Tag Archives: moment of zen

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.

Agents and House Fires and Such

As a general update, Tuesday, December 10, 2013 was a freaking crazy day:

At 11:00am, I receive an email from Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Maass agency offering to represent my novel. My first agent! This is something I’ve worked for years (decades) toward, a major milestone in my writing career. And she’s a great agent and a great person too. So exciting!

And then, at 5:00pm, my house burns down.

Everyone is fine, even the cats, and doing well. We have insurance, and likely will be fine. And we are holding up really well. The fire was so incredibly hungry and swift, 5 minutes either way on the timing of the fire (or, worse, if it had happened overnight) someone would be dead. From first smoke to inferno was just a couple of minutes. Six fire trucks worked for an hour to put it out, and two ambulances and just about every cop in the city were on site. We are very lucky.

The rest of it is just stuff: furniture, clothing, books, DVDs. It’s hard to get upset about that when things could’ve gone so wrong. 

Jennifer Jackson, who now represents me literarily, has a post about it here. 

Yes, we are sad about a lot of things: pictures, letters, and keepsakes, mostly. We also had my  mom’s collectibles (a vast collections of collections, uncountable reams of autographs from any science fiction movie or TV show you can imagine, rare science fiction memorabilia, records, stamps, boots, etc.), and the insurance will not come close to reimbursing us for that.

But, really, we’re looking at it as a new beginning, a chance to rise from the ashes (see what I did there?) better and stronger than ever.  

It’s strange, we’ve both had problems with depression in the past, but as long as we keep smiling and marching forward and looking for the positives in the situation, it doesn’t seem to drag us down.

Maybe that’s the real secret to happiness, huh? It couldn’t be THAT easy, could it?

Still, there are a lot of things up in the air. We’ve never been through this process before (and hopefully we never will go through it again!), so the sheer weight of the unknown is a stressor, a weight on the back, all by itself. But we are filled with hope rather than fear, and that is the important thing!

A lot of people out there feel compelled to help us because it’s such a terrifying story. Because death was close at hand. We think we will be fine, and we are not asking for help, but if you feel compelled to aid us for some reason, don’t buy us blankets or crackers or juice (please don’t!).

If we end up needing help, it will be for unexpected things, housing overruns, or build overruns near the end of the recovery process, months and months from now. 

Our YouCaring site is the best way to chip in.

And since I know everyone is curious to see what fire damage looks like, here is my shelf full of esoteric books on Kung Fu, Taiji, Qigong, and Languages (everything from Sumerian to Chinese to Sanskrit to Lakota Sioux Sign Language to Latin to Cherokee, and many in between).

 

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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) 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.

(Python Diary – 1984) Michael Palin’s Price: Gradual Disillusionment and Isolation

Sorry about not posting. I’ve been reading instead. Lots and lots of Michael Palin. I’m up to 1984, and all I can say is that it’s been a blur. He’s finish filming Missionary, Meaning of Life, and Brazil, and done publicity tours for the first two, and seems to be working on “Erik the Viking”.

All I can say is how amazing it is a man can be this busy and still seem to be spinning his wheels. I’m not sure why I have that impression, but I really do. I know it seems odd, but I get the feeling that none of this is what he really wants to be doing.

I don’t know why I get that impression, other than some rather bitter commentary about fame: constantly being “recognized” as Eric Idle, feeling like he is “on display to the public”, his friend George Harrison not being able to relax even in a top-end restaurant, for fear of being rushed by fans.

I know at this point he is feeling the peculiar isolative effects of fame and wealth that we all hear about. He went to a BBC Comedy gathering and Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker (of “The Two Ronnies” fame, both comedy heroes of mine), assailed him with inappropriate questions about how rich he was, if he was a millionaire, etc, with quite obvious and nasty envy.

Though there are massive doses of joy — such as the writing of Erik the Viking, where he feels at last a member of a vital creative team again — he seems, overall, progressively less happy. He talks over and over again about not having that burning urge anymore to make another film, and I think that is the beginning of a burning urge to throw away all the stardom and psuedo-Hollywood fame and do something else.

Or maybe I am just reading in what I already know is the future.

