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Theodora Goss
Posted on Saturday, November 15, 2003 - 09:38 pm:   

I'd like to start a new thread to talk about someting I don't think any of the other threads cover. The topic came up on the literature thread, but got lost because it doesn't deal with completed works but with the writing process. Here it is:

Is it worth trying to deliberately write, I'm not going to say interstitial fiction, because I have no idea how one would begin to do that, but experimental fiction (which may, eventually, be labeled interstitial)? I stress the deliberately here. I'm not asking whether it's worth writing fiction that just happens to be experimental.

If it is, how would one go about it? I remember that Alan once mentioned writing exercises he uses in his workshops. Are there exercises that ask students to write in particularly creative ways? (Some of the workshops I've been in have taught students to write in ways that are effective, but also limiting. Character arcs and all that.) And what about outside of the workshop context?

I'm going to paste in a couple of emails, including one of my own, that I think began this topic:

From Barth:

which brings me back to dora's point made long ago (was that *yesterday*??). i think she's right that a discussion of process would probably be very useful when it comes to talking about writing between genres and borders (and i hope someone delves into that). that was a slightly different conversation than i was fishing for, but i bet would-be editors as well as writers would find it useful.

From me:

I'd love to talk about process. But honestly, I wouldn't know what to say. If someone came up to me and said, "How do I write interstitial fiction," what would I answer?

1. Don't.
2. Read a lot of Russian literature, or any other literary tradition you're not familiar with.
3. Find your individual vision, grasshopper.

I think that for me, at any rate, it's about finding ways of breaking out of various conscious and unconscious constraints. I've heard writers say, "I don't pay attention to genres or categories. I write what I want to and let the marketing people take care of all that." And while I think that's wonderful, I'm not sure I entirely believe it. We've grown up with the genres and categories, and they're part of our brains. (Says the woman who has a first novel, complete with dragons and pseudo-celtic names, tucked safely away in her drawer, where no one will ever see it. Hey, it was college.)

So one question is, how do we free ourselves (or maybe I should just speak for myself) to write in ways that express a truly individual vision (grasshopper)? (I remember a Virginia Woolf passage I wish I could locate describing how difficult it was for her.) If someone could give me the formula, I would be most grateful! (And I hope this doesn't simply constitute public wrestling with my individual demons.)

From Alice:

I can't say how the process works, but I can say how it doesn't for me.

When I started out, whenever I went to conferences I was given a set of rules on how to write: follow one point of view; if a gun appears in chapter 1 by golly it better be shot by the end of the story; you need a child's p.o.v. in kid's lit; children's lit has happy endings; adults should have no part in their story; make sure your main character has a buddy/foil to work with; and on and on. I was given a set of rules on how to sell: stick to one genre and make a name for yourself in that one genre; if an editor tells you to make changes, argue with her at your own peril; and more.

I'm a bit slow on the uptake. It took me years to figure out that these "rules" were in fact just a description of what has sold before, and that, in fact, when I looked at what I really liked to read, these "rules" were constantly being broken. My favorite authors had multiple voices, gave me small tangential gems, had adults active in their stories, didn't always have happy endings, sometimes had loners as the main character, switched genre/voice/whatever from book to book, and stood firm on what they thought made good literature. Phew.

When I stopped thinking about these "rules" so much, I was able to start creating much more freely -- and productively.

That isn't to say that I don't pay attention to craft: there is such a thing as drek (much too much of it, IMO). But understanding conventions doesn't mean we should be bound by them. And sure, some experiments will fall flat, but unless we push the envelope how else will soemthing new and fun be created?
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Saturday, November 15, 2003 - 11:41 pm:   

Yes, this thread makes sense to me--the other one is very analysis-of-existing-works oriented and discussion of process hasn't been able to stick there. I'm glad to see it coming up again, because I thought it was one of the most interesting issues raised.

