Friday, October 31, 2014

How To Succeed at NaNo Without Really Trying

I've decided to resurrect my mostly-dead blog to celebrate the very imminent beginning of my tenth foray into National Novel Writing Month. Let's think about how old I am for a moment: I have been doing this for a decade. Man I feel old.

In celebration, and to promote the illusion that with age automatically comes wisdom, I would like to offer my NaNo secret, because I HAVE managed to write at least 50,000 words every time so far. I did a post on this last year, but this year I think I have managed to boil down my top seven points into just 20 words, or two principles.

PRINCIPLE ONE: If it helps you produce words, DO IT.

PRINCIPLE TWO: If it DOES NOT HELP you produce words, DO NOT DO IT.

All of last year's seven tips are basically sub-iterations of these two principles. These might seem laughably self-evident. Maybe they are. But I am consistently surprised at how many people don't seem to think this way. And, whether they know it consciously or not, it is the only way people succeed at NaNo.

If it helps you to be in competition with someone, to brag about how many words you've written in a day, or to tell people what your story is about, THEN DO SO. If telling people these things makes you feel like you're setting yourself up for failure--well, preferably think more positively about yourself because YOU CAN SO DO IT, but look at the outcome: if sharing your word count or comparing yourself with others is stopping you from writing, STOP SHARING IMMEDIATELY.

If going to public NaNo events, posting on the forums, or otherwise getting together with groups of people helps you produce words, DO THESE THINGS. If (like me) scrolling through the forums makes you feel overwhelmed with the amount of things you could say, if public NaNo events make you feel shy and block your inspiration, CEASE THESE THINGS IMMEDIATELY. Writers are shy people and muses can be skittish. The NaNo community is, by and large, awesome, but if you're like me and mostly can't stand people looking at you when you're writing, then events designed to help you are actually hindering you and no one planning them wants that.

I could come up with more examples, but I think the gentle reader probably has the idea. This can also be a litmus test for whether you should do NaNo at all: does a deadline just bottle up your muse? Well, IF you want to work professionally in a creative field you'll have to get over that eventually, but maybe at this point it's more helpful to just set a daily or a weekly writing goal--500 words a day or 5 hours every week--and let others keep their insane month-long deadlines.

Okay. Now to go buy bulk coffee.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book List 2014

1. Fables: The Dark Ages, by Bill Willingham et al
2. Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
3. Slow Learner, by Thomas Pynchon
4. The Kingdom of Matthias, by Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz
5. The Story of the Irish Race, by Seamus MacManus
6. Merlin, by Norma Lorre Goodrich
7. Orphans of Chaos, by John C. Wright
8. Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
9. Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card
10. Prospero Lost, by L. Jagi Lamplighter
11. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
12. Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
13. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson
14. Farthing, by Jo Walton
15. Bellwether, by Connie Willis
16. Shadow of the Hegemon, by Orson Scott Card
17. On Blue's Waters, by Gene Wolfe
18. In Green's Jungles, by Gene Wolfe
19. Return to the Whorl, by Gene Wolfe
20. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
21. The View From Saturday, by E.L. Konigsberg
22. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
23. Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon
24. The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
25. The Father, by August Strindberg
26. The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany
27. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
28. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
29. VALIS, by Philip K. Dick
30. The Divine Invasion, by Philip K. Dick
31. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, by Philip K. Dick
32. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by JK Rowling
33. Great World Religions: Buddhism (Great Courses)
34. Great World Religions: Judaism (Great Courses)
35. The Three Pillars of Zen, ed. by Roshi Philip Kapleau
36. The Middle East and Islamic World Reader
37. God is a Verb: Kaballah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, by Rabbi David Cooper
38. Henry IV, Part One, by Bill Shakespeare
39. Henry IV, Part Two, by Bill Shakespeare
40. Henry V, by Bill Shakespeare
41. Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman
42. The History of Atlantis, by Lewis Spence
43. The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
44. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
45. Mistress of Mistresses, by ER Eddison
46. The White-Luck Warrior, by R Scott Bakker
47. As You Like It, by Bill Shakespeare
48. Saint Francis of Assisi, by GK Chesterton
49. The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
50. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
51. The Innocence of Father Brown, by GK Chesterton
52. South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami
53. After Dark, by Haruki Murakami
54. Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
55. Endgame and Act Without Words, by Samuel Beckett
56. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
57. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
58. Sanctuary, by William Faulkner
59. At World's End, by Tim Powers
60. Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale, by Joss & Zack Weedon, et. al.
61. Avengers vs. X-Men, by Brian Michael Bendis et. al.
62. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by JK Rowling
63. The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Importance of Santa Claus: A Story for Christmas


1.

