Monthly Archives: July 2011

Think Like an Egyptian

Thoth, god of writingThe writing flashing on the digital wall has been evident for several years now, telling us that books are disappearing. That statement is a bit overdramatized. I’m using “book” as a synonym for “codex”, a particular physical form of a book. The codex, invented sometime around the year 300, has separate pages bound together in a cover, replacing the book as a rolled-up scroll.

In fact, the codex form of the book will never entirely disappear, but such books will become things most people never have any intereaction with, like spinning wheels or slide rules. Really beautiful, well-made codex books will become items for collectors. Everyone else will access books, and information in general, in some digital form.

Mostly, this is a very good thing. Information should not exist to justifiy the existence of pieces of paper bound together. The codex is a form of technology that has been amazingly successful and long lasting. In our modern world, however, with cheap printing, most codex books are nothing more than containers for the information inside. When you get a book with paper covers that curl up, with bad print quality, cheap paper that turns brittle—or with out-of-date information—the codex is not even a very good container.

Digital formats now also imply the ability to connect one form of information with another, so that a book on something like the Kindle may also come with a dictionary, a historical background, an encyclopedia, a set of paintings, the ability to listen to all of the music of the Beatles and Beethoven, and a connection to the internet if that’s not enough.

For most of the ways we use books, our descendants will think how quaint we were, carrying around heavy stacks of paper and mourning the loss when it became so much easier. And frankly, most codex books now are not even all that nice; they’re just containers.

Interesting points arise, however, when we consider how the technology to record information affects the way our minds process information. The symbols of Egyptian hieroglyphics mostly represented physical objects in the world, but they also represented sounds and could be combined to make words, just like English letters. For those few people who could read and write hieroglyphics, there must have been occasions when they encountered real objects that, by association with hieroglyphic symbols, “spelled out” other ideas.

Even when reading with an alphabet, the technology would have affected ways of thinking. A person using a long rolled-up papyrus scroll might have relied on memory more than a modern reader. What was it Aristotle said in the first chapter? Well, that was 15 feet back down the roll, and it was too much trouble to unroll it and look. Because of the physical inconvenience, a scroll reader was more likely to simply deal with whatever was in front of him.

The dramatic invention of cutting the pages apart and sewing them along one edge, creating the modern form of the book, made it easy to flip back to chapter one and see just what Aristotle had said. Easy movement in the book made the reader’s interaction with information very different. Eventually it became possible to invent a table of contents and an index and a list of notes, things that could not be imagined with a scroll. It also became easy to stop reading and move around in the book.

There was a definite benefit from the change…yet, was there even a slight loss when the reader no longer felt compelled to stay in one place in the text, to ponder it more deeply without the distraction of flipping to another page?

The current change into digital forms also allows us to do things that were inconceivable before, like adding a global search function, or choosing the type of supplemental information we need to help up to understand better (rather than having the author choose for us by deciding that we need a map or sidebar here, but not there).

Aside from the unhappiness of people like myself who love books in their current form, is there an actual loss in how we use information? This is a much-debated question these days (among bookish eggheads, I mean), and one suggested answer is yes. If we can quickly jump to a thousand other possibilities, we may not spend the time with a text for an author to make a complex argument. This is a view that believes digital technology can harm intellectual and social discourse, making us less willing or able to concentrate on extended texts that discuss complicated and difficult topics.

Or maybe there will be no overall intellectual loss, even if the way we use information does change. With every change in the technology of recording information, there has been an increase in literacy. I would go so far as to make a direct connection between changes in technology and increases in knowledge and personal freedom, such as breaking the chokehold of the Catholic church, or churches in general, or helping to rid the world of the cancer of nobility and kings. As a current example, the slow first steps now happening with the Arab Spring are closely connected with the availability of digital technology to spread information. What decent person has not looked at Egypt and felt their heart sing?

No church, no king, no imam, no dictator—these are good things. And jumping over to Wikipedia when I read is a good thing.

But I do still love to sit outside with a glass of wine and a book made of paper. I can’t help it. I won’t even try to help it. I’m old-fashioned that way.

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Process, Process—Ach, Mein Gott!

I used to teach writing to college freshmen, or to describe this more accurately, I used to wander in hollow-eyed horror through linguistic landscapes lacking in flourishes of grace, hints of logic, or recognizable transitions.

That’s what so often happens to people who love language and the beauty of writing. They become English professors, teach freshman composition, and spend their lives reading the worst writing the civilized world has known. Look for me standing in the dumbass line.

Part of what I tried to teach my younguns was something that I did not know myself while in college, that to achieve the best writing you are capable of, you do not simply sit down and write something and you are done. It is a process. Always.

