Thinking a World Into Existence

Colored leaf arrangement

Colored leaves arranged by Andy Goldsworthy

Picture yourself, if you will, as having no physical existence, just a cloud (although a cloud is physical—so not a cloud) of thoughts floating in space (although “floating” is also physical, but anyway). You might think of your mind this way, as a kind of entity, something we can’t really describe, like a disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space.

I’m not going to pursue this blog entry into the philosophical view that our physical existence is actually an illusion. Oh, no sir, we exist, alright. It’s our minds that I have questions about. And yet something tenaciously continues to insist “I’m here. I’m here.” OK, fine, but it’s spooky. Let’s consider what these minds can do.

Have you ever known a child who didn’t draw, or play with dolls, or use objects to create an imaginary world? “This is the doctor, and she lives on the boat with her duck, but sometimes she uses the rocket ship to go places.” These activities of children just sounds normal, right? It’s what humans do. Every human is creative.

Nevertheless, in the societies that we’ve constructed, we have managed to devise a world in which some people think they are not creative. All humans create, even if they do not write novels or symphonies or bake cakes that look like movie stars. It is a basic aspect of being human.

In my discussion here, what is creativity? You may not write a novel, but you’ve spent your life telling yourself stories, imagining things that you wish would happen (and I don’t just mean, you know, stuff you don’t want to tell anybody). Your mind pictures something that does not completely exist in the physical world, and the thing you think of exists in your disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space (your mind). That’s creativity, the same idea that every religion attributes to whatever gods they worship, from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god to Hindu Brahman to ancient Egyptian Ra. From thought comes existence.

Yet there is a difference among people, or there appears to be, in the intensity with which they pursue creativity. If creativity allows us to escape the prison of physical life, maybe some people have a greater desire to escape. In other instances, creativity is probably not about escape, but about expression. Something inside has to get out, I just gotta dance!

I feel it myself, the compulsion to make something appear where nothing was. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes, to look at the blankness of a page and wonder what should be there. It’s interesting to ponder, since creativity is basic to human thinking, why someone chooses a particular way of creating over another way. I feel driven to write, and another person feels driven to build birdhouses.

The first answer that comes to my mind is that it’s because we discover we’re good at something. I would love to be a musician, for instance, but I think I’m not good at it, so I don’t pursue it. And yet I’ve known some craaaaaapy writers, who really loved to write. So maybe we’re drawn to particular forms of creativity for mysterious reasons, like so much of life. It’s a mystery, like our minds.

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I Pretend to Know That

bowl of herbsA couple of weeks ago, I had intended to drive to a state park in the North Georgia mountains, where a national herbal medicine conference was being held. I didn’t specifically want to attend the conference, but I did want to see what was happening, to get a feel for it and make some notes. It turns out I did not go, but I’ve talked to someone who did.

The reason for the herbal medicine interest is that I have a character in the novel I’m currently writing who is in the process of becoming a herbal healer, which I know almost nothing about. Because I have a strong interest in character development, I try to have characters familiar with a wide variety of topics, like real people, so my characters will necessarily know things that I don’t know.

I’m not going to become seriously knowledgeable about every possible thing familiar to my characters. What I write, in effect, is an illusion (assuming it works). If character development is done well, and I’ve read people who do it well, it really does seem that the characters know many different subjects.

If you are a writer, unless you strictly follow the idiotic advice to “write what you know”, a great deal of research may be needed. I was recently reading about the movie director Mira Nair, who made the movie “Mississippi Masala” and how she went to Uganda to do research for the movie. That kind of thing is far beyond my resources, but I still do a lot of research.

If you’re a clumsy writer (and it’s easy to be clumsy, as I know from experience), you can take what you’ve learned about some topic and drop it in clumps into your novel. Even if you put quotation marks around it, however, and present it as the character speaking, that block of information doesn’t even come close to creating a real character.

People don’t usually go around giving lectures on what they know. Most of the time, as they move through daily life, what they know about topic X comes out in more subtle ways. To be realistic, what you must to do is show repeated, more subtle references, as in these examples.

  • Someone who is a good cook might be standing in line at the supermarket, looking at a recipe in a magazine, thinking I wouldn’t put tarragon in that.
  • Someone who is a basketball fan may look at a calendar for a different reason, but notice they’ve marked a date to meet a friend to watch a playoff game.
  • Someone who trains dogs could be in their basement looking for something when they happen to see an old [insert dog training implement—do research].

In the novel I’m currently writing, in addition to the character who will become a herbal healer, I have a visual artist, a painter. Attempting to show the knowledge of these two characters requires both research and attention to details within the writing.