The boy ran through the streets of winter, his breath fogging in front of him like the ghosts that pursued him from behind, the white of the streets and the white arms of the trees and the white fog of the night sky embracing him in an unwanted hug. The boy hit a patch of ice, skidding for a moment robbed of breath, and then fell on his stomach. The ice scraped up his coat and his sweathshirt and his undershirt, raising long gashes along his stomach. The boy had nothing left: he began to cry.
            From the sky a great belly-laugh. The boy did not look up. On the ice next to him something skidded, throwing up shards of ice which melted along his cheek. The ground shook. Something clattered on the ice, hard like hooves. The boy did not look up. He thought to himself that maybe there was a herd of deer rushing past him. He thought that maybe he would get crushed, stomped under hard hooves, ground to a bloody pulp. He wished for it.
            There was silence. The night air cold on his cheek. The ice cold on his stomach. The blood leaking slowly from slowly congealing wounds.  Strong arms wrapped him up, picked him up. The boy closed his eyes.
            Something cold and firm under his back. Gentle, firm hands binding his wounds. Something at his lips: something crumbling into his mouth. The boy sat up, coughed, chewed, swallowed.
            A voice spoke, a voice like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. “You’d better open your eyes, son. These old flasks don’t take well to angst.”
            The boy opened his eyes. He was seated on the hard bench of what looked like a wagon, with a rack of horses harnessed to it—but not horses: their eyes were too big, and they were horned. The boy refused to believe.
            The fat man raised a curved horn, handed it to the boy. The boy drank something that tasted like grapes and also like fire, lighting his belly in a way nothing else ever had. He coughed. The fat man took back the horn and drank himself. He lowered the horn, and regarded the boy.
            “You have to go home,” he said.
            “Hell no,” the boy said.
            “Will you fly with me for a time?”
            The boy nodded.
            Impossibly, in a manner the boy still refused to believe, the sleigh rose off the ground and the houses receded into models and then into toys and then into mere two-dimensional drawings. Somehow he was without vertigo, sure that he would not fall, yet equally sure that he was on the verge of a world whose consequences could be much steeper than a mere miles-long fall.
            “Where are we going?” the boy asked, as the world below him darkened from a patchwork of light and shadowy squares to a rolling land of treetops and eventually water, roiling and teeming with mysterious meaning.
            “Back in time,” the fat man said.
            “Why?” the boy asked.
            “I’m taking you home,” the fat man said.
            “No,” the boy said.
            The sleigh set down on a hillside. The air was no longer cold; it was warm and seemed to be filled with moisture. There was a shack, a ramshackle place like the boy felt his heart to be. The boy knew, somehow, that all the people here were not here, in any real sense, and that they were here in the only sense that matter. There were masses, singing hymns, and they seemed to process through the shack’s open door, disappearing into a warm sort of glow that emanated from the doorway of the shack, where around a feeding trough a group of animals and a handful of people gathered. But the boy’s eye was caught by a young man, maybe twice his age, whose eyes were on his sheep, herding them and watching them even as, in the sky, a cacophany of angels sang, wheels within wheels in the light of the stars, even as the shepherd’s own chest seemed to fill with a light, unborrowed, uncreated, unreflected. The boy didn’t think the shepherd could see him, but as one of the sheep wandered past the shepherd glanced at him, just for a moment, and smiled.
            “This is home,” the boy said, looking up at Santa.
            “Yes.”
            After a few more minutes which may have been hours—time did not seem to pass in a normal manner, here—the boy turned and put his arms around Santa, who hugged him back.
            “I have to go, don’t I?” the boy said.
            “Yes,” the fat man replied. “But you’ll carry this place with you. It is yours, forever.”
            The boy nodded, understanding for perhaps the only time in his life.
            The boy stepped off the sleigh onto his front doorstep. Opening the door, he saw what he had been afraid of all evening, what he had known would happen: his father, drunk, swaying like a tree in a windstorm; his mother, curled into a corner, her face a mass of bruises. The boy’s father’s eyes widened as the boy opened the door and walked into the living room.
            “Thought I tol’ you never to come back again.”
            The boy ignored his father, walked to the phone, and called the police. His father watched, open-mouthed in shock. The boy put the phone down and walked to a place between his father and his mother, taking his father’s blows until the police arrived.

2.

A single string of sad, wilting, half-burned-out white lights hanging above the long counter was the only concession the bar made to Christmas eve. Below the lights a long row of burned-out men and women huddled over their drinks, making conversation in low growls. The young man was at the end of the bar, four beers in, not talking to anyone.
            All at once he made the wrong move: eye contact with the wrong man, a big burly A-shirted man with tattoos of dragons, or lizards, or worms encircling his biceps, a misplaced leer. In under a second the man was across the room, smashing his beer bottle on a table so it became a serrated edge of terror, stabbing the young man’s hand into the counter of the bar.
            A big man in a red outfit clapped the tattooed man on the shoulder, spun him around, and decked him. The big tattooed man went down and stayed down. The red-outfitted man clapped the young man, who was too shocked to move, on the shoulder and steered him toward the door of the bar.
            “Thanks,” the young man said, glancing for the first time at the other. His eyes bugged for a moment, and he refused to believe.
            “If they have heard Moses and the prophets, but they still will not believe,” the big man said, as if to himself.
            “What?”
            “Nothing,” said the big man. “I’ve got to go.”

3.

The boy’s mother’s grip was tight, yanking the little boy along through the crowd. She was a tall woman, bristling with faux-fur, looking down at the boy with her wide upper lip curled in disgust. The line snaked across the dull grey tiled mall floor as insincere Christmas hymns floated down from the mall’s ceiling.
            “Santa is ridiculous,” the boy’s mother said.
            “I need to see Santa,” the boy said, looking at his feet.
            “Why?” the woman said, her grip on the boy’s fingers tightening. “We’ve been here for half an hour, and we’ll be here for another half an hour before you get to sit on his lap for two whole minutes. I’ll buy you a candy bar if we can skip this.”
            “I need to see Santa,” the boy said.
            “Why?”
            “Santa is important.”
            The woman snorted. “You little shit. Santa is no more important than your imaginary friend Elmer.”
            “Elmer is important too,” the boy said. “He and Santa are friends.”
            The woman snorted, having nothing to say to this. She tightened her grip enough that the boy cried out.

4.

The next child in line was a small six years old, the old man guessed. The old man sat on the wooden slab of Santa’s thrown, knowing he was an imposter, taking comfort in the fact that at least his beard was real. As the boy shuffled forward the mall Santa inspected him: the ghost of rings around his eyes, the way he kept his eyes on his shoes, the way his lip curled back a little as if in anticipation of being hit, told Santa that he had been abused many times in his life. To keep from crying out, Santa raised his hand—the one with the circular bruise—to rub at the ghost of a bruise behind his own right eye.
            The boy sat on Santa’s lap and looked up, for just a moment, into Santa’s face. He reached his hand up; the tiny fingers hovered in front of Santa’s face for just a moment, then retreated.
            “It’s okay,” said Santa. “You can touch my face. Pull on my beard even. It’s real, I promise.”
            Tentatively, the boy did: he ran his hand over the lines on Santa’s face, and he pulled the old man’s beard, which hurt, a little. He turned his back to Santa, still sitting on the old man’s lap, and he picked up the old man’s big hand. Slowly his hand traced the ring on the back of Santa’s hand.
            “Did that hurt?” the boy said.
            “No,” Santa said. “Hey. What do you want for Christmas?”
            The boy put his hand to his chin, considering a moment. Then swiftly he turned to hug Santa, burying his head in the old man’s beard.
            “I love you, Santa,” the boy said.
            “I love you,” Santa whispered, in full knowledge that he could be jailed for saying so. “Always,” Santa said. “And never forget it.”

