A Creative Power Hour With Jonathan Coulton and the JoCo Superfriends (Part 2)

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Before their “Telling Stories” panel at this year’s New York Comic Con, where they discussed strategies for storytelling, creating characters, and getting from good idea to finished thing, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down and having an amazing conversation with Jonathan Coulton, Paul & Storm, Patrick Rothfuss, Jean Grae, and Travis McElroy.

Earlier this week, I brought you the first half of our conversation, which focused on the JoCo Cruise and Pat Rothfuss’s experience as a magical tequila fairy. Today is the second half, where we talk more about creativity, storytelling in different media, the internet, and the challenge of finding a creative spark in the current political climate.

With this group, though, even a total softball of a question takes an unexpected turn. Gathered around the table were all manner of storytellers–authors, musicians, podcasters–so I was curious to know if there were one thing they’ve written that they’re particularly proud of. A whole book, a single sentence, or just a clever turn of phrase.

Storm: Well, here’s a story, about a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls.

McElroy: What was their hair like?

Storm: Mmm, goldish.

Coulton: I guess I’d agree. The Brady Bunch also for me.

McElroy: When I was writing The Brady Bunch, it was some of my best work.

Paul: It’s like that old saw: there are only seven Brady Bunch storylines, and all narrative is built around one of those.  There’s the “Oh my nose!,” there’s “Gotta get Davy Jones to appear at the dance…”

Rothfuss: Yeah, The Kingkiller Chronicles is pretty much Season 3 of The Brady Bunch.

Storm: So, to ACTUALLY answer your question, I’m proudest of what we did in imitating Jonathan’s style. It’s a song called “Live,” and Jonathan has a mode of writing where a world unfolds with characters, and this is about a mad scientist who has become frustrated with trying to find the perfect mate, so he decides to create his own.

Paul: It was part of a songwriting challenge where we each had to write a song in each other’s style, so we wrote this song about a sad mad scientist trying to find a girlfriend. Jonathan wrote a song called “Big Dick Farts a Polka,” and of course he won the contest.

Coulton: For me, I’m really proud of the song “I Crush Everything,” which is about a giant squid who hates himself.

Rothfuss: That’s my favorite song of yours.

Grae: I love that song. It destroys me every time.

Coulton: The thing about the squid song, though, is I can tell how new it is for an audience depending on whether they find it funny or sad. If I play it for a new audience, they’re like, “Oh, haha, a giant squid who hates himself.” But if it’s an audience that has heard the song many times, it’s just dead quiet. And if it’s a mix, there are some people laughing and other people angrily turning around. The thing I love about it is that multilayered effect. I don’t know how I did it; I’d do it all the time if I could.

Grae: I haven’t written rap songs in a while, but I recently finished this album, and I actually went in the other room and was like, “You gotta hear this one!” I was so excited that it happened.

Rothfuss: If I had to pick right now, it was in a Reddit AMA I did recently. Someone came in and was trolling around, and I was so nice to him that he deleted his account.

Coulton: You killed him with kindness!

Rothfuss: I really did. I will carry that around next to my heart for the entirety of my life. I was like, “I’m sorry you feel this way. I looked at your account, and half of your comments seem to either be saying rude things to people, and the other half are saying, ‘I don’t know why you’re so offended.’ If you really don’t understand why people don’t like these things, we could talk. And if you do understand, I’m really sorry that this seems to be the only joy in your life. I really wish things were going better for you.” And then, like, four hours later, he was gone. So I think I will count that as a win.

With all of the self-congratulatory love at the table, I couldn’t help but take the conversation in a dark direction and reference John Scalzi. According to Storm, I “said the S word.” I’m not sorry.

Scalzi recently wrote a blog post about how he finds it increasingly difficult to write in the current political climate. I was curious. Did this table of storytellers feel the same way?

There was no hesitation. No hemming and hawing. I barely had the question out of my mouth, when Coulton leaped on it.

Coulton: Absolutely! I’ve been profoundly affected by what is happening in the news and politics. I feel like there’s a constant, low-level background radiation of anxiety and depression. And it’s just really hard to work on anything. Work still helps, and I try to keep plugging away, but it’s just harder. It’s harder to feel, when I do get an idea that I’m excited about, that it matters.

McElroy: The shows that I do, especially My Brother, My Brother, and Me, feel so silly. When a tragedy happens or when I see people just barely surviving their lives, there’s always a moment where I’m like, “I… don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing.” And then I’ll see people tweet, “Thank you so much for distracting me for an hour.” So, OK, cool, I’ll keep making my stupid show so for an hour people can just laugh and not have to worry about everything.

Rothfuss: I was talking to my new best friend Lin-Manuel Miranda, and we were talking about that. How we’re trying to keep it together and do good stuff. He was talking about how someone came after him and asked why he wasn’t speaking up about immigration, and he was like, “I wrote In the Heights! I’ve been here for a long time talking about this.” Just because he’s not always angry whenever you think he should be angry and always activism-ing every waking moment, Lin almost always keeps a very positive outlook. He’s full of joy. I have failed in that. I have failed for all of this year. It used to be I’d tweet one piece of political news per day. Now I get on and try to retweet all the terrible things that are wrong with the world.

Storm: And that’s the turn that happened. I remember, at the beginning of “these troubles,” it seemed like if you wanted to say anything political, you could be “Well, I’m not gonna do that.” And now it’s flipped. Because there’s real stuff that needs to be addressed, and we have a megaphone and should use it. But at the same time, you need to keep doing the thing that brings people joy.

Paul: And I worry, as a creator, are we avoiding or distracting from the real issues by going up on stage and doing our stupid, honky-honk clown shows? But you have to realize that it’s not healthy to obsess over this kind of thing. No matter what it is, you need to take yourself away from it, and that’s at least how I justify it to myself.

The conversation then turned to how the internet has blossomed into a place where it’s far too easy to spew hate and harass complete strangers. So would the world be a better place without the internet, at least in its current form? If you ask the six people at the table (and I did), the answer was a resounding yes, which is curious since most of their careers took off in large part because of the internet and the freedom they had to connect directly with an audience.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that everyone talking was a white male. If anyone has the luxury of looking the other way or taking some “me time” or speaking in generalizations about “politics” or the importance of “community” on the internet, it’s white men. And as a white man, I recognize that now more than ever.

Jean Grae was noticeably silent throughout the conversation. Until she wasn’t.

Grae: It’s amazing to watch people now be like, “What? How? How is that happening?” All that shit has been there. I’m sorry that you haven’t been able to see that. There are a lot of us who have been living it. I didn’t answer the question earlier because I’m a black woman. It’s always been f***ing hard. All of these things have always existed. It’s just, no one pays attention to their environment. There are people who are like, “That’s happening in the world?” Yes! Look around you, and be aware.

Rothfuss: I would argue that’s the best thing the internet has done. It’s allowed access to other people’s lived experiences. And it’s hard to argue there’s a negative effect to that.

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