And ain’t it, though? Goddamnit, why can’t it ever be easy? Good writers may not always be inherently better than other people, they’re just willing to suffer more. Once you lose enough blood, the text is starting to improve a bit.

I didn’t intend to write a novel. I was simply out sailing my little boat peacefully on placid water, like Odysseus, when suddenly—Hey! what’s that cool music over there? Near those rocks!

Part of the process of writing, as a very close friend pointed out to me, involves thought. And I needed to be told that because I didn’t want to do it. As I have already described in some of these posts, so far in this book I have Benedict and his daughter, Miramar, with the intention of sending them back in time. I was not sure what to do with them, but because I want this book to be rather fun, it occurred to me that I might do a kind of picaresque. The ones that come to mind without Wikipedia are Tom Jones and the wonderful satire Shamela, and no doubt Don Quixote as well.

So what I’m thinking is that Benedict and Miramar will set out from Missouri, where they begin, headed toward Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition in 1876, but with periodic interludes back in the present. Then last night it struck me, as if a choir of angels, or at least Snow Patrol, had come to sing me the glad tidings. In the sections that take place in the present, Benedict can be driving Miramar back home from Missouri to California. Thus, they will be moving, at more or less the same time, in opposite directions, 135 years apart, with different kinds of adventures in both cases.

Well, don’t criticize it yet. I’m still working on it. It’s a process.

 

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Let There Be Light

I was sitting in a chair out on the grass, in spite of the incredible heat, drinking a beer, looking at the sunflowers off in the community garden, and reading an old Hungarian novel. Between sips of life-bestowing beer, I came to a part where a character in the book was not satisfied with his appearance when he looked in the mirror. As the description put it, “his face darkened”.

We commonly use some reference to darkness to imply badness, such as Darth Vader going over to the dark side. Why do we use phrases referring to darkness to mean bad things? Some might say that it is because we are afraid of the dark, but I think that it has nothing to do with any inherent quality of darkness. I suspect that the real psychological basis for this linguistic practice has to do with light.

Light has remarkable symbolic power as a representation of goodness. Darkness, as an absence of light, is taken almost logically to symbolize qualities that are the opposite of what light means to us. I assume this is inherent in basic human perception of the world, so that metaphors of light must be present in every language.

What do we consider good? God (Jesus is the light of the world), knowledge (the Enlightenment), purity (more symbolic here—white wedding dresses), happiness (an expression that is “glowing”). When Quakers speak of praying for someone, they always use the phrase “to hold them in the light”.

Down in our subconscious, we are so attuned to the power of light as a symbol of goodness that even things that merely imply light will also mean goodness. Thus in the physical world, even reflected light is desirable, so that we polish our floors and shoes and place chandeliers hung with crystal in fancy rooms. Making metaphors from these instances of reflected light, if we say that someone has a “polished manner”, it is, of course, a compliment.

Why is it that human beings have so much in common with plants? That question I can shed no light on.

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In This World and Others

I met a woman, and as a result I began to write poems. Love will do that to you sometimes. So will despair.

By now I have written quite a few poems, mostly for her, and they range from happiness to hopeless anguish and back to happpiness. The woman who I wrote the poems for has read this blog and thinks it could use some softness, so she suggested that I post one of her poems. With this blog entry, then, I am doing that, and I will let the poem stand or fall, without discussion. The name of the blog entry is actually the name of the poem.

We move in a world of mist and darkness.

Down country roads,

Through evening villages,

Past autumn Amish farms—

Our talk is small and intimate: doctor’s visits, former jobs.

I barely notice passing lights in the wet night,

As I am looking over at you,

Bewitched by my fortune at being there.

We are in a world of light and shining dishes.

Our table near the wall holds bread and beer,

The wall near our table holds paintings of fantasy worlds.

We must choose our salad,

And seriously consider the lettuce.

But how can I,

When you sit across from me

With your soft long hair?

We are in a world of words and ideas.

I tell you about mistakes young scientists make

When they are writing reports.

You tell me about an Irish band

And the way it feels to dance to that music.

I hear your words,

I know what they mean,

And they interest me.

So why do I have to work to follow what you are saying?

Like drowning, a desire to kiss you

Sweeps me away from mist, from light, from words.

I am in another world

Where kissing you is the only purpose of existence.

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Open the Door Already

When I was a wee tyke, at 20 years old, I already knew that to produce writing that glitters like a bowl of sugar in sunlight, you have to revise. So I revised, which in my case meant replacing one of my brilliant words with another brilliant word. Here and there. Maybe adding a comma.

Years later, when I lived in West Virginia, at an age that I mistakenly thought of as mature, I realized that “revise” means to actually change things. Ohhhh….

So I’ve been trying to do that ever since. Now I revise with abandon. Hah! Now the dark blue coat is black, and the hero is no longer, Jim, he’s James.