I don't know about process and whether it's worth it, though. For me, it's not like I'm sitting around and thinking "hey, should I write in genre, or in mainstream, or something else." It's more like I have an idea or a phrase, I start writing it and it develops as it develops (there's some great insight into the writing process for you!). I do know that it reflects a lot of my reading history. When I was oh, ten to 15 years old, I read a *lot* of deeply in-genre fantasy and some science fiction. And then I became kind of bored. Then when I was, say 16 I switched to reading non-fiction and mainstream fiction. And then I became kind of bored. (My boredom, by the way, is not meant as an indictment of fantasy or of mainstream--I just get bored a fair bit) I felt like I could predict what was going to happen, and more importantly, *how* it was going to happen, stylistically speaking.

Then, when I was 19 or 20, I picked up Angela Carter and my brain exploded. Not literally, but that's what it felt like. That was several years ago, and I'm still not bored, no matter how many times I read her stuff. Not only could I not predict what would happen, even in the fairy-tale revisions, but her *style* blew me away--I remember thinking that I didn't know you were *allowed* to write like that and still get taken seriously.

I don't want to turn this into another discussion of already-written-works, so I'll cut to the chase. What I'm trying to say is that my writing has always been *very* influenced by what I've been reading--that's been true since I was in third grade. So my own process (not that I'm claiming to be oh-so-interstitial or anything, but still) is to read a lot of unusual stuff.

But then again, I enjoy the unusual stuff because it speaks to something in me that felt stunted by the genre categories readily available to me, so there I am back at square one.
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Posted on Sunday, November 16, 2003 - 04:08 pm:   

I remember reading a collection of shorts by Roger Zelazny, in which one of the stories was exactly this kind of experimental exercise piece. In this case, he started from a single image, a woman singing in an empty theatre, and then developed it stream of consciousness style until it reached a natural stop. That strikes me as not a bad way to go about it, not least because it's likely to give you some insight into which direction your natural inclinations/strengths lie. I've tried it once or twice myself, but never ended up with a finished product I would have been happy letting someone else read - but this may be because my natural tendency is towards a relatively conventional mode of story-telling.

And herein lies another difficulty with "deliberate experimental writing" - how important is it, in that context, to actually tell a story? If you take writers like Kelly Link or Ray Vukevich, it seems pretty clear that they're naturally inclined to tell weird stories from the off - they just happen to have a muse with Interstitial States citizenship - and it's the content rather than the execution that grips you. With someone like say Walter Abish, however, the execution is what stands out most and in a lot cases there almost doesn't appear to be a story *there*. Does that matter (a) at a writerly level (should we necessarily be bothered about telling a story?) or (b) at a pragmatic level (is anyone going to want to read this stuff?)? I guess it depends very much on what you write *for* - you own satisfaction, to reach other people, to earn a living, or as in my case some rarely thought through mish mash mix of all three.
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Sunday, November 16, 2003 - 09:03 pm:   

I don't know about that distinction. I mean, I buy that such a distinction could exist, but it's not my experience of reading Kelly Link's work. I'm consistently fascinated by how she works with form--particularly in "Girl Detective," "Travels with the Snow Queen," "Flying Lessons," and "Shoe and Marriage." Even though I do it all the time, I'm uncomfortable w/separating form from content--though again, sometimes it's necessary. But I don't know if to my mind it's possible to have interstitial content without interstitial form. I'll have to keep thinking about this.
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Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 05:48 am:   

Sorry, I probably didn't phrase that last part very well - what I mean is that, for example, in Link's "Flying Lessons" the story/content (Greek Gods & mythology adapted to a homely and contemporary British setting) is what is interstitial. She then sets abut telling this story in an essentially conventional way (there are a couple of straight-to-reader addresses to stir things up a little, but otherwise it's straight narrative). By contrast, if I sit down, determined to write experimentally/ interstitially, I may (probably will) do all sorts of things with my writing *style*, but unless I have that brilliant Linkesque idea to start with, what I write could well end up being no kind of story at all, despite being very experimental in form. Similarly, Link's Snow Queen, apart from use of second person throughout, is again a fairly conventional narrative of brilliantly weird/interstitial events and characters. On the other hand, some of the stories in Walter Abish's In the Future Perfect deal with immensely mundane events and characters for which I doubt I would have been able to sustain much interest if it weren't for what he was doing with the form.