  • The artist: I knew there is such a thing as complementary colors, something a trained artist would presumably know, but I didn’t know what they are, so I looked up a color wheel (several, in fact, as I prefer to verify what I’m finding).
  • The artist: He is looking at an object, thinking about what colors he might use to capture that look, using [name colors of paint—do research]
  • The herbal healer: I met someone who knows herbal medicine, so I asked if I could interview her, which I did once for a couple of hours over lunch. I made notes, and I followed up on information she gave me.
  • The herbal healer: My character is at a friend’s house and notices a pot of flowers in the room, then learns that the flowers are a herbal plant she’s just been reading about.

Doing the things I’m describing above is a LOT of work. That’s what good writing is.

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I See That Candy Hidden in Your Pocket

SupermanThursday morning I woke up lying on the floor, chocolate smeared across my face, with dozens of candy wrappers lying all around me. But hey, we’ve all been there. The day after Halloween, right?

This year for Halloween, even though spirits of the dead were walking the earth (granted, many of them less than four feet tall), I decided I would be brave and give out candy whenever they came to my door. So I bought several bags and poured them in a bowl, which I set by the door. I was ready to distribute sugar to the dead. Or to SpongeBob SquarePants. Or princesses.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman,” he said. “I promised Robin I’d get him some candy. He’s in the car.” I looked around Batman and there was the Batmobile sitting by the curb.

I said, “Uhhhh,” and Batman said, “Yeah, look, just put it in the bag here.” So I did.

The next knock on the door, I opened up and only one person was there, a grown woman in a skimpy red and blue outfit with stars and more sequins than I expected. I said, “Are you—”

“Wonder Woman,” she said. “And you know what, I’ll skip the candy. I mean, all that sugar is incredibly unhealthy, right? But it’s kind of cold out here, and this outfit…this is just stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m half naked.”

“Let me get you an old sweater,” I said, and I gave her that.

The next couple of knocks on the door were normal children, or tiny dead people, I’m not sure. Then I opened up and a grown man was there wearing a straw hat, dark blue overalls, heavy boots with mud on them, and a skin-tight gold shirt. “Who are you?” I said.

“Farmboy,” he said. “A superhero.”

I looked at him kind of suspicious. “I never heard of you.”

“I’m not as well known as the others, but I protect against insect pests, in addition to leaf blight, root rot, and powdery mildew. Trick or treat.” He held out a burlap bag.

What was I going to do? I didn’t want him to pull a trick and put powdery mildew on my azaleas, so I gave him candy.

No more superheroes seemed to be showing up after that, which was OK with me. Eventually I ran out of candy and I made some popcorn balls and started giving those out. Late in the evening, though, there was a real loud knock, and Superman was standing there.

He held out a bag and said, “Trick or treat, man,” which he kind of mumbled.

I gave him two popcorn balls, but he looked down in the bag and said, “What the hell?” I explained that I was out of candy, but he told me he hated popcorn and was going to give me a trick for not having candy. The trick was that he turned back time.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman.”

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I want to thank everyone who reads this blog, those who have been reading from years ago as well as new readers who have recently subscribed. I truly appreciate that you give me some of your time to read it. I’ve been writing the blog now for around six years or more, posting once a week. As you can imagine, such an endeavor has been quite a lot of work, not to mention that I also have to work for a living (goddamnit), plus I write novels when I can. At the end of this year I am going to take a break, so these regular weekly posts will continue through November and December.

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Next Question?

Book of Latin words

I’m writing a press release

Not long ago I saw a quote from a politician, or maybe from one of their word puppets, saying they would “not comment on a hypothetical question”. What that phrase means—always, every time you hear it from now until the Apocalypse—is “If I say anything on that topic, everyone will recognize that what I said is stupid and offensive.”

Another way of saying the same thing is “Since I don’t want to be honest, I prefer to hide behind a big Latin word like hypothetical.”

In this case, the word is being used not in reference to the scientific method,* considering a hypothesis of what might be true and then testing to find out. In the diminished, cretinous political usage, hypothetical means “hasn’t happened yet”.

But of course politicians do “comment on hypothetical questions” all day long. When they run for office, if they aren’t busy telling us that their opponent wants to kill baby lambs, when they’re talking about what they’re going to do if they get elected, then they’re talking and talking and talking—let me catch my breath for a moment—and talking about what they will do in situations that haven’t happened yet.

And ha ha!, if you do elect them, then by God, they won’t answer your questions. They’ll call them hypothetical and pretend it’s just not worth their trouble to respond.

