Kurt Vonnegut Maps Out the Universal Shapes of Our Favorite Stories

Imagine a hat. Flip it upside down, and you’ve got yourself the outline of a story the public will never weary of, according to author Kurt Vonnegut, who maps it on out a chalkboard in the video above.

His Y-axis charts a range between good and ill fortune. Vonnegut recommends positioning your main character slightly closer to the good (i.e. wealth and boisterous health) end of the spectrum, at least in the beginning. He or she will dip below midline soon enough.

As for the X-axis, Vonnegut labels it B-E, from beginning to end.

Now plot your points, remembering that it’s all about the curves.

Some popular themes include people getting in and out of trouble, and the evergreen boy gets girl. (The always progressive Vonnegut reminds his viewers that the genders in the latter scenario are always open to interpretation. Again, it’s the curves that count…)

Thinking about my favorite books and films, it seems that most do follow Vonnegut’s upside-down hat narrative arc.

Are there exceptions?

Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories, for example. We should all be so lucky to find ourselves powering up such a steep uphill grade.

Of course there are exceptions!

Vonnegut himself identifies a particularly high profile one, whose geometry is less an elegant curve than a staircase that terminates in a free fall. (SPOILER: it involves a fairy godmother and ends in an infinity symbol.

Those weary of parsing story using the Hero’s Journey template should investigate Vonnegut’s graphic approach. It works!

Related Content:

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

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Kurt Vonnegut Urges Young People to Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

What Beatboxing and Opera Singing Look Like Inside an MRI Machine

Beatboxing, the practice of producing drum machine-like beats (especially TR-808-like beats) with one’s voice, has long since made the transition from parlor trick to acknowledged musical art form. But we still have much to understand about it, as the recently-emerged first generation of beatboxing scholars knows full well. “A team of linguistics and engineering students at USC wanted to learn more about the mechanics behind the rhythms,” writes Los Angeles Times music critic Randall Roberts. “By using MRI technology, they recorded an unnamed local beatboxer working his magic, broke down the most commonly employed sounds by examining the movements of his mouth and then analyzed the data.”

This resulted in a paper called “Paralinguistic Mechanisms of Production in Human ‘Beatboxing’: A Real-Time Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study.” Roberts describes it as “predictably heavy with linguistic jargon, but even to a civilian, the results are illuminating,” especially the video the research team recorded, “which reveals how the human mouth can so convincingly create the pop of a snare drum.” At the top of the post, you can see this sort of thing for yourself: in this video “The Diva and the Emcee,” featured at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) Scientific Sessions in Seattle, we see how a beatboxer’s technique compares to that of an opera singer.

You can find out more at the site of the Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge group (SPAN), the USC team that performed this pioneering research into an important component of one of the pillars of hip hop. Keep their findings in mind next time you watch a beatboxing clip that goes viral (such as the Goldberg Variations one we featured back in 2012) for a richer listening experience. After all, it does no harm to the romance of the beatbox, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, to know a little bit about it.

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Beatboxing Bach’s Goldberg Variations

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Langston Hughes Reveals the Rhythms in Art & Life in a Wonderful Illustrated Book for Kids (1954)

Do Rappers Have a Bigger Vocabulary Than Shakespeare?: A Data Scientist Maps Out the Answer

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Patti Smith Plays at CBGB In One of Her First Recorded Concerts, Joined by Seminal Punk Band Television (1975)

The picture of punk as the domain of boorish nihilists who can’t play their instruments has been as much a creation of marketing (via Malcolm McLaren) as it has been a virtue-of-necessity minimalist pose and a form of avant garde DIY experimentalism. But there have always been, since the coining of the term “punk” as a musical genre, stellar musicians and thoughtful, poetic lyricists shaping the scene. Of the former, we must mention Television, with their magnificent guitar interplay between leader Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. And, of the latter, we need look no further than the godmother of punk herself, Patti Smith, who has always commanded stage and studio with her smart, arresting lyricism and powerful set of pipes.

Years before the Sex Pistols invaded the States, these two bands played regularly at CBGBs (Television was, in fact, the very first band to play there) with a loose collection of misfits who re-invented rock and roll. In December, 1975, Smith released her first album, Horses, a hybrid of punk and spoken word produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale.