I haven't read the other two Link stories you mention yet (and would agree that the form, of Girl Detective at least, looks far more experimental), but this is interesting in itself. As with most short story collecions, I read Stranger Things Happen in random order and neither "Girl Detective" nor "Shoe and Marriage" grabbed me in the way Snow Queen and Flying (or "the Specialist's Hat" et al) did. In both cases I bounced out after a couple of pages and will have to go back - this may have been purely a question of distraction and tiredness at the time, but I suspect it had more to do with the relative lack of substantial narrative. An inability to get to grips (as easily) with this is clearly my failing, not Link's, but I think it does point up the issue of narrative and what happens to it when you "go experimental".
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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 08:55 am:   

But Richard, if you took the narrative style out of "Flying Lessons", you wouldn't have a Kelly Link story at all; you'd be left with a Charles DeLint. Not that there'd necessarily be anything wrong with that, but would we really consider that interstitial? What's experimental or interstitial about the style in "Flying Lessons" may not be as easy to pin down as that in "The Girl Detective", for example, but there does seem to me to be something going on here beyond the usual.
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 10:27 am:   

So, just to return to Dora's original question, what does it mean to write interstitially? What kind of elements make a style so unusual? Not that I'm asking us to codify a set of rules of interstitial style--I'm asking descriptively, not prescriptively.

I don't know, just goes to show that tastes differ wildly, even here at the IAF! "Girl Detective" was the first story I read in the collection, and it sucked me right in--I again had the sense of "I didn't know you could write like that!" And also "Shoe and Marriage." What I was thinking of in respect to the other two was not so much the use of second-person, but the non-chronological interweaving of narrative with the interspersed "speech." But after I read your thoughts on that, I'm going to stop posting about it, because I don't want to swamp this board w/analysis of already existing works too! That would be unfair to poor Dora.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 11:37 am:   

Dora: "Is it worth trying to deliberately write ... experimental fiction?"

Certainly, but the success depends upon motive, I think. Setting out to be the person who simply upsets the world's understanding of how text/genre works (without a compelling reason for doing so) is narcissistic and not a little masturbatory. Setting out to mutate narrative to accomodate an idea or form of expression not experienced before, on the other hand, is quite valid.

One example of the latter is Samuel Beckett's Nohow On, which seeks to trouble the concept of the authorial "I," and does so quite successfully by stripping from the text those referents which permit the reader to feel comfortably at home with a unitary narrator. Beckett felt not only that the fictive narrator was a gross fiction, but that the authorial voice itself was a deception. He set out to demonstrate this, and he put it through its paces in experimental writing. The result is textually challenging, intellectually rewarding, and altogether beautiful. Other examples exist, of course, not least of all in Beckett's own oeuvre, but this one example leaped straight into my forebrain when I read your post. ("Not I" and "Play" are other really good examples of this kind of thing in Beckett's work.)

He would be a good example of what some people here mean when they say "interstitial," in that he created his work within and for a literary scene which had no specific name for what he was doing. It was philosophy, but it wasn't true philosophy. It was prose, play, fiction, autobiography, etc. In the end, it's been called Modern, which is a shameful dodge, and experimental, which doesn't help us to an understanding of what it does. Finally, it's just... Beckett.
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Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 07:23 pm:   

So now Beckett is interstitial? And Charles Vess is interstitial?

Uh, are we getting anywhere?
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Theodora Goss
Posted on Monday, November 17, 2003 - 09:46 pm:   

I'd like to make a distinction between what is interstitial now and what was interstitial when it was first written. Maybe this starts to answer Donaldo's question. Here's an example:

In the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Walpole himself tell you in his introduction that he's trying to blend two styles, one associated with depictions of ordinary life and one associated with the older literary tradition of romance. And his novel does seem to cross what were, in the eighteenth century, literary boundaries. (For those of you familiar with Walpole, I realize that my summary is resulting in broad generalizations.)