Refusing to answer questions is such a basic aspect of political speech that we not only expect it, we just shrug our shoulders. It’s what they do, hah? If you’ve ever listened to a politician being questioned by a journalist, then you’ve heard a person totally ignore the question and instead say whatever random shit they want. It is rare, if it even happens at all, for a journalist to stop cold and say, “Wait. You didn’t answer my question. It’s completely pointless to ask you anything else.”

And it is rare, if it even happens at all, for TV viewers or readers to stop cold and say, “Wait. This journalist didn’t do their job. They allowed the politician to sleaze by with a bunch of noise and never actually answer the question.”

The politician did, however, use a big Latin word. And that’s cool, yeah?

If we are getting trash and lies and deliberate refusal to communicate from our politicians, it is because we’re OK with that. Do you demand clarity and honesty from the politicians who you agree with, as well as from those bastards who you don’t like?

Here are some basic facts of human psychology: 1) We do not like to be embarrassed or punished. 2) Sometimes, nevertheless, we will do things or at least want to do things that will cause us to be embarrassed or punished. 3) If we are forced to talk honestly about these things, we will suffer for it. 4) If we can’t get out of talking, we try to hide or avoid the topic. Even a four-year-child knows to do this.

These basic facts will be the same even a thousand years from now. Politicians—strange as it is on occasion to think so—are human beings, and like other human beings, if they think they will suffer for telling the truth, they will try to hide or avoid the topic, if we let them.

The difference is, they want power over our lives. And if we give them power, then let them refuse to communicate honestly, we deserve it.

________________________________

* I certainly don’t mean to imply that these illiterate buffoons would actually know what the scientific method is. Or what “science” is. Or what a “school” is.

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The Books Speak

Mad HatterMaybe you’ve heard that here in the US of A we’re having an election eighteen days from now. Will this election bring us somewhat back into the light, or will we sink further into darkness? Probably some of both, just like always. In times of existential crisis, we often turn to literature for wisdom and comfort, so I decided to ask several literary characters for their opinions on the upcoming American election.

Odysseus (The Iliad)
There’s a good reason they always called me “the great teller of tales” and “man of twists and turns”. Only a fool tells the truth when a lie is useful, and I admire any politician who knows this. The more he lies, the more he is a hero. But why are you having an “election” at all? Life is for the rule of the strongest, to take what you want. There is no such thing as cruelty, only winners and losers.

Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland)
You’re having an election? Elect me! I’ll give everyone a cookie and a cup of tea. And a mouse. I saw some clouds in the sky. They looked like me. Elect me! I heard angels singing. They were singing about me! I’ll give you a free cap. Don’t you want a cap? Do you want to sing about me?

Joker (Batman comics)
Here’s what most people don’t understand, because they aren’t as smart as me. Everyone is out to get you, so you should do anything you can to get them first. Trick people every chance you get. I should run for Senate, ha! ha! ha! I’d be so good at it! I’d support everything that’s good for me, but I would tell people I was doing things for them. Do what’s good for you, and let everybody else drop dead, ha! ha! ha!

Police Inspector Javert (Les Misérables)
If only I lived in your country instead of France, I would run for your Congress, as I am exactly the sort of person who belongs there. I have an absolute devotion to higher authorities, and I will do whatever I’m told, with no question of right or wrong. There is no such thing as morality, only law, which should be imposed with rigor, and no such stupid idea as “mercy”.

Scrooge McDuck (Donald Duck comics)
Quack quack quack! Hah! I’m the richest person in the world, so I can’t even tell you how much money I have! I have a roomful of money where I go to lie in it sometimes, to think about how wonderful I am for being so rich! Nothing matters but money, and you should do anything—anything—that will get you more, no matter how much you already have! Quack!

Ghost of Christmas Future (A Christmas Carol)
[When I asked for comments from the Ghost of Christmas Future, I didn’t realize it does not speak. So it said nothing, but it led me into the future, to the funeral of a rich, bitter old man, who was loved by no one, and when he died, everyone celebrated.]

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How Many Colors Were You Thinking?

woman with colored hairAs I’m writing the book Moonapple Pie, part of the background for working on it is that I’m making a point of reading southern writers. I’ve found some who I didn’t know and have really liked (Lee Smith, Edward P. Jones, Mary Hood), as well as some who are just famous.

One writer who I decided to look at was Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina. Back during the summer I was in Asheville, which probably made me think more about Wolfe. I had known of him before, and a movie was made about his life in the past year. I had never read him, so I decided to try Look Homeward, Angel, which I finished recently, though I read it slowly (and it was more than 500 pages).