Monday, December 02, 2013

Dispatches from the Earth: United States National Religion

Observational Dispatch from Planet 363972, popularly known as "The Wart."

I believe my cover remains intact.

For the last several decades, I have been observing the peculiar culture which has manifested in the nation known as the United States of America. Of course it would be impossible for a finite being to analyze all aspects of any culture, so I have confined myself to that one all-important element, the national religion. What I have found is fascinating.

The US national religion is very far-reaching and manifestly omnipresent, but I think it may be a form of Gnosticism, for they seem reluctant to name their god.

There are temples to their god, great soaring structures that seem apt to reach into their heavens, with walls that reflect the outside world while revealing nothing of what goes on inside them.

There are priests consecrated to this god. The priests wear a peculiar two- or three-piece getup, involving seams, buttons, zippers, hair-gel and a lofty attitude. The pieces, the buttons and the amount of hair-gel seem to fluctuate; the loftiness of attitude is apparently mandatory. In addition, the priests wear a sort of cassock which is bound about the neck and which points toward the genitalia. I can only assume this is meant to symbolize both mental and sexual enslavement to their god, perhaps with an eye towards gaining favor from him. The priests are mostly male, though it seems a female is not unheard of among their ranks.

Their religion has its saints, as well: like the Special Ones of many religions, these saints seem to be set above even the tacit moral guidelines the national religion requires the commoners to cling to. The saints have gained such favor in the eyes of their god that any behavior by them is permissable, even glamorized. Figures of these saints are placed in people's homes and play out upon the national stages, with the commoners seeming to believe that if they have some part, even some tiny one, in the lives of these saints, the saints' influences will gain them traction with their god. Possibly this is a form of attempted sympathetic magic.

Since they seem so reluctant to name their god, I have reached into their past to find a name for him: most accurately he may be named "Mammon." Their temples they call "banks," their priests "professionals," and their saints "celebrities," but I dislike these names, for they are as revealing as so much fog.

Even the other religions in this nation pay homage to the national god, with sects whose founders reveled in piety, humbleness and servitude seeming to require great spectacles built on a foundation of Mammon in order to be taken seriously.

The ultimate goal of this religion is not exactly clear. While other religions throughout the known universe, and indeed even on the Wart, aim at gaining the believer some traction in the afterlife, or achieving some sort of inner peace or transendence in this life, the worshippers of Mammon seem intent on making the outer flesh and the outer intellect as comfortable as possible in this life. They seem to do this without irony.

Indeed, the fact that their religion is hostile to any experience of what their philosophers have called transendence, religious or otherwise, does not seem to have crossed their minds. Or, perhaps it has: they seem not only willing but eager to banish all talk of philosophy, religion, belief, or transendence of any kind to environments they consider "safe." They can control these things in the classroom or between the pages of a book, or in one of the halls they label "religious," or in the heads of private individuals, so they make sure that those things stay in those places. Again, this may tend toward the Mammonish endeavor of making everything as comfortable as possible; they have a sort of strange idea that comfort means simply the absence of pain.

The religion does have its iconoclasts--or, considering the deadening, image-defying tendencies of the worship of Mammon, perhaps its opponents should be considered iconophiles. At any rate, there are those who work against it. But by the common culture, these people are despised inasmuch as they eschew the work of Mammon, and they are praised inasmuch as they follow his silent dicates.

I see the American religious landscape as a sort of self-imposed wasteland, full of hypocritical priests muttering platitudes to congregations who are not listening anyway, while a few priests teach one of the remaining truly religious religions to a few converts who spend most of their time feeling like exiles. And over all of it, the invisible god Mammon watches, laughing silently.

So ends this report. In my next dispatch I will go into more detail about the clothes these people wear, which again they seem to do without irony.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ethan's Top 7 NaNo Tips

Credentials: The first time I did National Novel Writing Month I was a junior in high school. I have done it every November since; it has seen me through the rest of high school, college, and graduate school, making this my 9th year in a row. I have written at least 50,000 words every November; some years I've made it to 75 or 85,000. (Last year I shot for a hundred thousand, but stopped at 75k. However, I considered that legitimate because I also did two drafts of my Master's thesis in November of last year.)

So as someone who has achieved relative success at this, I decided to lay out a few tips for conquering NaNo's ridiculous write-50,000-words-in-a-month challenge, just in case it helps anyone. I've designed these to be useful whether you're reading them beforehand (meaning, I guess, either today or farther in the future than I am comfortable thinking about), or during NaNo.

1. Keep in mind the actual goal of NaNo. The actual goal of National Novel Writing Month is to write 50,000 words of fiction. Now here are a few things the goal is not:

The goal is not to write good fiction.
The goal is not to write fiction with a coherent plot.
The goal is not to write fiction with well-developed characters.
The goal is not to write fiction with insanely clever hidden elements that only clever readers will understand.

If any of these things manages to happen over the course of the month, great. However, in order to achieve your goal, you must not worry about them. Just focus on getting the words written. Did you just write 10,000 words that you discovered just suck? Keep them. Did you just write three chapters that make the plot that came before them not make sense? Keep them. Just get the words written.

Now the trick here is that 1. quality will happen if you focus on quantity, and 2. even if it doesn't this exercise will have enormous benefits for you as a writer, as a creative person, and simply as a person.