But if The Castle of Otranto were written nowadays, it would simply be one more gothic novel. The gothic began with an initial interstitial work, then quickly became a genre so identifiable that it was frequently parodied. So nowadays, I would argue, one only finds interstitial writing at the edges of the gothic, where it touches on other literary genres (or styles?). "The Specialist's Hat" is filled with gothic elements, but it's not readily identifiable as gothic. It's doing something different with those old conventions.

What I'm trying to say, in part, is that the term interstitial has to be a moving target. It has to mean differerent sorts of literature at different times. Since genres change with time, the borders between them have to change as well.

So, is Beckett still interstitial? I dunno. Modernism isn't my specialty.

I also want to write something about the need for story, and what we replace it with if that's the direction our experimentation takes. But this is long enough, so maybe next time.
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Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 - 05:18 am:   

Dora - "the term interstitial has to be a moving target" - a well made point, and the crux of the issue, I think. Interstitiality is perhaps more a process than a thing - a constant splintering away from the established carpentry of published genre. The great thing about it is that therefore it tends to showcase some awesome talent - it's far harder to make (worthwhile)things out of splinters than out of whole wood.

Thus, Donaldo, are we getting anywhere? Probably not, but that's probably just as well because as soon as we get there, it'll probably stop being interstitial :-)

Neal - (to some extent this is carrying over from the other interstit thread, but I'm also addressing Dora and Veronica's call to the how rather than the who, so): what interests me is where we put our experimental stuff once it's written - I was always fascinated by the violent eruption of interstitiality at the end of two of Jim Thompson's novels - The Getaway and Savage Night. Both were firmly in genre until the closing passages at which point the rug gets yanked right our from under. I wonder whether that's a good way to approach it - start dumping interstitial surprises into the middle of largely innocent genre novels.
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 - 12:45 pm:   

(I tried to post last night, but my computer was apparently overcome with an attack of the nerves and simply shut down. I'm sending it to a specialist in such disorders today.)

Neal: "Setting out to be the person who simply upsets the world's understanding of how text/genre works (without a compelling reason for doing so) is narcissistic and not a little masturbatory. Setting out to mutate narrative to accomodate an idea or form of expression not experienced before, on the other hand, is quite valid."

I believe I must disagree with you here, Neal, for a couple of different reasons. I think that upsetting our understanding of texts/genres for no other reason than seeing what we can do with the art of writing is a perfectly fascinating and "valid" exploration (I'm putting "valid" in quotation marks because I'm not quite comfortable w/calling a kind of writing valid or not.). I think that such playing around with form merely to see what form can do, or what we can do with form are the pleasure and prerogative of being an artist. But maybe you are counting experiementing or playing just to see what a form can do as a compelling reason?

I agree w/Wilde when he writes in *Critic as Artist*:

"[the artist proceeds] not from feeling to form but from form to thought and passion. He does not first conceive an idea, and then say to himself, 'I will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines,' but realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill and make it intellectually and emotionally complete....if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he had no new message that he can do beautiful work."

Wilde is, I think, exaggerating the case a bit in order to counter the weight of the feeling that art is based on content, and I think that in truth it's a more dialectical (form suggests an idea, the idea suggests mutating the form, blah blah blah) than he writes, but I do largely agree with his point.

The second reason I disagree w/your statement is that I think it would be downright paralyzing for a writer to interrogate her stylistic motivations before writing experimentally/interstitially--at least it would be for me to have to figure out my stylistic agenda beyond "that's just the way it should be in this story/poem." But I guess this gets back to my earlier question. How many writers sit down and choose among a variety of genres/styles, and how many write, experimenting or not w/form in the only way that seems appropriate to that particular piece of writing? In the Wilde analogy, do you have an idea for a written piece and sit down and think, "hey, I could do that as a sonnet, or a limerick, or a science fiction short story," or do you think "hey, I have an idea of how I want to begin a poem/sonnet/short story/whatever"?