But before that record made her famous—in April of that year—the Patti Smith Group took the stage with Television, and two teenage fans were there to record both sets from both bands. First appearing as a bootleg CD generically titled “Early Gig ’75,” the disc has since been reissued as We Can’t Do Anymore… Cause I’m Just Too Tired!, with another set of Smith covers tacked on from a ’78 concert in Santa Monica.

We get classic tracks from both bands, such as Television’s “Marquee Moon” and “Little Johnny Jewell” and Smith’s cover of “Hey Joe” and Van Morrison’s “Gloria” as well as her own “Horses” and “Piss Factory.” At the top of the post, you can hear her do six songs from that night in 1975, the last three with Television joining her onstage: “We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together” (Velvet Underground cover), “Redondo Beach,” “Birdland,” “Space Monkey,” “Distant Fingers,” and “Gloria.” You’ll also hear the two young tapers chatting it up in the first few minutes of the tape.

Smith’s band, writes bootleg blog Doom & Gloom From the Tomb, “was transitioning from a cabaret-leaning trio to a fully-fledged rock band sound,” and the ramshackle performances show us a talented bunch of musicians still finding their footing as a group. The following year, Smith and band would appear in Stockholm after the release of Horses. As you can see and hear above (after a brief interview) they’d become a tighter, and somewhat more conventional, rock and roll machine, but the early performances at the top—for all the lo-fi murkiness and intrusive crowd noise—have a raw appeal only heightened by the fact that they are now important documents of a now-legendary musical era. See this review of the bootleg CD reissue for a blow-by-blow description of this historic ’75 concert from two seminal, and phenomenally talented, punk bands.

Related Content:

The Talking Heads Play CBGB, the New York Club that Shaped Their Sound (1975)

The Ramones, a New Punk Band, Play One of Their Very First Shows at CBGB (1974)

Blondie Plays CBGB in the Mid-70s in Two Vintage Clips

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Brooklyn–Based Makers of Artisanal Water Let You Sip From America’s Great Cultural Waters

The Timmy Brothers, based in Brooklyn, create handcrafted water. It’s not just any water. It’s water that lets you travel to different cultural times and places. Want to drink water that evokes memories of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River? Or the great jazz that came out of New Orleans? Well, the Timmy Brothers have just the product for you.

If you’re in Brooklyn, also consider making a side trip to Beacon, NY where David Rees lovingly creates artisanal handcrafted pencils. You’ll never look at pencils the same way again. :-)

via Digg

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1,000 Musicians Perform Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” in Unison in Italy

Despite breaking his leg during a gig earlier this summer, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters have blitzed their way through Europe and America, playing sometimes 5-6 shows per week, in cities often large, but sometimes small.

On September 16th, the band will make a pitstop in my hometown, Mountain View, CA (population 75,000). So it doesn’t seem implausible for the residents of Cesena, Italy (population 100,000) to ask the Foo Fighters to play a show in their small city, which sits right near the Adriatic Sea.

And boy did they make the request in style. I get chills when I watch this, every time.

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Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake Recipe Hints at How Baking Figured Into Her Creative Process

Emily Dickinson Coconut Cake

The Emily Dickinson Museum will tell you that “The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where [Emily] Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home.” But the “many drafts of poems written on kitchen papers tell us also that this was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.”

We still have access to Dickinson’s gingerbread and doughnut recipes. But if you want to see an example of how baking nourished her creative process, then look no further than Emily’s recipe for Coconut Cake. The image above shows the ingredients scratched out in her handwriting:

1 cup coconut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

On the flip side of the recipe, Dickinson then wrote the beginning of a poem, “The Things that never can come back, are several” (read the transcript here). Presumably the recipe inspired the poem, but perhaps it was the other way around?


If you’re looking for your own source of creative inspiration, you can try out Dickinson’s recipes for Black Cake and also Rye and Indian Bread here. (According to The Public Domain Review, “her loaf of Indian and Rye won second prize in the Amherst Cattle Show of 1856.”) And you can even head up to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA and take part in their annual baking contest.

Over at NPR, Dickinson scholar Nelly Lambert has more on the poet’s relationship to baking and food.

