Monthly Archives: October 2012

Infected With the Writing Bug

Drawing of the adenovirus

Coming to a cell near you

I was reading about viruses today while I had little work to do. I was killing time but learning things, which left me contented. My reading led me to peruse a rather detailed description of how the adenovirus reproduces after it has entered a cell in your body. Perhaps the virus actually reproduces by the random chances of motion and the laws of thermodynamics, but the description I read, as a product of the human mind, saw that process as occurring in stages that seemed like a logical progression. I won’t burden this blog by detailing them, but I want to consider for a moment the idea of seeing logic in viral reproduction.

As I was reading, it seemed to me that there were three stages in the process, and they made so much sense that it surprised me. I can see two possible ways to pursue this line of thinking: (1) The human mind works in terms of logic—sort of, not that often, and not very well, but still… So, because a human being wrote the description I read, they applied a human view of reality and wrote about the process as if it involved logic and discrete stages just because that’s how we see the world. It made sense to me. (2) Or perhaps there really is logic in the reproduction of a virus, which leads to some profound questions, such as where that logic comes from. Presumably the virus itself did not think about this. It may fit your religious convictions to say that God did it, in which case case I would ask you “Why does God use this beautiful logic to give us diseases?”

Me myself, though, as I read, I asked a stupid question: “Why does the virus do this?” It’s the same question I ask about human beings: “Why are we doing this? Why are we here?”

For me it’s almost the same question, whether I apply it to people or viruses, though viruses are both less offensive and less sublime (viruses did not develop the atom bomb or write Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). But this question, as pointless as it may be, at least in terms of getting an answer, is what I write about. All of my writing is really stumbling about in the darkness, perplexed, sometimes light with delight, sometimes dark with despair, but ultimately everything I write, in one way or another, is asking “What are we doing here?”

And so it goes on because I have to do this. I’ve now finished Benedict and Miramar, and this weekend I’ll begin contacting literary agents. No doubt in a later blog I will tell you about that big adventure. But I’ve also moved on. For weeks now I’ve been slowly working on the next novel, writing some bits, making notes, thinking of it frequently, like yesterday when I sat on the freeway not moving for a half hour. But that was OK. I was cool. I was being a Buddhist.

So far the title of the next book is Dance in the Fire, and the lead character is a 17-year-old girl named Leola Summer Daye, but I’m going to write in somewhat distant third person, giving me the freedom to move from character to character, to get different points of view. With Benedict and Miramar, the narration is also in third person, but it stays very close to Benedict always. In the next book I’ll move back and move around.

Leola’s sister is Dacia, who is 8 or 10, somewhere in there, an eccentric little girl who is a prodigy on the violin. They will be living with their aunt Olivia. What I’ll do is have Leola and Dacia reverse the transition I made a few months ago, so that they begin in Washington, DC, and move to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, exactly the opposite of what I’ve just done. Their mother will be in a mental hospital and their father has died in Afghanistan, though as it happens, Leola can still talk to him. Her father will tell her stories from Hindu mythology (specifically about Shiva and his two sons), and those stories will somehow connect with stories about three American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Two other major characters will be Liam, a little boy in some strange and unpleasant situation, not yet entirely worked out, and Jethro Waters, a farmer who runs an organic farm just outside of the town of State College.

I’ve only barely gotten started, and there’s a lot to think about. I’m also thinking of applying a writing technique that was inspired from reading Les Miserables, but no need to get into that now. I’m in no hurry. I plan to take my time and enjoy writing this. Anyhow, I have three novels now that need selling.

So I need to find a literary agent. People are waiting to read Benedict and Miramar. Most people don’t know that yet, but they’re waiting. Yes they are.


Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Time to Pick the Big Dog

Cute puppyIf I were obscene stupid rich, the first thing I would do is buy a puppy for every person in America, and I would even pay to build nice kennels to breed more puppies, if necessary. That way, if I ever wanted to run for President of the United States, I could point to the puppies and say, “Heyyy, where’d you get that cute dog?”

