November’s Search Keyphrases

It is the end of the month. In the past 31.4159265 days, the following keyphrases were typed into Google (or some other search engine), and led visitors to www.drzoltan.com:

how to make people uncomfortable
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when do creative people stop being creative
you make other people uncomfortable
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[ Dr. Zoltan has launched his new website. Gnomes successful. Visit http://www.drzoltan.com to find out more. ]

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Neal Stephenson: "Why I Am A Bad Correspondent"

The following was scraped from Neal Stephenson’s esoteric homemade website. Unfortunately, it was removed from his official pop-culture domain in favor of advertisements for his books. In Dr. Zoltan’s ironic opinion, this letter is much more important than his fiction writing.

Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the “recluse” label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly. This document is a sort of form letter explaining why I am the way I am.

When I read a novel that I really like, I feel as if I am in direct, personal communication with the author. I feel as if the author and I are on the same wavelength mentally, that we have a lot in common with each other, and that we could have an interesting conversation, or even a friendship, if the circumstances permitted it. When the novel comes to an end, I feel a certain letdown, a loss of contact. It is natural to want to recapture that feeling by reading other works by the same author, or by corresponding with him/her directly.

All of this seems perfectly reasonable—I should know, since I have had these feelings myself! But it turns out to be a bad idea. To begin with, a novel has roughly the same relationship to a conversation with the author, as a movie does to the actors in it. A movie represents many person-years of work distilled into two hours, and so everything sounds and looks perfect. But if you have ever met a movie actor in person, you know that they are not quite as dazzling and witty (or as tall) as the figures they play in movies. This seems obvious but it always comes as a bit of a letdown anyway.

Likewise, a novel represents years of hard work distilled into a few hundred pages, with all (or at least most) of the bad ideas cut out and thrown away, and the good ideas polished and refined as much as possible. Interacting with an author in person is nothing like reading his novels. Just about everyone who gets an opportunity to meet with an author in person ends up feeling mildly let down, and in some cases, grievously disappointed.

Authors are participants in a kind of colloquy that joins together all literate persons, and so it seems only reasonable that they should from time to time stop writing fiction for a few hours or days, and attend public events, such as conventions, signings, panels, seminars, etc., where they should exchange ideas with other authors and with other members of society. Therefore, authors such as myself frequently receive invitations to do exactly that.

Letters or e-mail from readers, and invitations to speak in public, might seem like very different things. In fact they are points on a common continuum; they have more in common than is obvious at first. The e-mail message from the reader, and the invitation to speak at a conference, are both requests (in most cases, polite and absolutely reasonable requests) for the author to interact directly with readers.

Normally, my only interaction with readers is to go to a Fedex drop box every couple of years and throw in the manuscript of a completed novel. It seems reasonable enough to ask for a little bit more than that! After all, the time commitment is very small: a few minutes tapping out an e-mail message, or a day trip to a conference to speak.

For some authors, this works, but in my case, it doesn’t. There is little to nothing that I can offer readers above and beyond what appears in my published writings. It follows that I should devote all my efforts to writing more material for publication, rather than spending a few minutes here, a day there, answering e-mails or going to conferences.

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome. The quality of my e-mails and public speaking is, in my view, nowhere near that of my novels. So for me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people. But I can’t do both; the first one obliterates the second.

Another factor in this choice is that writing fiction every day seems to be an essential component in my sustaining good mental health. If I get blocked from writing fiction, I rapidly become depressed, and extremely unpleasant to be around. As long as I keep writing it, though, I am fit to be around other people. So all of the incentives point in the direction of devoting all available hours to fiction writing.

I am not proud of the fact that some of my e-mail goes unanswered as a result. It is never my intention to be rude or to give well-meaning readers the cold shoulder. If I were a commercial best-seller, I would have enough money to hire a staff to look after my correspondence. As it is, my books are bought by enough people to provide me with a sort of middle-class lifestyle, but not enough to hire employees, and so I am faced with a stark choice between being a bad correspondent and being a good novelist. I am trying to be a good novelist, and hoping that people will forgive me for being a bad correspondent.

Dr. Zoltan is now obsessed with Logical Fallacies. Visit http://www.drzoltan.com/blog to find out more.

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My Steve Vai Audition

Back in March of 2007, I was having dinner at a Hare Krishna restaurant with Phi Yaan-Zek, a guitarist from Wales. Phi was visiting Los Angeles to record an album with Bryan Beller, Mike Keneally, and Marco Minnemann.

Phi had heard from a reliable source that Steve Vai would soon be holding auditions for a bassist. It was quite obvious (and I immediately said) that it would be a perfect gig for Bryan Beller. Bryan had auditioned years ago but didn’t get the gig. I thought it was great potential news, and we went on to talk about other topics, such as Steve’s guitar tones on early recordings and other random political topics.