2. Fix it in Post. The mantra of bad film-makers everywhere, this will be the mantra of the successful NaNo-er every time. Just keep repeating it to yourself, anytime that inner voice of Doubt and Nagging and You Suck A Lot comes up. Address that voice. Tell it:

I will make it good later.
I will make the plot make sense later.
I will make the characters interesting later.
I will insert the hints that will lead the clever reader to conclude that Bob Williams is actually the incarnation of Yog-Sothoth later.

Etc.

3. Communicate with the people you care about. My good friends will know that this is something I am better at saying than at doing, but it is a huge help. And I have left this vague on purpose, because the people you care about will inherently fall into two categories: those also doing NaNo, and the rest.

By no means do I want to propose any kind of NaNo snobbery; remember that you're the crazy one. But those not doing NaNo will not understand your species of insanity. If you can, explain it to them, get them to help you. If they simply will not or do not understand, you may have to be blunt: I won't be available to play Mario Kart the next month. I will be writing about Yog-Sothoth. Sorry.

Those you care about who are doing NaNo may just be the most important element of your entire month. Writing is a sad, lonely business and NaNo can be very frustrating when your characters are all killing each other, or cheating on each other, or falling in love with each other, or all three and yet your boss still expects you to show up and sell shoes or make burgers or sell stocks or whatever the case may be. Those going through this also can be enormously helpful in providing sympathy, inspiration, tricks, encouragement, all that good stuff. Also, competition. I made it to 85,000 words to one year as a result of being in stiff competition with a friend of mine; we were beating each other's word counts all month, or I would have stopped at 50k that year.

4. Take Breaks. If you are like me, then every second during NaNo that you are not writing may feel lost, may feel like failure; you may feel like you need to pounce on every opportunity to write. However, breaks are important.

Take a walk for ten minutes. Watch an episode of a TV show. Go visit your mother, who just doesn't understand what you're doing this month but does understand that she feels neglected. Besides being important for not turning you into a chair-glued, catatonic wreck, these times allow your brain and your fingers to rest, to recharge, and to come up with ideas for what to write next.

Then, sit back down and get back to it.

5. Write in small chunks; carve them out of your daily routine. Life is busy. However, I bet you can find a handful of 5-minute intervals between classes, between clients, between whatever, where you can maybe write a paragraph. It may feel frustratingly stop-and-go, but if you can find, say, six to ten such intervals throughout a school or work day, you might get a thousand-plus words done, nearly two-thirds of your daily goal.

One thing I do is get up an hour early. (Actually NaNo is the only month of the year I can force myself to do that.) Some years this has meant simply losing an hour of sleep; take that with caution. Other, healthier years, that has meant going to bed earlier at night or taking naps during dead parts of the day.

6. Write in big chunks. Look at the major times you have off during a typical week. If you work a "normal" job, this may be the weekend; if, like me, you work the sort of jobs that accommodate others' "normal" schedules, maybe it's a weekday morning or a weekend afternoon or evening. Whatever. If you can find yourself a chunk of time--whether it's an entire day off, or all of an afternoon or evening--where you can not only be free from work/school obligations but free yourself from homework/housework etc., then claim it. Put up an iron fence around it. Don't let anyone tell you that you need to hang out with them, come to their party, rake their yard, or whatever during that particular time. Make yourself a pot of coffee or tea; grab your bag of remaindered Hallowe'en candy; put on your favorite writing music.

Then take a deep breath, kiss the world temporarily goodbye, and write.

7. Use Tricks. I have heard so many people say things like, "I thought about using this to boost my word count, but that felt like cheating."

Here's the thing. If something feels like cheating, ask yourself this: "Will I still be writing fiction? My own fiction, using all my own words?" If the answer is Yes, then you are not cheating.

I've used all kinds of tricks over the years. Some years I have deleted all the hyphens so that hyphenated words would count as two rather than one. I decided against that this year, because that's always a mess to edit later and I don't think the words I gain are worth the mental anguish. Here are some other tricks:

-Find an excuse, or make one up, to use really long names and/or honorifics. One year I had a part of a chapter devoted to The Queen Of All Faerie and of the Undying Lands Beyond, and I made it a convention to use her full name every single time.

-Invent wordy characters.

-Never hit delete; if you have a significant passage you realize you don't want to use at all, hyphenate it and delete it in December.

There are plenty of other such word count tricks; head over to the NaNo forums for more. The other important thing, though, is the psychological tricks:

-Until I reach 10,000 words I don't get any more Hallowe'en candy.

-I'll stop and eat lunch once I finish this chapter.

-My friend Terence Mann has five hundred more words than I do. I'll write a thousand so she has to catch up to me.

Etc.

There are tons of other tips and tricks I could give, but this seems like enough to be getting on with. I'm always happy to answer questions or share what wisdom I've stumbled across, so feel free to ask. The great thing about NaNo is that as well as the novel itself being an exercise in imagination, actually getting it written is as well.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Essay on Christian Light

It's insane that it's a platitude that our world has gone insane. Gone from where, we are tempted to ask? Was it really that much better in the middle ages, where Europe was a collection of robber-barons holding the majority of the population hostage, where the Middle East was a collection of warlords holding the majority of the population hostage, where Japan was a collection of robber-barons holding the majority of the population hostage?

Of course the world has never been a picnic, but to restate something at which Marx aimed, there is a definite psychological peace which occurs when one starts a process, sees that process through, and reaps the benefits of that process. Gardeners are some of the most peace-filled people I know. Writers seem to be the longest-lived. To take a world, robber-barons aside, in which the majority of the population was involved in the processes of creating their world and sustaining the community around them and to shatter it into a world whose tendency is toward isolation, a world philosophically, physiologically and metaphysically dedicated to chopping us into discrete units--even pairs are discrete units, when they are separated from a larger community--and then heaping such responsibility on the shoulders of those single units as would stagger a Starship Enterprise: what else can this be but insanity?

