The Joshua Tree

As preparation for launching Space Westerns magazine I began researching Western-genre fiction. I wanted to be familiar with the tropes, plots, themes, stock characters of a Western so I’d recognize them in a Space Western story. So I read John G. Cawelti’s The Six-gun Mystique, and David Mogen’s Wilderness Visions, and Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything, and Matt Braun’s How to Write Western Novels. Now when I watch Star Trek, I don’t just see colonists and Starfleet and Klingons; I see homesteaders and the U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican Army. When I watch Star Wars I don’t see Han Solo and Chewbacca and Boba Fett; I see The Lone Ranger and Tonto and The Man with No Name. It dawned on me: this is just another example of designer Robin Williams’ The Joshua Tree Principle:

Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. I was at my parents’ home, and after all the gifts had been opened I decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before I went out, I read through part of the book. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.” So I took my book and went outside. My parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. I had lived in that house for thirteen years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. I took a walk around the block, and there must have been a sale at the nursery when everyone was landscaping their new homes—at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And I had never seen one before! Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.

I see “Joshua trees” everywhere now.

On Art

The Naming

It didn’t start with Ursula LeGuin, who says in The Wizard of Earthsea that discovering someone’s true name gives you power over them. Since ancient times people would have a secret name, known only to those closest to them. This lives on in our middle names, and every child knows they’re truly in trouble when their mother uses it. To the Ancient Egyptians, the name (ren) was a part of your very soul. When captured by the cyclops Poylphemus in the Ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus claimed his name was Outis (meaning “No one”). It is only after Polyphemus, deceived and blinded, learns Odysseus’ true name that he is able to curse him, and delay Odysseus’ return to Ithaca (yet again). Even in the bible, Adam gives names to all the animals and God gives him dominion over them.

And so it is in Art. The graphic designer Robin Williams in her book, The Non-designer’s Design Book tells us the story of her discovery of the joshua tree. The gist of it is this: until she learned of the tree by name, she never really saw it before. And she came to learn that joshua trees were planted extensively throughout her very own neighborhood. Until she learned their name, they didn’t exist.

The same is true for anything else. We typically draw things using symbols: tree, car, house. Using other symbols for the parts: eyes, nose, lips. From plants and animals, to anatomy, to machines. Once you name something you have a handle with which to grasp it. Look at drawing a spider…

A child’s first attempts at drawing a spider might look like a dot with some legs.

…and they learn that spiders have eight legs.

…that spiders have eyes.

…spiders have fangs.

…legs have joints.

…the body has two main parts, the cephalothorax and the abdomen, and all the legs attach to the cephalothorax.

…spiders have two smaller grasping legs, called pedipalps; and the fangs really have two parts: the chelicera and the fang.

…and so on, until you’ve learned enough about spiders that you can draw them 99% realistically. Until you can name, very nearly, all of their parts: pedical, coxa, trochanter, spinnerets, etc.

Repeat ad nauseam until you can draw the entire world.

But, you can’t know everything. You can’t know all the names.

On Writing

Twitter fiction is a joke

I published over 400 stories last year. The punchline is that they all averaged 22 words or less. These stories were published on Thaumatrope, the first twitter fiction magazine, and became part of the microfiction revolution and the recent trend of twitter fiction. Yes, they were all stories that were written in 140 characters or less.

In my comings and goings, introducing people to the twitter fiction concept, I’ve often heard it asked: “How is it possible to write a story that short? If a story must contain an entire plot then how can you compress all that into just a few sentences?” My answer: “Can you tell a joke?”

But seriously folks, try writing your twitter fiction in the form of a joke. Not that it needs to be funny, but that it should have a set-up (exposition, in literary terms) and a punchline (a climax and/or resolution). Consider the work of famous short-form comedian Henny Youngman:

A doctor has a stethoscope up to a man’s chest. The man asks, “Doc, how do I stand?” The doctor says, “That’s what puzzles me!”

In under 140 characters you have a complete story—the set-up: A doctor has a stethoscope up to a man’s chest. The man asks, “Doc, how do I stand?” and the punchline: The doctor says, “That’s what puzzles me!”

Even Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story contains the same elements: the exposition: For sale: Baby’s shoes, and the climax/resolution: Never worn.

Here are some examples of twitter fiction stories originally appearing on Thaumatrope that follow the same pattern:

“The truth,” I said, “is out there.” In a bus station locker in Trenton, NJ, seething, breathing, waiting, explosive. “I have the key.”

“Your first edition of Twilight gave me a paper cut!”

“Yeah, it does that to everyone sooner or later.”

If a Chronodoc says not to let paradox worry you because the math is all right this time, punch him. Punch him while you still have fists.

But the set-up/punchline format isn’t the only one that you could use. You can be even more direct. Henny Youngman was famous for his one-liners:

My doctor grabbed me by the wallet and said, “Cough!”

The one-liner concept, a story that can be told without pause all in one breath, is a bit more difficult to write. It requires that the exposition, climax, and resolution be all in one sentence. Here are some twitter fiction stories using the one-liner concept:

Lying in drag, waiting for the little girl, the wolf wonders what his own grandmother would say about how his life has turned out.

Sadly, Lillie realized the full scope of her powers the day she wished her math teacher would be hit by an asteroid the size of the moon.

The joke is just one of many forms that twitter fiction could take. Take a moment to browse the Thaumatrope archives, and see if you can recognize the format in the stories there. Hopefully this serves as an starting point for writers who want to write stories in the twitter fiction and the other microfiction forms.