Actually, in the last novel I finished, I revised rather drastically at times. Two major characters disappeared entirely, though the police still call me about what could have happened to them. Two other characters appeared, and the basic structure of the book changed entirely.

In this blog post, I want to illustrate the revision process as it has occurred at one specific point in the current book. I feel both bold and anxious in doing this, as I plan to reveal some of the dumbness of my thinking. Normally only people who know me well, or who are casual acquaintances, or who have met me for a few minutes, have had occasion to see me being dumb.

What I’m showing here are the changes that I’ve gone through with a rather important plot device, of how Benedict goes into the past. Some of these changes have occurred in part from a conversation with a friend who has been reading what I’ve written. I’ll list the changes as if they were clear stages.

1. I had an idea from the beginning of the book to have things happen to Benedict in the past, so the question was how to get him there. In the first draft, I didn’t really try very hard. He simply opened the door to his apartment and—wow, look at this!—there he was, stepping into the past. Right, almost no imagination there. At that point, as I was still trying to get a draft out, I was probably thinking more about just having him go back in time than about how to make it happen.

2. If I had sent him into the past only once, his apartment door might have been OK, not great, but tolerable, but I wanted to repeat the movement between times, back and forth. If the door to his apartment was my device for doing this, it could be limiting, too random and even kind of weird. What if he just wanted to go out and buy a sixpack of beer, except suddenly he’s in 1880? So I kept the door idea, but moved to another door, somewhere else in town. That also seemed to give me more control as a writer.

3. To add another element that might be interesting, and to increase Benedict’s apparent control, I gave him an old key, acquired from a junk shop. Now it was the combination of this key and a particular door that would send him into the past.

4. How would he know which door? This is an embarrassing point in my little narrative here. I had someone dressed as a pantomime clown on the street lead him to the door and point it out. I even worked out the gaudy costume the clown was wearing.

5. Since that was obviously stupid, I erased the paragraph as soon as I wrote it, but I kept the idea of a silent character showing him the door. Now I made the messenger a strange little boy, dressed all in black.

6. Compared to the weird clown idea, I was now in Nobel Prize territory, but I still didn’t love it. It still seemed too theatrical, too forced. I began to want something more subtle, something Benedict would figure out on his own. I also have been considering whether to use multiple doors, and if so, how would he know them? So far, I’ve settled on a white door set into a stone wall, which is distinctive enough to recognize it.

The way he decides to try the key on the door the first time is a method I thought of a couple of nights ago. This idea came by accident (ie. by making myself continue to sit at the computer when I would have rather gone to the kitchen to get some chocolate).

When Benedict acquired the key in the junk shop, the shop owner had made a joke about the key opening a door of an Egyptian pyramid. A week after I wrote that scene, having decided that I wanted Benedict to choose the door for himself, and now having set the door into a stone wall, it occurred to me that the stone could make him think of the pyramid, as he had just had that conversation. Since he is in a playful mood, he goes over to the door, joking to himself about opening the pyramid, puts the key in the lock, and to his surprise—wow, look at this!

Now I feel like I have something I can work with, giving the character some control over what happens, and getting there is more natural, without the goofy theatrical effects.

And I think I need a hug for sharing.

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Speaking Religiously

The ancient Egyptians used many metaphors of boats in speaking of religion. This was a civilization that existed for the most part just along both banks of a major river. When looking to describe the unknown spiritual realm, a familiar point of comparison would obviously be a boat. From our distance in time and culture, we may find it almost quaint to see how Egyptian culture influenced the way they talked about their religion.

It may be harder to see culture as an influence on own own religions, especially as we now lie like tsunami victims under an ocean of monotheism, which claims to be absolutely true, not culturally determined.  Naturally I would never question absolute truth. But in terms of linguistic interest, I want to look at a few examples of how language is used within two versions of Christianity, Catholicism and Baptism.

Catholics

It is said of women who become nuns that they become the “bride of Christ”. This metaphor is taken so seriously that some nuns have even worn white and received “wedding rings” as part of the consecration ceremony. Contemplating this reference, I wondered who the men marry in becoming monks.

I assume there is no belief that the men are also marrying Christ, because, you know… The men take on the monastic life completely as individuals. Why don’t the women do the same?

Could the concept “bride of Christ” be an unconscious reflection of the depressingly common belief that a woman must always be under the control of a man? Our secular wedding ceremonies clearly contain an allusion to this repellent belief, when the father “gives away” the bride to the groom. From one master to another. In the Catholic church, it seems to be the case that as a woman becomes a nun, even as she renounces the very idea of ever being with a man, even then, there is still a bizarre metaphorical reference to marriage. I would guess that seeing nuns as brides originated in the Middle Ages, when most women literally were under the control of men.