Rich people have a few advantages when it comes to running for political office, money mostly. There is also a side effect related to money that is useful if you run for office. If you’re rich, you can be famous if you want to be. You don’t have to do anything in particular, and in fact you can do nothing and stupid things at the same time, and you become even more famous (Paris! I’m talking to you.)

So you’re thinking, well, but a rich ditz like that would never run for political office. No, not seriously, but…remember Donald Trump? He’s obviously the Paris Hilton of the business world, but as soon as he said he was running for President, he was being interviewed, he was on TV, he was written about in editorials. We must be a profoundly dumbass country. And the reason he was taken at least somewhat seriously was because he is obscene stupid rich.

At the same time, there can be some drawbacks to being vastly rich and running for political office. Americans have an ambivalent relationship with the rich. We envy them, as any sane person would, although in our current political discourse you’re not supposed to admit that, because another part of our political discourse is to pretend any one of us could someday get rich. Yeah, that is sooo fucking likely. But—and here’s the problem—we don’t want those rich bastards acting like they’re better than us. Just because we have to stop and slap our kids in Walmart and they can do it in one of their mansions, they’re no better than us.

These attitudes that I’m exaggerating (a little) are actually a potential problem for a rich political candidate if they’re not careful. In our current election, Romney is having to fight against these attitudes, and the Obama campaign is trying to use them against Romney. Take this exchange from the last debate between Obama and Romney:

Romney: “Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?”

Obama: “I don’t have to look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours, so it doesn’t take as long.”

Obama’s answer doesn’t really make any sense, except as part of the broader rhetorical strategy of reminding people “look at this rich guy” (and it’s not like Obama is poor). In fairness, let’s acknowledge that Romney seems to get up in the morning and voluntarily put on a T shirt with a bulls eye on it. Notice that example above. Who brought up the pension question?

For most of the time he has been running, Romney has been dealing, not very well, with this rhetorical motif that someone so rich can’t possibly know what it’s like for us poor schmucks who have to take our kids to Walmart. This motif actually runs deep in American politics. Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828 and later called “the people’s President” in part from a reputation of representing the plain common man. And there was Abe Lincoln and that famous business about being born in a log cabin.

This motif of common man vs. privileged rich was used against Romney by fellow Republicans during the primaries, most especially by Newt Gingrich. Of course by this point in the campaign people who support Romney probably forget that Republicans used these arguments against him, and now it’s just that awful Obama the socialist who hates the rich.

In fact, a rich person could probably be quite a good president, and it would have nothing to do with affluence. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly poor either, and he was a Founding Father, a phrase that brings Republicans to their knees these days. And one of our most popular presidents was Franklin Roosevelt, another rich guy.

Nobody who gets to be President is poor by the time they get there. Maybe they used to be poor once upon a time. Maybe there was a time when they too would go to the grocery store and put things back on the shelf after looking at the price. At any rate, we want to think the person who will have so much power knows what our lives are like. When Romney said that 47% of Americans are just trying to take from the system and won’t take responsibility for themselves, he didn’t know we’d find out. It was a cold blooded thing to say, and even moreso because it was so strangely misinformed. It also would have been an amazingly stupid thing to say, if he had realized we would find out, but he thought it was private.

After Romney handed Obama that sword to stab him with, Obama didn’t even bring the sword with him to the first debate, but he did refer to that quote at the second debate. Romney knew he needed to come back from contemptuously dismissing half the country, and during the debate he said, “I care about 100% of the American people. I want 100% of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids.”

Because he was working to counter the 47% number that had been in the news so much, rather than use the word “all” which would be much more natural, he rather awkwardly said “100% of the American people”. Because he was trying to undo the 47% mistake, he even repeated the number 100, and then went on to describe the wonderful things he wishes for all the American people: a bright and prosperous future. He even cares about the kids.

Plans to buy them all a puppy.


Filed under Language

I Can’t Spel That

girl at a spelling bee

Autolatry? Umm, could you repeat that?

