.  Like, they’re in it, they’re participants, but they don’t quite accept it.

The reviews weren’t great, not all the jokes hit, and I didn’t win.

 

I did, however, finish the Arena.  I made it all the way to the finals, I didn’t drop out despite real life making all kind of demands, and (aside from Round 1) I wrote some stuff that I kinda like.  Yes, even Round 4 has it’s redeeming qualities.  So all things considered, I call this a success.

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