Until the Revolution, until the spirit which was given to us two thousand years ago reasserts itself and the first peace comes, we are seemingly stuck with this world. The Christian, then, as any human, has a choice. When the world's tendency is to instill instincts in us toward selfishness, toward treating certain other human beings (sales clerks, wait staff, prostitutes, anyone who disagrees with us theologically, philosophically, politically, or who is engaged in acting out an ideology we despise) as though they are less valuable or simply not valuable, we can choose to go along, limp our limbs and float in this river of insanity, give in to the tendency to hate those we serve or who are serving us, to treat them as a means to an end. Or. Or we can fight the tendency: we can fight the urge to treat the person giving us attitude while he takes our fast food order as if he is a malfunctioning cog in a machine. We can resist the urge to feel and act as though the staff of a retail store exists only as a sort of active furniture to make our lives more convenient, the urge when we are the staff to assume that a customer has a superiority complex, or, if they do, we can resist the very strong urge to make them suffer for it.

Put positively, we can choose to flood our surroundings with light. We can choose to beam a ray of sunlight into every situation, to be unflaggingly kind and polite (which, done correctly, is simply a synonym of kindness), in the face of any given situation.

Certainly you don't have to be a Christian to make this choice. But there is no better motivation for making such choices than our secret knowledge which is no secret, that the reason that there is anything rather than nothing, the very act of existence itself, did the most loving thing possible on our behalf. The reason that there are rainbows and deliciousness and love, the very thing from which all of these good things emanate, became one of us sad broken little people and then, in the face of all possibility, died so that we don't have to.

Try this, the next time you're standing in a fast food line, your break is running out, the people in front of you are not only slow but snotty, and when you finally get to order the cashier not only has an attitude but gets your order wrong and acts like it's your fault. Think, The reason that there is anything rather than nothing, the very reason there is being, incarnated and died on behalf of each one of these people. Try it even if you don't believe it. See what happens.

Of course, you will fail. I fail all the damn time. But when you do, the solution is simple: remember that that reason for being, the one that loves all those annoying, insane, horrid people, loves you too.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Finding Neil Gaiman

It was the middle of an Economic Downturn Summer. Lydia and I sat across from each other in the cafe at Barnes and Noble, under the furrowed brows of a pantheon of Dead White Writers and Virginia Woolf, not drinking or eating, each armed with a stack of at least eight books we desperately wanted but on which we would not allow ourselves to spend any money.

I think she was reading a volume of Sandman and I was immersed in the Tenth Anniversary of American Gods when she looked up at me and said:

“This summer, let's find Neil Gaiman.”

We locked eyes and somewhere, at right angles to everything, was the sound of an explosion.

Perhaps useful to understand: Lydia and I are the sort of friends who had a nearly-instant and intense attraction to one another, not of the romantic sort, but of the sort that prompted us to pledge within weeks of meeting each other never to date or anything like that, because, honestly, it was probably two people like us getting into a relationship that led the gods to sink Atlantis, not out of anger, but for its own good. I can't explain us better than that.

One thing that united us was our love of certain artists, Gaiman probably the Zeus (or more appropriately the Odin) of our shared pantheon. We both had this inveterate desire to go sit at his feet and soak up everything he felt like saying, ever. Thus had evolved naturally a desire to find his actual feet. At whatever pitch the connotations of that sentence might ring, we are not stalkers. Obsession kills romance, and our plan was a supremely romantic one. And, like all supremely romantic plans, it was vague on the details. I think in our shared consciousness the scenario went like this: we would take a road trip to whatever area Neil Gaiman inhabited; we would find the neatest (in the rather specific sense of “most historical”) pub in the area; Neil Gaiman would walk in when we were each nearing the end of a second Johnny Jump-Up; Neil Gaiman would hear me making a reference to an obscure fantasy author or catch a glint of the cuteness radiating from Lydia's cheeks; the rest would be booze-soaked history.

So yes, hero-worship. But something more. Another thing Lydia and I (and a large amount, actually, of my friends and romantic entanglements) share is what the Germans call fernweh, literally “an ache for the distance.” Sometimes “the distance” means merely a wooded glen, a few blocks from a suburban house, which one has not visited but in which the fern fronds seem to transmute the sound of the invisible road into the trumpets and distant wings of Faerie. Sometimes “the distance” would not be reached if one got into the car and drove and drove and drove. In short, if Lydia and I knew Neil Gaiman's exact location at a given moment, we would probably plan our road trip so as to cover the entire state of Wisconsin (depending on the mood, the entire United States or the entire Earth) before ending up at his feet.

That night, arriving back at my parents' place (where Lydia was staying for the weekend), on a whim I Googled “Neil Gaiman's house,” and Google Maps came up with an exact location. In order to mitigate the creepiness factor of my prior knowledge, I would like to mention that in an interview included in the very 10th Anniversary novel I had been reading earlier in the evening, Neil Gaiman makes a fairly vague reference to where his Wisconsin home is; thus it was fairly innocent of me to immediately think that what Google was telling me did not add up with slightly more reliable facts. I assumed the work of tricksters, or idiots, or idiot tricksters. Nevertheless, I showed Lydia. The two of us showed my brother Zeke, a fellow sufferer from fernweh and, that evening in particular, a concomitant sufferer of a rather more dire condition, to describe which I will coin the term Assholes One Encounters In The Food Service Industry, Possibly Including Managers, Co-Workers, or Customers... Itis. When combined with symptoms of fenweh, it makes one extremely susceptible to half-assed plans that involve destinations chosen based upon uncorroborated claims that are, really, too neat and unassuming to be true.

In short, we set out early the next morning.

The location Gmaps gave us—which still existed the last time I checked—was in the northern part of southwestern Wisconsin, well south of La Crosse, well west of Madison, well north of the Illinois and Iowa border. It was the sort of area one's eye glosses over on maps incarnated even on the regional and state level; as far as the world was concerned, it was a place that didn't exist.

I have always had a love for such places: the savior of the world was born in a manger in a backwater town of a backwater country of the world's most powerful empire; the empire which has most affected our age for good and ill started out as a little island even more backwater than Judea; the island which saved the civilization England nurtured was long considered a backwater province itself; my favorite author of all time—who some have argued is the only truly great American author—said that humanity is a procession of cowards of whom he was not only a member, but holding a banner at the head of it. In such places, everybody waves.