How many languages do you suppose there are in which the spelling system is so inextricably tortured that if you are good at spelling words in your native language, you can become a champion? To put this another way, how many languages could have invented the spelling bee contest?

Even smart people bang their heads over spelling in English, and in school if you aren’t willing to bang your head, the teacher will probably bang it for you. In English classes we act as if of course everyone should be able to learn to spell all the words correctly, but c’mon, seriously, yu rilly thenk thatz possuble?

This past Monday while I was not at work I went to the town of Frederick, Maryland, where I was happy enough to slap my own self to find a museum of Civil War medicine. Both those topics interest me greatly, and there they were combined in one grim museum. Among the exhibits was a technique meant to bring the war onto a more human scale, with quotes from letters written by a soldier from Maine. Though I read his letters to learn what his experiences were like, I also noted the creativity he applied to spelling.

Naturally he didn’t realize he was being creative. He had acquired enough schooling to have a sense of sounds as applied to letters and letter combinations, and when he didn’t actually know, he was using what made sense to him.

He was doing what a great many people have done while writing English, probably especially since around the year 1500. Let’s don’t get too linguistic here, but around 1450 printing came along to Europe, and just as with the appearance of the Internet, people were stunned by this amazing invention and ran toward it with open arms. Within the first 50 years of printing, millions (yes, millions) of books were printed.

And you know how it is with print, things look right when they’re printed. So the invention of printing froze the spelling of English words, and darn the luck, just as the pronunciations of words were starting to undergo serious change. So take a ridiculous word like “night”—those letters used to be pronounced, and the spelling shows us the old way of writing it. There are other explanations than just sound changes, but that was part of it.

In fact, for much of the history of English, although it might have been common to spell a word a particular way, it was hard to point to an authority to back up your favorite spelling, and people spelled in all directions. The iron fist of English teachers and editors began to come down on this happy creativity in 1755. That was the year Samuel Johnson published the first widely popular dictionary (not the first dictionary, the first popular dictionary). From then until now there has been a place to go look to find out what the correct spelling is.

“Correct” of course is whatever the editor of the dictionary says it is. The editor is the authority, and every dictionary editor since then has been the authority. But I noticed something rather interesting the other day at work. I was editing an article, wondering if some word was spelled correctly, “pharmacogenetics” perhaps. I don’t have a dictionary in the office where I’m at—I don’t have a real office, as I’m just a temp, you know—so I stuck the word in Google to see how it looked on several websites.

Then I realized I’ve been doing this for quite a while, even when I do have a dictionary, because it’s faster than lifting an actual book and turning pages. It’s true that even looking up a word online this way I might go to an authority. There are dictionaries there, after all.

Yet at times something very different is happening. Sometimes I look at several websites to see how most of them spell the word. In effect, I’m looking to see which spelling gets the most votes. My one example doesn’t mean much, but if many people were to do what I’m doing, then it would mean something rather profound. It would mean that correct spelling will no longer come from an authoritative voice, but from broader popular opinion.

If the source of correct spelling (or punctuation, or language usage in general) comes from popular opinion, then a huge cultural shift is happening. From other things I’ve seen, I would suggest that such a change is indeed happening, as part of an even broader shift away from believing in The Authority. We all make this language, dude, not just old guys in offices.

And if we do stop believing in The Authority, then trouble is coming. Because at least since the invention of printing, we’ve gotten accustomed to relying on written authorities, not just dictionaries, but the Bible or the Constitution. If we start seriously questioning written authorities, that’s a revolution.

You see what happens when you ignore proper spelling?

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Filed under Language

A Book With Arms Around the World

Young Woman Reading by Courbet

Young Woman Reading
by Gustave Courbet

I do have an actual topic to write about this week, and I’m going to do that. In a minute. First, however, I wish to ramble pointlessly through selected yet random trivia from my life this week. I mentioned at some point—was it last week?—that an agent was looking at a chapter from Benedict and Miramar. When I heard back from her she said that she liked the idea for the book, but did not like my style of writing. Well, OK. That message is less positive than it might have been, but it also means I can slow down on the frantic pace of revision. I can go back to sleeping on the train sometimes.