It didn’t cross my mind that *I* would audition. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me until one morning, months later. I woke up early with the thought in my mind that I should look into it. I grabbed my laptop and fired off an email to his manager, asking what was up. She confirmed that Steve was indeed going to be doing private, invite-only auditions, not open to the public. If I was interested, I was told that I should submit a couple of video clips to an email address. So I did. I sent a couple of clips from Sir Millard Mulch’s Ibanez Instructional DVD.

Shortly after that, I heard back and was told that Steve was interested in auditioning me. I was selected for a private audition at a North Hollywood studio. I had about a week to learn 3 songs and try to get my hands back in shape after not practicing for years. I had just picked up a graphic design contract gig in Glendale, so I would have very little time to get things together. I rented a car, burned a CDR of the songs, and listened to them on repeat during the hellish drive in traffic every day. At night, I focused on playing through those songs, over and over. I tried my best not to kill my hands, as I have had some issues in the past with straining the nerves in them. If I practiced too much, I wouldn’t even be able to play at the audition.

One of the songs I was asked to learn was called Building The Church. This is quite possibly the simplest song in the world. But I enjoyed playing it. It was probably just so Steve could see how a player could, “rock.”

Another song was The Crying Machine, which was all slap and pop. Since I play with a pick, I did a combination of picking and popping with my middle finger. It came out pretty good, but I am not at all a funk bassist. While practicing, it definitely took a while to get nearly into a groove. I am the stiffest, whitest player in the world, and I am just not into that style. Without a pick, I’m useless.

Another song was Freak Show Excess. This one presented a challenge during one particular section that I called The Bulgarian Runs. This is a technique that Steve does by bending notes with his pointer finger and matching it with notes on his ring finger. It’s basically the opposite of that cliché blues bend that everyone does between the G and B string on a guitar. It sounded very strange, as does most of Steve’s playing. It’s one of those techniques you don’t get into your fingers very easily. Anyway, I took that section and slowed it way down with a click. It was something like 7/16, played very quickly. And each time it looped around, it added a section to the BEGINNING of the riff, not to the end. It’s as if everything was just phrased totally backwards. After a night of wrestling with it, I gave up. There was no way I was going to be able to get it into my muscle memory in time.

I decided to gamble on my strengths in odd rhythms and my aggressive style of playing with a pick. There was no telling what Steve would be interested in, and it seemed he was pretty open-minded in finding a new player. I figured I had as good of a shot as anyone, considering the spectrum of musicians Steve has hired for his band over the years.

A couple of days before the audition, Steve announced there would be a second day of open-auditions. A cattle-call. I was still scheduled for the first day, luckily. I felt so important and special.

On the day of the audition, I had to take an extended lunch from the graphic design client’s office and drive over to North Hollywood. I found the place pretty quickly and hung around for a while. I got out my bass and practiced, sitting on a bench. There was no one around, except for the occasional bassist going in to audition. At one point, Steve came out and recognized me and greeted me, shaking my hand and thanking me for coming over. We had lunch together in the Valley about 6 months previous to that, but I looked totally different then — long hair and a full beard. This time around, I had a shaved face, short hair, a baseball hat, and these vanity frames I bought somewhere. He said, “Man, I barely recognized you, you look so much different!” I told him it’s because I have to travel incognito in this town, and keep changing my identity so no one will be able to follow me.

A few other bassists showed up and some of them sounded fantastic. A lot of them seemed to be European. I don’t know if they came all the way from overseas or not. It was interesting, getting to hear a few other players go in and audition. I can’t imagine how tense it must have been the day after that, during the cattle-call.

When it came to my turn, I went in and plugged into a huge Ampeg amp and cabinet. The position I was standing in was an awkward spot behind one of Steve’s guitar cabinets. Steve was situated in the center of the room, perched on a stool. The lighting and vibe was very dramatic, like you were in a concert. He had the rugs all over the place, et cetera. The backup band was Jeremy Colson on drums and this kid that I had seen performing at John Avila’s birthday party on rhythm guitar.

I can’t remember what we started out with, but it was a very strange vibe to be in there. It felt like being in a high school dance, with lights and glitter everywhere. Steve was noodling with some chords and instructed us to back him up so he could solo. He said the chord names and I completely forgot them after 2 seconds. It was an obtuse change that was not something that made sense to me. The vibe of the piece was very Celine Dion. I had no clue what to do. I fumbled around somewhere on the low strings, doing my best to follow the rhythm guitarist. It just felt very uncomfortable. I screwed it up pretty bad. All the while, Steve was in his own little world over there, soloing away. He eventually got up from his stool and it occurred to me that when he’s on stage, he’s not putting on a show. He always plays like that. It was pretty much the Jack Butler stuff, with his hips doing the Shakira thing when he would bend a note or slide around.