Related Content:

The Online Emily Dickinson Archive Makes Thousands of the Poet’s Manuscripts Freely Available

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Watch an Animated Film of Emily Dickinson’s Poem ‘I Started Early–Took My Dog’

12 Classic Literary Road Trips in One Handy Interactive Map

on the road mapped

Fantasy fiction invariably includes a map for readers to understand the hero’s journey, literally. We know that Hobbits had to walk a long way into Mordor, but seeing it cartographically really hits home. But what of the great road trip novels, where the country is America, the journey is long and often circular, and self-actualization awaits the hero, and not an army of orcs?

Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras’ blog of discovery and adventure in the modern world, have come to the rescue with an interactive map that plots out the travels of road trip-filled books, some non-fiction, others fictionalized reality. Where a location is mentioned in a text, it has been pinned to the map, and by clicking on the pin, the relevant text is revealed. Clever stuff.

For example, the map for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (see snapshot above) plots out the five trips contained in the novel, and one can see the main hubs of the story: NYC and San Francisco, of course, but also Denver and the crazed detour town to Mexico City, where Sal, Dean, and Stan Shephard party hard in a bordello and Sal winds up with dysentery for his troubles.

zen road trip
For something more straightforward, check out the Northwest travels at the heart of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Written in the first person, the novel’s narrator travels by motorcycle with his son from Minnesota to Northern California, ending up in San Francisco, taking 17 days. The philosophical journey, however, covers wider terrain.

koolaid road trip
Another Bay Area tale, Tom Wolfe’s account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test starts in La Honda, California, a mountain getaway to the west of San Jose, and, as one can see, completes a circle of the States, including trips to both Calgary, Canada and Manzanillo, Mexico, where everybody is “uptight,” man, heading northeast to both Guanajuato and Aguascalientes, where Acid Tests are administered.

There’s more at the link, including maps for Wild, A Walk Across America, and Travels with Charley. It might inspire a repeat reading of a favorite book. Or it might inspire you to just light out for the territories.

Related Content:

The Acid Test Reels: Ken Kesey & The Grateful Dead’s Soundtrack for the 1960s Famous LSD Parties

Jack Kerouac Reads from On the Road (1959)

The Books You Think Every Intelligent Person Should Read: Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick & Beyond (Many Free Online)

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Orson Welles Reads From Moby-Dick: The Great American Director Takes on the Great American Novel

If you took a poll to determine in whose voice most readers would like to hear their audio books, I imagine Orson Welles would land pretty high on the list. And if you took a poll to determine which book most readers would rather approach in audio form than paper form, I imagine Herman Melville’s weighty but undeniably important (and still literarily fascinating) Moby-Dick would land pretty high on the list. Unfortunately for us, Welles never sat down to get the entirety of Moby-Dick on tape, but he did give the book a few readings on film, rounded up today for your enjoyment.

Most famously, Welles appeared in John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of the novel as Father Mapple, deliverer of the sermon on Jonah heard by the narrator Ishmael and his bunkmate Queequeg early on in the story, just before they sign on to the Pequod. Possessed of an interest of his own in Melville’s masterwork, Welles used his paycheck from the cameo to bring Moby-Dick to the stage. But he also wanted to do something cinematic with the material, as evidenced by the other two videos here: readings he shot in 1971, during production of The Other Side of the Wind. In them, he speaks the novel’s immortal opening line, “Call me Ishmael.”

Though he may sound even more compelling in Ishmael’s role than in Father Mapple’s, these clips do make you wonder what, or which character, stoked Welles’ fascination with Moby-Dick in the first place. Certainly we can draw obvious parallels between him and the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab in terms of their tendency toward grand, all-consuming, impossible-seeming projects. Then again, Ahab labors under the idea that man can, with sufficient will, directly perceive all truths, while Welles made F for Fake, so perhaps he was a questioning, skeptical Ishmael after all. Whomever he identified with, this pillar of American cinema must have had big plans for this pillar of American literature — which, alas, we can now only struggle to perceive, just as Ahab and Ishmael struggle to perceive the form of the whale deep in the water.

Related Content:

How Ray Bradbury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)

The Moby Dick Big Read: Celebrities and Everyday Folk Read a Chapter a Day from the Great American Novel

A View From the Room Where Melville Wrote Moby Dick (Plus a Free Celebrity Reading of the Novel)

An Illustration of Every Page of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Orson Welles Reads Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in a 1977 Experimental Film

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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