Everybody: the big tattooed muscular guy closing a cow gate at the side of the road, the old lady out hunched over her ferns and forsythias, the Amish farmer in his wide-brimmed straw hat herding cows on a hill well above our line of sight—I want to emphasize this, because it would not be rational to assume, from his position, that we could see him. But he waved anyway, because it was better to be sure that friendliness was displayed than to risk someone not being greeted.

When we were nearing the point at which Gmaps claimed was our destination, I dug out a copy of the book Jurgen, a book Neil Gaiman had mentioned in an Acknowledgments section published for all the world to see as a big influence on him, and began to read.

“Maybe it will conjure him,” Lydia said.

Jurgen is a wonderful story, about a man who meets a monk cursing the devil, informs the monk that without the devil the monk would be out of a job, is met by a mysterious stranger and given one wish, wishes that his worst trial would disappear, comes home to find his wife gone, and realizes that he must do the manly thing and go find her. It's a book about fernweh extended across time and space and worlds and dimensions. It's a book with perhaps the most elaborate “that's what she said” jokes in all of literature.

When we got to the precise point at which the Gmaps arrow pointed, a space in the middle of a county highway with no houses even particularly nearby, a narrow disappointment overcame the car. Lydia slowed the car; at the precise point at which the arrow would have pointed, had Gmaps arrows not been a computer communication convention but rather a natural two-dimensional phenomenon, lay what I can only call a critter. It was so odd we got out of the car to examine it. It could have been a badger but the snout was too long. It could have been a raccoon, but the feet were too extensive; it could have been a possum, but it had fur.

Back in the car, and perhaps further explanation is in order: Lydia and I were various shades of artsy-fartsy; we were qualified to arrange stage lighting so it looked pretty, or to evaluate the artistry of a sentence's structure, or to deconstruct the rhetorical devices or the semiotical nuances of any specific type of communication. Zeke, meanwhile, belonged to the major that had somehow made people-watching into a science. What I'm saying is, none of us were trained biologists of any kind.

So maybe there was a perfectly rational explanation for what we saw. The answer we came up with is this: Neil Gaiman does have a dwelling in that location, but it's not in that location in our world. It's that location in Faerie, and there he raises Fae creatures, and that afternoon one of them got away, and was killed, and therefore crossed into our world.


On the way home we stopped and bought a particular type of wine available only during our exile in Wisconsin; we sat on the porch of my parents' house and drank it, reflecting that considering the chillness of the day, the excitement of meeting Neil Gaiman would have perhaps been incongruous. There's always next time.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Exile

I am an exile, a sojourner, a citizen of some other place
All I've seen is just a glimmer in a shadowy mirror, 
But I know one day I'll see face-to-face
-Thrice

Tolstoy supposedly said that there are only two stories: a (hu)man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. On thinking about this, I realized those are actually different sides of the same story: a man on a journey will eventually be a stranger coming to some town, and of course the stranger who comes to town has been on a journey.

A writing teacher recently told me that fiction writers often seem to realize, at some point, that everything they've ever written is actually about the same thing. Partly as a result of that, I realized that all of my fiction--at least, everything that has made enough of an impression that I can call anything about it to mind--is either about exile or community. Which, of course, are different sides of the same thing: without a community there is nothing to be exiled from.

Thinking back, my stories are filled with acts of communion. Some are obvious, like the group of teenagers making up a mystical ritual in the woods under a full moon. Some are less obvious, like the kid who talks to a priest then goes home and fixes himself a snack of pop-tart and grape juice (a bit of symbolism I'm still not sure I intended), or the little girl who makes friends with her older sister's boyfriend by offering him one of her blocks.

An unwise person might ask me why this is, to which I would respond, how long have you got, because now I have to tell you about my entire life.

One of my earliest memories of community is of the homeschooled choir I attended (yes, that's a thing). It was sort of like spending a morning in public school, once a week, except there were a lot more adults around. When I joined my social skills weren't the best AND the kids there largely already knew each other--a recipe for social outcasthood. Not being part of a huge group has never bothered me, though. I made a few friends, and we stuck together, and we got to have all the romance of being outcasts with none of the angst.

Later, I was part of a homeschool group that also mostly went to the same church. There were maybe a dozen of us who were pretty close, by necessity as much as by choice. Later, that community shattered in different ways for different reasons.

Which happens. I have been blessed to be part of many wonderful, unique, bizarre, close communities. But the tragedy of communities is that they change. They die.

One of the deepest philosophical truths in all of Christianity is very, very simple: Things are not right. Entropy happens; the center cannot hold; a blood-dimmed tide is loosed upon the world. I am not the man I want to be; who will save me from this body of death?

There is death all around us: people die, plants die, stars die. Communities die too. But even when a community dies, some piece of it lives inside the people who were once members of it. We are all exiles; we all have some memory of a home we've lost, even if that memory is of something that never was, but should have been.

There's a reason the phoenix is my favorite animal, and it's the same reason I always write about community. This is the only thing I find to be worth writing about, at least to be worth telling stories about. Resurrection. Wonder. Those things that are unnatural and yet strike a deep chord in almost everyone.

The other day I discovered something I barely remember scribbling down in a notebook. I need to look through my notebooks more often; I've written nearly a million words of fiction but I suspect this is all I was trying to say:

Loving people is like having an extension of your body. And when that part hurts, your whole body hurts. And there's nothing you can do. So why do we love? Because it's worth it--our bodies are broken. They're not enough.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book List 2013

Is this all I use this blog for anymore? Maybe. Maybe one of these days I'll do my 2012 reading year in review. We'll see.