After that, we started into The Crying Machine, the funk song. This one I did alright on, during the main run-through. Steve even turned around and smiled at me during this one — the first eye contact he made with me through all of the playing. I tried to bond a bit with Jeremy Colson, but his playing was unenthusiastic, and I was having a hard time getting locked in with him. He wasn’t trying very hard. Maybe he was tired. I am used to drummers playing with a lot more power and control. It seemed he was more just playing along.

Anyway, at one point in the song, Steve gave me and Jeremy a hand signal to do some kind of interactive solo. It pretty much turned into a pentatonic heavy-blues jam. Steve sat and watched for a minute, then he started playing along. It turned into this big crescendo grand finale of train-wrecked triplets which we didn’t recover from.

At that point I was really feeling like I did not belong there. I’m not a trained session musician, so I am not versed in a variety of stylistic vocabularies. I can’t play jazz or blues or reggae. I’ve been an anti-social solo artist for 15 years, focusing primarily on my own, weird original material. I’ve rarely played live and haven’t even owned an amp in many years. Even though I played in bands in high school and college, I’ve never been one who is big on collaboration, and I’ve done what I’ve done totally independent from trends or the market. It was strange to be put in a situation where I was expected to know how bands work. It shouldn’t be surprising that I was totally lost when it came to being a normal bassist. I remember back in college music classes, I couldn’t settle on a principal instrument because I equally hated all of the classes, with their various stylistic clichés. I either had to learn jazz guitar, classical guitar, or stand-up bass. There was not a curriculum for pure music that didn’t involve just copying other people. I’ve always wanted something non-denominational. There are those who spend their whole lives like soldiers, learning to play other people’s music, and I am not one of them.

Up next, Steve asked me if I learned Freak Show Excess. I told him I knew the whole song except for the Bulgarian Runs. He said, “Sorry, but I am looking for someone who knows the material.” I answered that I could surely play it, but that I did not have time to learn that specific section. I could certainly at least understand it, as I had written pieces that are way more complex. So he offered to show it to me, note by note. As the other guys in the band stared at my hands, I tried my best to take a quick guitar lesson from Steve Vai. In the moment, my nerves took over and I blanked out. I got frustrated and asked Steve, “Is this taking too long?”

“Yes.”

At that, he extended his hand and thanked me for coming. As I packed up my bass, he told me that he really respects what I do with my own music and that I should continue to focus on my own vision. I really respect Steve for having the courage to do what he does. He believes in himself and respects his own ideas and plans. He takes what he does very seriously. While it could have been devastating to have failed an audition with my favorite musician in the world, I definitely didn’t choose to frame it that way, and learned a more important lesson. What I learned that day was that I have to have that same confidence in my own creativity.

A few days later, Steve emailed me a very thoughtful personal letter with a million thoughts on everything. Among other things, he told me that he wishes I could have gotten a chance to meet Frank Zappa.

At first, I felt pretty cocky about the whole experience of the audition, which was probably unnecessary. I came to realize that instead of giving Steve a hard time for doing what he does, I should see him as a peer. It is how he has always treated me — sending me encouraging emails, selling my CDs on his website, going to lunch with me, et cetera. It was because I have seen him as a superior that I have felt competitive with him, placing a lot of unreasonable expectations on him. Maybe some of his music does sound like Celine Dion, but that shouldn’t affect me.

In the end, I was glad to hear that Bryan Beller got the gig. I think he is a great bassist who does some very creative and interesting things with his technique. I have really enjoyed Bryan’s work with Keneally in years past, and have gotten the chance to see him live several times. Bryan seems like one of those guys who has learned the standards as a session musician, but has also expanded into a lot of complex outsider music. It’s great that someone can focus so much on their instrument and develop it to an extraordinary level. I barely even play an instrument anymore, because I am so interested in writing, video, and graphics. When I was a little kid, way before I was a musician, I wanted to be George Lucas. I think putting together a big-picture concept using every medium is really where the good stuff is.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think I would have been happy playing bass in Steve’s band. It would have been incredible to see the entire machine functioning on the road, and to get to be around other people who are highly-motivated and successful and artistic. But I think Steve Vai and I have two very different ideas about what music is for and how it should be “consumed.” And that’s fine. With a creative career, you have to “follow your bliss,” so that is what I am doing. Music occupies a sacred little scientific area in my life and I keep it as pure as I can, away from the adolescent popularity contest that is the music industry.

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