I agree w/statements you've posted in other threads that it is impossible to know beyond a doubt the intention of an author from his/her work--which is another reason why I don't care much about what motivates a writer to write experimentally. How could we tell what the motive is, and does it really matter?
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Nicholas Liu
Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 - 02:10 pm:   

Veronica: >> 'In the Wilde analogy, do you have an idea for a written piece and sit down and think, "hey, I could do that as a sonnet, or a limerick, or a science fiction short story," or do you think "hey, I have an idea of how I want to begin a poem/sonnet/short story/whatever"?'

I think many people can immediately tell if an idea's meant to be a poem or a prose piece. I personally can, so for me, while I don't have that conscious "hm, what shall I do this idea as?" moment, it isn't the case that I set out looking for something to turn into a specific form of writing, either.
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Gwenda B.
Posted on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 - 06:48 pm:   

It seems to me that good interstitial writing, like any other kind of good writing, lies somewhere between the organic and the artificial. It's a construct that emerges. I do think there are writers who are successfully able to set out to write experimental fiction and do that. Just to throw out an example, let's say Kathy Acker. But there's also an element of just following one's voice to the logical extreme there, which may be more or less experimental depending on the person.

Here's my gut. Maybe a writer has an idea or a spark and in thinking about that determines that it may take an experimental or moderate to radical departure from normal style/approach/yada and then pursues that approach in the pursuit of writing toward achieving whatever theme or formal exploration or subversion (gritting teeth) or idea or character was there at the beginning. And knowing that it can only be done in some way that is different, than the writer's own work, than the majority of other work that might be considered a cousin to this work, etc. etc. etc.

Or you just take a field trip, or whatever your writing process entails, and end up there.

I have a feeling it's usually the second. Or some unnamed third or fourth or fifth. I've actually been thinking about the practical effect of this, which tends to be that the writer ends up with a piece of work and no real firm "fit" for it in terms of publication. Or only a very small number of markets. But that's in another thread.

Gwenda, who should probably start thinking about this at other times besides when she's sleepy
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Veronica Schanoes
Posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003 - 04:26 pm:   

Yeah, Nicholas, that's my experience too. I have a sense of the form of my idea, and then that form develops/changes as I write it out. I end up doing Gwenda's second option, ending up there. Just curious.
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Dan L-K
Posted on Monday, January 12, 2004 - 07:25 pm:   

I have to agree with the notion that every act of creation walks the line between the organic and artificial; it's probably mostly a matter of the individual artist deciding which side or the other they favor. You can certainly accomplish interesting things by leaning towrds one or the other.

"Experimentation," though, does imply a certain slant towards the artificial, if in no other way than acknowledging that every aspect of the work is a deliberate choice. If you're writing prose, POV, person, tense, voice, tone... all these are choices. Experimental writing twiddles the knobs on things like this to demonstrate that they're choices, and to see how much you can alter and still make it work as art. This is the big value of experimentation, even when it fails: it illuminates what is possible. Hard to make that just happen organically unless you're really utterly brilliant.

However, I think there's something else that deserves mention in all this, just to bring it to earth a little bit. Steven Brust has an idea that he calls the "Cool Stuff Theory of Literature," which boils down to "Writers write about the stuff they think is cool." This is as it should be. If your primary materials aren't the things that obsess you and turn you on and take up your headspace and attention - i.e., the stuff you think is cool - then you're not going to be interested in the work, and no one else is, either.