(Python Diary) The Great Personality Switchback of 1982-and-a-half; The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

Well, as with all reversals in life, the great personality switch of 1982 seems to have reversed itself back again, although permanent gains seem to have been made by Eric Idle.

John Cleese is back to his old, demanding, ways, arguing for greater artistic merit in the writing of “The Meaning of Life”, and Eric Idle, while struggling very hard to maintain quality on “Live at the Hollywood Bowl”, seems more concerned that “The Meaning of Life” is dominated by his version of songs, rather than by Terry Jones’s, and TJ’s version of “Every Sperm is Sacred” is only saved by the miraculous and unexpected support of his arch-enemy, Cleese.

The politics in the group are as strong as ever. The Oxford vs. Cambridge competition on the script is intense, and egos are large as hot air balloons, and, sadly, filled with Hydrogen — a room full of Hindenburgs about to flame up at any second.

And then, suddenly, the script is done and the horses are off!

The race to shoot “The Meaning of Life” has begun, and the final cut on “The Missionary” is not even out of the door. Our hero, Michael Palin, has a couple of disastrous showings of “The Missionary” in America. Test audiences came expecting “Porky’s”, not a sensitive, if humorous, portrait of turn-of-the-century Englishman. Soon the film distributor, Columbia, is back pedaling, trying to get out of the contract. When they can’t do that, they start reducing the number of prints from 1000 to 800 to 600 to, at last, “three to four hundred”.

I wondered why I had never heard of “The Missionary”, and now I know.

The shooting of “The Meaning of Life” is full of classic THE SHOW MUST GO ON moments. Cleese is so sick from food poising (due to a batch of bad crayfish the night before) during the Zulu attack scene that he is constantly farting and burping and, at one point, vomits for a long period of time right up against the battlements. Also, when the black actors hired in Glasgow find out they are portraying Zulus, and wearing loin-cloths and not suits. no amount of argument about a historical setting can convince them that this is not racist. There is a full walk-out.

This, I fear, was a mistake — I think the scene would have been wonderful with three hundred Zulus in war paint and pinstriped suits, a wonderful callback to the accountant/pirate segment at the beginning. It would have even been better if the British army were in pith helmets and loincloths, a clever send-up of their supposed “civilization”.

Anyway, the 100 black Glaswegians are replaced with 100 white Glaswegians in blackface makeup the next day, which is probably the biggest racefail in Python history, but, it being 1982, this only increased the notoriety of the film.

(Python Diary) The Tunnel: Filming “The Missionary” and “The Meaning of Life”, Back to Back

Last night I plowed through 10 weeks of Michael Palin’s 1980-88 diary, the entire filming of "The Missionary" (which I still have not seen). He had lined up two movies, back to back, "The Missionary" and "The Meaning of Life", and said, just before filming started that he felt like he was entering a tunnel, and that wouldn’t come out the other side until October.

Well, he was right. I’m not even to October yet, and it’s amazing how his life fell away for the entire period of shooting. He was even working close to home, living in his own house, for 5 of those weeks, and still all trace of family life disappeared. It was like he suddenly ha a day job that required overtime at the office every day, and lots of travel.

He comes home one day, and he’s stepped in dog poop somewhere and has tracked it across his house. He goes to clean it up, but there are no supplies, and he has a screaming fit. A melt down, right there in his house.

I’ve been in a similar situation. Have you?

It’s what happens to us all, in a way, when we get sucked too far into the stress of our careers and other endeavors, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. We get trapped in that tunnel, looking for the light at the end, and, for some of us, there is no coming out of the tunnel, no day we can point to except retirement or death when "filming" ends. Palin knows when the movie will conclude, and it’s still tough on him. For many us, though, this tunnel only has a way out on weekends, our brief glimpse of the sun, and those are just way stations along the journey.

I had one of those yesterday — a sweet little break — a picnic at the park with my family. It was strange to lay on a blanket and be still. I am never still these days. I have too much to do. But I sat there, and the grass was green, and the air smelled good, and my daughter watched with me the other children playing in the park.

If you have a family, or even if you just want what we have come to call "a life", remember to take a pit stop in the middle of racing along on those cold, nighted tracks, because, for us non-superstars, sometimes those are the only times we get to be outside the tunnel.