Although the book is a novel, it is also in some sense an autobiography of Wolfe and his family. Two characters in the book die, for instance, and Wolfe gives them the actual names of two of his own brothers who died when he was young. Even as he kept those names, however, Wolfe changed place names, so that Asheville was mysteriously renamed as Altamont.

Very little plot entices the reader through this novel, so that you wonder what is going to fill up those 500 pages. What plot the book has mostly concerns the character Eugene, who represents the author, but you have to read quite a ways before Eugene is born. We then watch him gradually grow old enough to graduate from college, though the book regularly focuses on someone other than Eugene.

For me, at least, what makes Look Homeward, Angel an interesting book is not the pale plot but the language, a brilliant display the flows and dances and sings on every page. Not everyone, of course, would want to read a book like that. If you don’t enjoy language for its own sake, this is probably not the book for you.

The one thing about this novel that really put me off was the occasional ugly racism. I understand Wolfe was writing the book in 1926, not a time of enlightenment in this country, but it was still unpleasant when I ran into it. There is no viciousness about the racism, but rather a striking lack of empathy, though to be sure, Wolfe is not exactly kind to a single character in the book.

As I was reading the novel, it seemed clear to me that this book was influenced by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and I would swear on a tiger’s eyes that Wolfe read Ulysses before he began writing. Sometimes the influence seemed open and obvious, and at other times it was simply the unfettered exuberance of the language that connected the books. Occasionally Wolfe’s language was so outlandishly imaginative that it didn’t even fully make sense, but the fireworks went on. I’ll serve you a few samples of the language, pulled out fairly randomly:

  • “And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury; when he he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness.”
  • “He turned his face up to her as a prisoner who recovers light, as a man long pent in darkness who bathes himself in the great pool of dawn, as a blind man who feels upon his eyes the white core and essence of immutable brightness.”
  • “O God! O God! We have been an exile in another land and a stranger in our own. The mountains were our masters: they went home to our eye and our heart before we came to five. Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.”

Just as I would for Ulysses, I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to other writers, as a way of saying “Loosen your reins on occasion. Look what is possible.”

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I Can’t Emphasize This Enough

whiskey bottle

What kind of boys were here?

I was walking one day in the park back behind me here, and I thought, “That’s a slow-ass couple walking in front of me.” Because I am not only crude but linguistically curious, I began to contemplate the construction I had just used, and it occurred to me that the word “ass” used in such a way functions as an emphatic particle.

An emphatic particle is a small word, really almost just a noise, that adds emphasis to another word. I learned about them while studying Russian. At some point when I was not screaming in anguish from how hard it was, I found the little word же, spelled in English as zhe. Here’s an awkward combination English/Russian sentence: he’s an idiot zhe, which means he’s really an idiot. (And it’s somebody you know.)

Meanwhile, back here in good old English, you don’t want some boring-ass discussion of Russian. I got to thinking about how exactly to use this emphatic particle “ass” in English. From my meticulous examination, it seems like the word only works with adjectives, and given the rude nature of the word, it’s found only in casual or slangy speech.

The types of adjectives you can apply it to also appear to generally be short and not very formal. So you could say “That is an ugly-ass baby you got there” but you would never say “That is an unappealing-ass baby you got there”. Though I can see—purely for poetic purposes—that you might try something more creative like “That is a loathsome-ass baby you got there”. Depending on the baby.

I was also wondering whether the adjective being used always needs to have some negative sense about it. For instance, “Tuesday was such a hot-ass day we had to drink twelve beers” places emphasis on the excess heat. Or if you say to someone “You sure got a big-ass house” do you mean that perhaps it’s a bit too big? As in “what do you pay in taxes on a place like this?” And how do you vacuum it?

Another emphatic particle in English, most common here in the south, is the word “old” but often pronounced without the final letter, like “ole”, or you’ll find it spelled to show the missing letter, as ol’. A common, preposterously clichéd, southern expression is “good ol’ boy” to refer to a grown man. Even though I’m from the south myself, I’d be hard pressed to define that expression. For me it has negative connotations of ignorance and possible bad behavior, but for the people who use the phrase, it’s positive, connoting down-to-earth and perhaps fun to share whiskey with.

Like the emphatic particle ass, ol’ is only used with adjectives. It can have a range of uses, as in “Damn, your mama’s a big ol’ girl, ain’t she?” Notice that both ass and ol’ have to be placed after the adjective that they modify. Similar to ass, the particle ol’ probably cannot be used with very long or formal adjectives. He’s a good ol’ boy, but probably not he’s a judicious ol’ boy.

But I’m not entirely sure. I’m still thinking about that, here in my dumb ol’ blog. Or should that be ill-advised ol’ blog?

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