Category Archives: moment of zen

Go / Weiqi / Baduk

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So as an escape from the mundane (and a vent for stress), I started studying Go (a.k.a., Weiqi in Mandarin, Baduk in Korean). It’s the oldest board game we know of that is still played today, with boards and pieces dating from 2,000 years ago.

We call it Go because that’s what the Japanese call it, and they introduced it to the west.

If you are after a challenging, infinite game that has no luck to it, this is your game. It FAR easier to learn than chess — almost as easy as checkers — but the strategy is much deeper.

Only this last year did a computer finally manage to beat a top human player in Go. (They started beating Chess Grandmasters in the 70’s).  According to one article, there are more legal board positions in the game then there are atoms in the universe. This has made Go the holy grail of AI research, because if you can make an AI that can learn to master Go, it can — by definition — master anything easier than Go.

All hail our new AI overlords, AlphaGo and (soon) Zen. May they be kind and gracious tyrants. 😉

Robert Johnson, the Rock and Roll Faust

If you haven’t heard about the blues legend Robert Johnson — who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to master music, and who sang about walking with the devil, being chased by hell hounds, and making a deal with the devil at the crossroads, and who supposedly died at age 26 howling and barking like a mad dog at the moon — then you have now. To say his impact on rock and roll was astronomical would be to put it too weakly.

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Robert Johnson has often been held up as one of the most amazing musicians ever by many rock and roll legends, however a lot of his songs sound very high-pitched, eerie, and can be offputting to new listeners. This is because they were recorded slightly too fast on the record machine, probably to cram more songs on the record and save money.

Well, now someone has at last gone in and slowed them back down again, and man, I like them better this way. I could listen to them all day. As an added bonus, you can now hear the influence of Son House on his singing, hear the emotion and humor in his voice, and his songs also feel like a natural extension of the Mississippi Delta Blues.

Listen to them here:

 

Back in the House; back to writing

The House

We are back in our house at last, recovering from the house fire. Everything is new and shiny and uncluttered and just about perfect. For the first time in my life I am not surrounded by books in every room, and it’s surreal and unsettling like I’m surrounded by a vacuum and might be pulled in at any moment.

But the lack of visual clutter and massive to-read piles that I will never actually read: that is relaxing too. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free of all the mess, and of most of the books too. Many I miss, don’t get me wrong; they are treasures beyond compare. But the vast majority were simply self-imposed duties I could not fulfill, weighting down my artistic conscience.

Really, I like the new place. It’s much better than the old place. Minimalistic, with only what we need.

We even have a new fake Christmas tree, and the needles aren’t even melted 😉

Writing

After two years of successive tragedies (the death of my mother, my grandfather, and my wife’s grandfather one year; the burning down and rebuilding of my house the next), I am finally crawling back into writing.

All the time I spent exploring plotting seems to have paid off. I am developing a pretty good plot that I love (shock! awe! when did such a thing ever happen before with pre-plotting? Never!). Also, I’m doing some pretty fun world building.

My actual writing skills are quite rusty, and I don’t like the words I am making, but I wonder if I should really worry about that. Once I have the plot, characters, and scenes nailed down, and I iterate through the book, the rust should be mostly gone. Then I can turn around on the rewrite and really polish the style up.

It’s nice to be optimistic again about the writing. I guess it takes a while to get your feet back under you after being bulldozed down so many times.

As the great philosopher Chumbawumba once said, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”

 

 

Looking without looking, seeing without seeing

When you look at a field, what do you see? Do you see “green” or “grass” or even just “field”? If so, you’re not really looking.

I am looking at one now, and I see at least five to ten different shades of green, at least 3 different shades of tan and brown, and everything bit of grass, living or dead, at a different length. Even grasses of the same species look unique. They clump together, run in strips or curves, and the leave huge open spaces. Fate and randomness has textured like the rind of an orange.

This field was once a building, a vast warehouse, and the foundation of it is still there underneath, and there are tiny bits of rubble just beyond sight. The bulldozers scraped the whole surface clean once, long ago, and so the field always looks like it has been plowed for crops where their teeth dragged and then overgrown even though it has never been plowed before.