Of course we don’t exactly have to work, or even think much, to see the megalithic presence of patriarchy in the Catholic church. At an early stage, men grabbed all the power, as men will, ignored the real history, and pretended that women were barely involved in creating the early Christian church. So we have the “holy father” of the Pope, and the many priests called “father” but there are no mothers other than the Mother Superior (never referred to simply as “mother” the way a priest is “father”). The Mother Superior is also responsible only for other women.

Baptists

One of the phrases Baptists sometimes use is “washed in the blood of the Lamb”. The baby sheep here is capitalized as a metaphor for Jesus, somewhat oddly, as he is more commonly considered to be the shepherd. Baptists, not an especially poetic tribe, did not create the phrase, which is from the Bible. One also finds the phrase shortened down in modern usage to “washed in the blood”, and you can be pretty darn sure that no one considers the literal meaning of this freakish sanguine metaphor.

We can imagine “washed” to refer to becoming new in some way, to getting rid of something—sin, undesirable habits, old beliefs—but washed in blood? What is that about? It is obviously a reference to blood shed by Jesus when he was tortured to death by the Romans, but still, washed in blood…it’s a little weird.

Some ancient writer had an interesting imagination, and I wonder whether the metaphor was under the influence of the Roman religion Mitraism, which did involve a literal blood bath from a slaughtered bull. Even if so, it looks as if two different symbols—washing and the surrogate shedding of blood—over the years became strangely mixed. Perhaps the grim imagery is more acceptable because it is a metaphor of lamb’s blood, rather than a direct reference to being washed in the blood of a man.

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Write Just Because You Like It?

Do you keep a diary (or “journal” since we are serious writers)? Strangely, I did for years, and I say strangely, because I always hated it. What kind of idiotic behavior was that?

Is there any satisfaction in speaking when no one hears what you say? Sometimes, probably yes. Human beings have an innate need to express our thoughts and feelings. Why this is true is a complete mystery to me. Why is it not sufficient, if we feel something strongly, to simply feel it inside? But if we are to be healthy, those feelings must literally come out of the body. That exit may be through frowning, screaming, throwing plates against a wall, painting a picture, writing a poem, or calling a friend on the telephone.

Sometimes when thoughts or feelings have come out of the body, we feel relief and are satisfied. Writing in a diary that no one will ever read is enough. But at other times we need more, to feel that someone heard us. Then mere expression is not enough. Then we need communication with other people.

I have been told to take satisfaction from writing just from the pleasure of doing it. Honestly, though, it’s not that pleasurable. It really is work, and often I force myself to do it, both physically and mentally. I do not know why I write. I know I must do it, however, or I will, by God, throw furniture through windows.

And it is not enough to simply do it. I cannot be satisfied with writing without readers, and not just a couple of friends who will tell me they really like it. Publishing is necessary, and unfortunately, publishing literary writing is extremely difficult. The difficulty can be diminished by working with a literary agent, but the drawback is that one of them has to actually agree to work with you.

So I seek an agent. I’ve gone through three periods of intensive agent search. The first time, after 70 letters, I actually signed with an agent, who I was with for about three years. I felt comfortable with her, and we worked well together, but nothing came of it, and we parted amicably. I thought she honestly tried to help me, but she was also new as an agent, and probably had few contacts. I do not hesitate to add that what I gave her was perhaps not very sellable.

I later tried to find an agent with a second novel, but after sending out around 90 letters, I grew discouraged and stopped. Now I have drastically revised the first novel into a different book entirely, and I am trying again. If I had written a different kind of book, it would be easier to sign with someone, as another book might be perceived as easier to sell, and of course that is what an agent is thinking of. However much that person may love literature, they also must pay their rent. Trying to find an agent is a debilitating process, emotionally draining at times, and if you wish to shed some of the baggage of self confidence, I highly recommend it.

Here are some aspects of my own process. I began with a well-known book from the bookstore, Literary Market Place, which I had first looked at in a library, when I knew nothing. From that book, I chose as many agents as I could find who seemed suitable and I began sending them letters and a synopsis of the book. Later, I went online and found websites that listed agents, so I expanded my list and stopped using the book.

Now I have a list of around 200 agents, with contact information, what they want, and so on. Previously I have contacted agents ten at a time, pushing to contact as many as possible as quickly as possible. In my current situation, spending the days looking for a job, there is only so much of this shit I can handle, so I contact agents more slowly, several a week.

And then I wait for them to tell me no. Or to tell me nothing. In a later post I will go into more detail about this process, to talk about useful websites, writing a synopsis, and so on. If, in the meantime, you are anxious to go ahead and experience what it is like, take a hammer and hit yourself in the head every day. This will give you some sense of the daily satisfaction it brings.

 

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