1. Veniss Underground, by Jeff Vandermeer
2. Castleview, by Gene Wolfe
3. Escape From Reason, by Francis Schaeffer
4. Steampunk III, ed. by Ann Vandermeer
5. The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp
6. Girl Genius Omnibus 1: Agatha Awakens, by Phil & Kaja Foglio
7. American Gods, 10th Anniversary Edition, by Neil Gaiman
8. Fables: Sons of Empire, by Bill Willingham
9. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
10. Extra Indians, by Eric Gansworth
11. Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Ubervilles, by Kim Newman
12. The Walking Dead: Days Gone By, by Robert Kirkman
13. The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us, by Robert Kirkman
14. Fables: The Good Prince, by Bill Willingham
15. Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
16. Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story, by LeAnne Howe
17. The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars, by Robert Kirkman
18. David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd
19. Count to a Trillion, by John C. Wright
20. Winter in the Blood, by James Welch
21. The Antelope Wife, by Louise Erdrich
22. Other Places: 3 Plays, by Harold Pinter
23. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany
24. Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs
25. Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton
26. Imagining Atlantis, by Richard Ellis
27. Free Live Free!, by Gene Wolfe
28. The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar
29. A Dream Play, by August Strindberg
30. Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, by Ignatius Loyola Donelly
31. Curious Creatures of Zoology, by John Ashton
32. In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales, by Lord Dunsany
33. The Music of Failure, by Bill Holm
34. Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float, by Sarah Schmelling
35. Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen
36. The Mystery of Christ ...and Why We Don't Get It, by Robert Capon
37. Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich
38. Focusing, by Gerald Gendlin
39. Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
40. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, by George Woodcock
41. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
42. Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy
43. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
44. The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber
45. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making, by Catherine Valente
46. Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman
47. Fables: War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham
48. Elk's Run, by Joshua Hale Fialkov
49. Broken, by Jonathan Fisk
50. Three Days to Never, Tim Powers
51. Luther's Large Catechism, by Martin Luther
52. Did the Resurrection Happen?, by Gary Habermas, Antony Flew, and David Baggett
53. Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link
54. Endangered Species, by Gene Wolfe
55. Shamela, by Henry Fielding
56. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
57. Nine Stories, by JD Salinger
58. Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger
59. Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction, by JD Salinger
60. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich
61. The History of the World, by Matthew Wilkes
62. Don Quixote: Volume One, by Miguel de Cervantes
63. Done Quixote: Volume Two, by Miguel de Cervantes
64. Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
65. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammet
66. Bulldog Drummond, by Sapper [p]
67. The Innocence of Father Brown, by GK Chesterton [p]
68. Illuminatus: The Eye in the Pyramid, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
69. Illuminatus: The Golden Apple, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
70. Illuminatus: Leviathan, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
71. Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card
72. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccacio
73. The History of Magic, by Kurt Seligman
74. I am the Desert, by Michael G. Lilienthal
75. Saint Francis and the Foolishness of God, by Marie Dennis et. al.
76. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
77. A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
78. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick
79. The Warlord of the Air, by Michael Moorcock
80. Steampunk, ed. by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Critique of Pure Atheism: Freedom From God



Unlike my last critique, this one will have a decent amount of material that is arguable, in the classical sense of having logical analysis and arguments which are falsifiable. However, the essay as a whole is once again a personal one; it is a personal response to a meme I have encountered online. Therefore, on a thesis level this essay is not falsifiable. Sorry, Enlightenment Rationalists.

One other pre-thesis note: I am afraid I may drop into second person in the latter part of this piece. I am afraid of this because I largely despise the use of second person in non-fiction (there are a decent  amount of legitimate uses for it in fiction), and almost universally despise its use in the non-fiction of persons who are not at, say, the G.K. Chesterton level of essay-writing skill—those who can name at least two reasons for any specific word choice in anything they write. My use of second person here is due to the fact that I am responding to a meme which is written in the imperative mode, thus implying a second-person address even though no form of “you” actually appears in it. Thus, for consistency and coherence, I will say that any form of “you” that I use can be considered a response to the original author of the meme, whoever he or she may be.

The meme, which I have encountered more than once over the course of wasting time on the internet, goes like this:

GOD DOES NOT EXIST. NOW RELAX AND ENJOY LIFE!

Usually upon encountering this, I simply roll my eyes and move on. But today, perhaps for lack of a more constructive use of my time, I have decided to examine the implications of this meme, starting with rhetorical analysis.

The author, as with most memes, is probably not traceable, so it is admittedly a presumption that the author is an atheist. However, since I have encountered the meme on multiple avowedly atheist forums and webpages, and have both known and read avowed atheists who have said similar things, it doesn't seem terribly straw-mannish to assume that this is an atheistic bit of rhetoric.

It is interesting to look at the presumed audience for this meme. Since the meme is simply declarative and imperative, to take it at face value would be to assume that it is directed at anyone who reads it. Therefore, the audience could theoretically be “anyone who can read English.” However, the wording implies that the members of the audience either believe in God or are trying to decide if they do—people who do not believe in God would not need to be told of God's non-existence. I suppose it could be meant as reassurance to those who already don't believe in God, but the only people who would be affected by acceptance of the message are those who do or might believe. Where it gets interesting is the further presumption: due to believing in God, I am not relaxed. Whatever state of being I as the reader fill in—upset, paranoid, guilty, awe-struck, trembling—apparently stops me from being relaxed, and from enjoying life.

To round out the basic rhetorical analysis I need to look at purpose. To again take the implications at face value, this meme is attempting to deliver a message. Here I am not claiming to know the author's original intent, options for which are manifold, but simply to be looking at the text itself. As I've said, the text is in the imperative mode, as if it is giving me (the reader) instructions, or perhaps suggestions. Therefore if I respond to the text as if I am responding to instructions or suggestions, I am merely taking that text at face value.

So God does not exist. This is apparently supposed to free me, so that I can relax and enjoy my life.

Except, wait.

I know a lot of people who have grown up with a God who seems like an angry, sentient lightning storm with arbitrary rules, a God who makes lists of correct behaviors and draws these really tight lines around How People Should Act and anyone who steps outside of those lines just gets zapped, kapow. I've even known some people who think this is an accurate description of the God of the Bible. I suppose, if I believed in a God like that, it would be a relief if someone told me He didn't exist.