But what really amazes me are the bushes. You don’t even see them when you look at this place at first — you look and you see “field” and that’s all, and all the bushes disappear from your eyes because you see a category, a shape, an abstract object instead of the thing itself. It is cruel and heartless dominance of the abstract over the real.

Really, it’s like Plato and Aristotle had it all backward, that the abstract, perfect world of “forms” is not a thing beyond or behind reality, but an instinctive creation of the mind, a simplification that the brain resorts to in order to be able to process all of the data and sort it and organize it in a useful way. The “shadows on the wall of a cave” are not the physical world at all, but the cognitive system of grouping, classification, and ordering that our mind uses to construct meaning.

Reality is always complex, textured, nuanced, with layers of history right there, visible under the surface, between the bushes and the blades of grass, but the mind cannot handle all of this information at once. It is too much. It is not useful, not relevant to survival or thriving, and it is discarded. And that is the way it should be. Usually. But sometimes you need to turn that filter off, and you need to see what is actually HERE.

Because sometimes the “perfect form” is not enough.

Because sometimes you need the truth, with all its various shades.

Because… sometimes… the world is beautiful.

Finding Your Voice in Writing (or How to Develop 2 or 3 Voices of Your Own)

“…and remember to believe in magic or I’ll kill you!” – The Magic Bunny

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer. 

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.


We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.amazon.com/Teddy-Bears-Tea-Parties-Horror-ebook/dp/B005H5AI5U ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!

(Python Diary) Which Python is Which Time Bandit

Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin teamed up on "Time Bandits" way back in 1980, and it’s definitely worth a gander. I hadn’t seen it since I was a child, and I’ve watched it twice now and quite enjoyed it, actually — though, as a child, I really hated the ending. It’s a rare treasure — a movie where the special effects mostly age well.

If you don’t know, in the film there are 6 dwarves, servants of the Supreme Being, and they have stolen His map of holes between different times and places and are out to become "international criminals" and get rich by jumping around in time to steal money. Along the way, they run into the main character of the piece, a little boy named Kevin, and have quite a few adventures together.

Well, in Michael Palin’s dairies, not long after the film has opened, he goes to dinner with someone and they discuss at length which dwarf represents which Python. Michael Palin denies completely any intention to mimic the Pythons, and I believe he is being honest, but he soon warms to the game.

A list is presented in the diary, but the most important and revealing one is this: Randall is John Cleese. This, I think, is best exemplified by this exchange:

Randall (to one of the dwarfs who has just questioned his authority): "Do you want to be leader?"
Dwarf: "No, we agreed no leader."
Randall: "Right, so do what I say."

This is representative of how Python operated, especially in the early days of the first two seasons. They had no leader, that was their official position. But Cleese stepped in constantly, often with a firm hand or a stick, to herd them all in the direction he wanted.

Whether intentional or not, I think that there is more truth in the Time Bandits to Python comparison than Palin may have intended.

(Python Diary) Michael Palin’s Socks

In the diary, Palin has just done a Saturday Night Live monologue with his mother. I went and watched it, feeling a manic urge to connect the words of the Diary to visual matter, and I am glad she had such a good time. Very funny, too.

I also ended up watching two other SNL monologues by him, and, man, monologues are tough. Even one which he said went very well, one where he told jokes about his mother, seemed very sparse with laughter.

And then there is the infamous “socks” Monologue (from approximately 1979), perhaps one of the least successful monologues in the history of SNL. There is only one laugh throughout the whole thing — fortunately at the end, so at least it feels like a crescendo. The diary entries about it are filled with all kinds of strange trepidation and fear, and it seems one of the more memorable and painful moments of his life. It’s probably Palin’s worst “bomb” ever, but it’s worth watching, and I’ll tell you why.

The thing about the “Socks” monologue is that it SHOULD be funny. It has truth and pain, and he is acting it (if too nervously), and it has exaggeration, and it is surreal. Like I said, it SHOULD work. But it really, really doesn’t.

I have a theory that if someone can ever figure out why Michael Palin’s socks AREN’T funny, they will learn the secret of comedy.