While it's tempting to think (and, perhaps, possible) that, say, Grant Morrison sat up in bed one morning as the creative lightning struck and said "Great Austin Osman Spare! I shall write a comic book that is also a work of reality-bending chaos magick, and it will be a superhero-team story, a supernatural conspiracy thriller, and mindf*ck psychedelica all at once! And the hero shall be a big transparent Mary Sue, only he'll be so relentlessly cool no one will care!" - but I kind of doubt it. It's more likely he started with the medium and the philosophical idea and threw in enough of the Cool Stuff that obsessed him to make it work.

In that light, I'm not sure it's useful to deliberately set out to create something "interstitial," though it may be useful to set out to deliberately play with the boundaries of your various literary tools - medium and genre included. (I'm reminded of reading a quote by John Crowley where he says that fantasy may not be a thing one ought to aspire to write, though stories with various unreal elements are; I both agree and disagree with that, but it's certainly a thought-provoking approach.)

In a way, I wonder if deliberately acknowledging the Cool Stuff approach doesn't render the question of genre at least somewhat moot. It's tempting to think of genres as color-by-numbers formulaic, but a good look around any genre or subgenre is going to dispel this quickly enough. Everyone knows what "urban fantasy" means - except that the fantastic city in question might be Lankhmar, Riverside, Newford, Yzordderrex, New Crobuzon, or London Below, and no one is going to mistake one of those for any of the others. Even that most generic of genres, High Fantasy, isn't as cookie-cutter as its detractors have it - Robert Jordan is not George R.R. Martin is not Tad Williams is not Robin Hobb, despite a certain number of thematic elements in common, and only the most casual and dismissive of observers could claim that they're "all alike." But every one of them is undeniably writing about the things they vibrate in sympathy with, or they wouldn't have achieved anything like the popularity they have.

So, to sum up: Write cool stuff, and play around. Labels, if necessary, can be applied later.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - 06:10 pm:   

Dan -- Good post. I agree with almost everything you said, and I especially appreciate that you brought a genre as maligned as High Fantasy down to specifics. It always irks me when people freely lump High Fantasy novels/writers together based on genre alone, something they would never do with "mainstream." Imagine someone saying "White Noise, Straight Man, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, what's the damn difference? They're all just contemporary-realist stories about friggin' college teachers! Same shit, different cover."

Where I disagree with you is when you set experimental prose apart for being more "artificial" than... whatever isn't experimental, I guess. All prose is artificial, of course, even when it doesn't feel contrived (and sometimes more artificial, the less contrived it feels; it takes more work to make something feel natural than it does to shock the reader). I'm sure there are writers out there who never agonize over a sentence or the ordering of scenes or the sound and feel of a piece of dialogue, but I don't know any of them. Artificial, for me, isn't synonymous with experimental.

For me, experimental prose comes from one of two places. Either the writer has an idea which simply can't be related through standard storytelling techniques, and he or she must reinvent something to tell the story; or the writer wants to create something experimental, then point to it and say, "See how clever I am?" In other words, far from being more artificial than standard prose, experimental prose should, if anything, be more organic to the concept under examination. When it isn't, it's just so much TV kung-fu -- much waving and shrieking, but no real punch.
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Dan L-K
Posted on Wednesday, January 14, 2004 - 06:36 pm:   

Ah, I think I see what you're saying. All writing requires technique, and good writing should employ technique consciously even if it's not doing something especially outre. A very good point.

Dunno how much this really works in practice; I think it's possible to be a really good writer and use a lot of the toolbox more or less instinctively. I agree that it's all artificial - but there's artifice and then there's artifice, y'know? Or maybe it's useful to distinguish artifice from craftsmanship here.

Which brings me to your other point. I'm not sure I agree that those are the two options are the only ones. There's a lot of interesting stuff out there that succeeds in part because the strings are showing - the interesting technique is part of what gives it its impact, rather than drawing attention from it. And I don't think that even the failed ones are (always) the result of someone being oh-so-clever just to show off. The benefit of experimentation is that it expands the territory; sometimes you need to go too far to see for certain where the new boundary is.

(Nonetheless, your "TV kung-fu" metaphor made me laugh and laugh, and is something I may have to rip off sometime...)

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