But I believe in a God who is the opposite of that sort of god. The God whose Spirit breathed the Bible into men's ears is a God who hopes all things, believes all things, and bears all things—including all of the things I am too weak to bear—and a God whose grace never fails. To use extreme terms, I could hate my God with the most passionate hatred I am capable of, and He would only ever respond with love, would only ever accept me back the instant I asked.

To understand what I mean, meme author, imagine you met the man or woman of your dreams. Imagine that this person is the only one you ever wanted to be with. Now imagine that they loved you, unconditionally and irretrievably. Now imagine that they set down some rules, say, “Don't sleep with anyone else; don't snore; don't arbitrarily spill water all over the floor.” Imagine that you broke all of these rules in the same day, or the same hour. Imagine that while being understandably annoyed, and perhaps making you, say, wipe up the water you spilled on the floor, your significant other accepted you back unconditionally.

Now imagine that someone came up to you and said, “Your significant other doesn't exist. Now relax and enjoy life!” and assume that somehow this made it true (on the fallacy of which, see common sense). You'd suddenly be free to sleep with anyone you wanted. It wouldn't matter if you snored. You could spit water all over the floor (and the walls, and the ceiling, for that matter). But would you actually be relaxed? Would it actually be more enjoyable?

As far as analogies (an inherently simplifying and limiting technique) go, that one is as good as any.

The God I believe in is capable of bringing grace out of anything. The very concept is staggering. It means that no matter what decision I make—whether it's the right decision or the wrong one, a good decision or a bad one—God will redeem it and make it a blessing. As far as ideas that allow me to relax and enjoy life, this is the best one I've ever encountered.

Don't misunderstand: the whole thing is not easy. Things that are worthwhile are never easy.

To sum up, meme author, you are of course allowed to believe what you want to, and to declare that belief. But to assume that you are freeing me by attempting to take away my God is almost indescribably arrogant and foolish.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Critique of Pure Atheism: Why I am Not an Atheist

To start with the negatives: this is not an apologetic, in the sense that it is not an argument for any particular religion; it has nothing to do with why I believe Christ rose from the dead. It is also not meant as an attack against atheists. If it is anything other than an inexcusably verbose rant, then it's a personal testimony of an atypical sort: not a testimony about conversion to anything, but about a lack of conversion. It's probably the weakest reason I have for belief as well as the weakest reason I have for lack of belief, but that's why it's not an argument.

Basically, if I did not have all of my better reasons for following Christ and for not being an atheist, I would still not be an atheist because I am prone to boredom. And atheism, to me, is unspeakably, unutterably, irretrievably boring.

Sometimes I think speculatively about being an atheist. Not in that I am considering giving up my faith, but because I have the sort of mind that can't resist a good "what-if" scenario. But I can't get very far into it before I come up with, "So what?"

To grant the basic premise of atheism is to grant that, as far as we know, human beings are the highest form of life, the highest form of existence. Granting this, I look at myself and I see someone who is self-centered, snobbish, often resentful, absent-minded, yada yada lots of flaws. I look at people who are very intelligent (say, Stephen Hawking) or people who are physically beautiful (say, ahem, Jennifer Lawrence) or people whose lives are or were incredibly exciting (Sir Richard Burton comes to mind, at random), or people who are extremely talented (anyone from Da Vinci to Twain to Shakespeare), and I think that if even these extraordinary people are the best thing the universe has to offer, or if I were one of them, or if I am the ultimate reality (which without some kind of external frame of reference, I am), then the universe and reality are just incredibly stupid.

Perhaps ironically, this wouldn't make me feel antithetical to people; if we're all stupid and all we have is each other, love and grace seem like much more worthwhile endeavors than does misanthropy.

But if that's what I have to start with, reality seems to get better, not worse, if I turn to religion. I could believe in a personal God who redeems me and whose hand guides my life, or I could believe in an impersonal force which binds all of life together, or in a cycle of death and reincarnation with a journey toward eventual enlightenment and union with everything. All of these seem more worthwhile than not believing in anything. (Of course, I do believe that the greatest and most redemptive truth leads to one specific place--or rather, one specific Man--but for now that's beside the point.) Not all beliefs are equal, and some cam lead to terrible places, but for that matter so can atheistic philosophy.

This may just be a restatement of Pascal's famous wager, which paraphrased argues that if I am an atheist and I am right, then I have gained nothing, and if I am wrong I stand to lose everything; whereas if I have faith and am wrong I have lost nothing (except, maybe, some time that in all honesty I probably would have spent playing Angry Birds anyway) and if I am right I stand to gain everything. To extend the idea beyond Pascal's original purview, it really makes more sense to believe in anything than it does to believe that this life is all we have.

I have heard it argued that not believing in God grants the greatest freedom. I find this idea curious, at best; I could probably post another entire rant in response to it. But for today I'll trade a little freedom (or I would if I had to, which I don't) for a reality that's more interesting than what's in my head.

Monday, April 23, 2012

How to be a Man

Don’t tell me how to be a man.
If I want to wake with the dawn on Easter morning,
crawl out sleepy-eyed into the lawn’s cold dew
and lie wrapped in a blanket of sunrise
as the heat of day burns the tomb from wet limbs
and the first light of the songbirds
sends streaks of yellow across a field of blue;

if I want to write a sonnet on sea-foam
or on the seaweed that wrapped around me once
when I was young and its tentacles were like a baptism;

if I want to climb an evergreen tree
like it was the mast of a man’o’war
and sit in the sky with the wind
as my only friend,

then I will. Leaving you, arms
wrapped around your knees staring
at your navel, trying to remember the manliest
way to unfold yourself. Until you decide
whether your works are enough to earn a rite of passage
—and even after that—
don’t try to tell me what manliness is. It’s not
for you or me to decide, thank God.