Today at work I discovered, by accident, as always, that we were closing at 2:00, plus, oh glorious bells from Heaven, that we also have Monday off. When I left work at 2:00, I had a feeling of almost ethereal delight.  It was only two in the afternoon, I was off work until Tuesday, the day was sunny, and there I was in the middle of Washington on the Mall, so I thought I’d stroll on down to the art museum.

It’s a long walk to get there from where I work. I take a route down Constitution Avenue, past those vast buildings that go on and on, like white marble cliffs lining the avenue. The buildings are plenty impressive, you bet, but not at all built on a human scale. “You want a drink of water, a place to sit down, a snack, a bathroom?” Keep walking. On the way down to the museum I also walk past the Washington Monument, and I wondered, if all the monuments in the world were built by women, how many monuments would look like giant penises? I don’t know. Maybe a whole lot more of them.

Part of my time at the National Gallery I sat down in that underground cafe with the waterfall, with a glass of wine and two oatmeal cookies, and I made notes on the next novel I’m planning to write. Then I found rooms full of “small” French paintings. That’s what they called them, because the frames are not very large. In one of those rooms I found a really lovely painting called “Young Woman Reading”. It’s a bit incongruous, as she is half undressed outdoors and has settled down to read a book, which is not what I normally do outdoors when I’m undressed, but to each her own. By her expression, she is clearly engrossed in what she’s reading.

Although the book in the painting is small, since it’s a French painting let’s pretend that she’s reading a French author, Victor Hugo, and that she’s reading Les Miserables. I just finished reading that novel a week or so ago, after spending quite a long time on it (my edition has 1,500 pages). Except for the last 30 or so pages, I loved that book, I hugged it and said sweet things to it, took it out to dinner. I would compare it to War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Brothers Karamazov. How could I have lived to be this age and not have read this book? What other incredible masterpieces am I blankly unaware of?

Yes, of course I’ve heard that there is a musical based on the book, but now that I’ve read the book, which is dense and rich and full of philosophy and history and excursions on ideas, I can’t imagine that the musical comes even close to the book. Instead, the show probably extracts about 25% of what is in the novel, so it’s probably a story about Jean Valjean and Cosette and a few others, with some revolution. That’s definitely not what the book is “about”, though it does contain those things.

The book is too vast in subject matter, not to mention characters and style, to discuss it very thoroughly in a blog entry, even if I had focused just on the novel the way a good blog would have done. The novel has humor, it has black tragedy, and it has unashamed pathos instructing you to feel things. The plot with Jean Valjean, which is only a fraction of the book, is quite clever and uses a device that modern writers would get slapped for, incorporating about a dozen highly unlikely coincidences. The plot is ludicrously impossible, yet it’s fun and entertaining.

One of the things about this book that reminds me of War and Peace is that the author was bold enough—or foolish enough, if you don’t like it—to halt the story for as long as he damn well wanted to discuss other things. Some of those discussions can be rather long, such as Napolean’s place in French or European history. Or, believe it or not, a very long discussion of sewers.

I feel inspired by this book. I’ve got some ideas in mind already from reading Les Miserables as to how I will approach the next novel, and I think it will affect what I do with plot as well as style.

Possibly I might criticize the book in terms of character development, which will surely surprise anyone who has read the novel. Hugo describes some of his characters rather meticulously, but toward the end I realized that I did not really feel emotionally connected to any of them. Normally I might consider that a fatal flaw in a novel, but for a book as rich as this, I was willing to let it go.

Before too long surely I am going to go find a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Maybe while I’m reading it I’ll go down to the cathedral in Washington and sit in the cathedral while reading about a cathedral. That’s just the sort of geeky thing I would do. But I bet you have faults, too. So I don’t want to hear it.


Filed under Book Talks