Monday, September 07, 2020

Can I do this indefinitely?


Writing long form pieces, whether memoir or novel or short story, is a relatively new experience for me. It’s only been since moving to Georgia from northern California that I’ve taken it up. Since then, craft has come under my serious observation, and I’ve sought to improve my writing in a number of ways.

  • I joined a local writing group, one specializing in science fiction, because my novel is nominally "cli-fi," being set in a post-climate-catastrophe Earth with little high technology. This proved helpful on many fronts, introducing me to several useful standards for good fiction writing. Personality clashes and a blurt of hot temper, dislodged me from that group.
  • I also listen to podcasts that focus on writers and writing, including The Book Review podcast from The New York Times. From these I’ve gleaned many writing tips, as well as interesting reading recommendations, from which I’ve benefitted.
  • I use a Kindle e-reader for a couple of reasons: 1) it works best on my "desk treadmill," which is now my only form of exercise; and 2) because it enables highlighting and note-taking that I can later port into a text document so I get a collection of all my notes in one place.
  • In addition, I keep a post-it and pencil handy for when I come across especially good turns of phrase or words that I may be able to use in my own writing. I then type them into a plain document I can quickly scan when I’m searching for a good word.
  • I think my writing has improved measurably since last year, when I started writing my novel, tentatively titled, "The Lifeboat Chronicles." 

But my latest, and most drastic, trick is one I suspect few others will find acceptable, or think possible. It all came about after considering a critique of one of my SF group submissions. Someone noted I had used "the" several times in one long sentence. There’s nothing wrong with that definite article, other than its overuse in a sentence. But I wondered if I could write a long piece without using that word at all in anything where it is not part of a proper noun. To compound my constraint, I also committed to refraining from using "was" anywhere in my writing. (In fact, you will not find them in this very piece.) 


So insidious are those words that I resorted to creating a macro on my computer that beeps me every time I use them, because they sneak in. I’ve maintained this discipline in writing a chapter that as of this date has gone just above fourteen-thousand words, where "the" and "was" do not appear.


Not only have I demonstrated to myself, that it’s possible to write without those words, but I believe my writing has improved because of it. When I find that those verboten words naturally flow out, I have to stop and figure out a different way to express similar concepts. This slows my writing down considerably. I’ve already written about countering "efficiency" in writing. I still use an iPad and an Apple Pencil to hand print first drafts. But this discipline slows me down even more.


What I feel results is second or third draft quality in a first draft. I still go back and edit, but I never add those two banished words. I think my writing is better because it’s denser. You may not agree. But at this point it satisfies me that it’s a valuable discipline. I just don’t know if I can keep up not using that one definite article indefinitely! 

Friday, April 03, 2020

Short stories, short leash

As a kind of authorial therapy, I took the advice of someone and started writing short stories as a way to exercise my writing muscles and generate an oeuvre. Since January, I've written four stories. Quite prolix of me, I'd say.

But nobody is reading them. It's like extracting blood from a stone to get anyone to read the damn things. I'm tempted to just "publish" them here, on this exoplanet of blogs, where only aliens may drift by randomly over eons of time.

Here's the list:

A Dacha for DonRicco
9-1-2
Almost Adequate
The Glass

I work on these things as though it's my highly-paid full-time job. I refuse to think of it as a "hobby," as one of my writing group members calls it. At 79, I don't need any friggin' hobbies. Everything I do these days is part of my last rites. Fuck you, hobbyists, worthless time-wasters and foolish futurists.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Rejection by friendly fire

The withering effect of a rejection letter is something I've never experienced as a serious writer.

Two ways to accomplish this:

1. Have your first and subsequent submissions published

2. Submit nothing for publication

I just found a third way to achieve a similar effect: ask a friend who is a published writer to read something of yours that you like. Until his reply, I lived in painless privacy.

Now I am a man  — or at least I am a writer still aspiring to be published, posthumously or sooner. He is probably right, of course, about the short story and he took my imposition graciously, standing in for the agent I wish I had.

Not in defense, but as context, the story I showed him came about as part of an exercise routine I'd adopted recently that promised to strengthen my writing skills — kind of weight training for word-lifters. The advice was to write short stories even while working on a novel. I'm not sure how well I built my writing chops, but in writing the story, I had fun. A nice bonus. I'm close to finishing my second story, which I'll keep for when my agent-prince comes. So, my writer friend can relax.

Having recently turned seventy-nine, I'm envious of what my slightly younger friend has accomplished: "three early suspense novels," four self-published on Amazon, a new novel in the publishing process, etc.

One of the harsh realities of aging is having the realization sneak up on you that you have become useless. Not that I was so useful before (religious fanatic et al.), but at least I enjoyed for a while the illusion of fulfilling a purpose.

As someone bouncing along on the tailgate of life, writing prose has become palliative care, and, so far, the drugs are working fine —  except on my overworked tailbone. To get some serious feedback, I've joined a local writing group, which keeps me working on the cli-fi novel that'll probably never get finished. In the meantime, I'll keep writing short stories, for fitness, and possibly for a collection someday. But I'll keep them to myself.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Slo-mo Retro-Techno Combo


Because you scrutinize every pixel on this author blog, you've encountered a strange, odd, different, rare, still life background image on the home page. It shows an iPad lying on the keyboard of a MacBook. There's an Apple pencil 2 resting on the iPad that is displaying some hand-printed text. And because you scrutinize every pixel on this page, you also notice the
MacBook is open to a grammar-checking app where the text from the iPad is being analyzed.

The photo illustrates part of my writing method: I first hand write the text on the iPad, then transcribe it by typing it into the grammar checker, rewriting along the way. After that, I paste the cleaned-up digitized text into a professional writing app, Scrivener, where I continue to edit.

Highly inefficient, you say, you scions of the digital age. I hear ya. Been there.

Some of you may remember that "word processors" were made by business machine companies and used to cost up to twenty-thousand dollars. They were clumsier than WordStar or WordPerfect, the neandertalic, yet vastly superior, PC programs that replaced those pricey clunk-o-matics.

Highly inefficient, you say, to take three passes at the text, when a modern "text editor app" would have sufficed. Yep, since the Eighties, such was my method of long-form, and even short-form, writing.

But I have changed my ways after hearing an interview with an author whose work I would probably never read, though I commend him for his perspicacity. And endurance. He spoke with a NYT interviewer on the occasion of the publication of his FIFTH volume of a biography about President Lyndon Johnson. Now, LBJ was a hero, in the tragic-comic sense, but I can't imagine reading, much less writing, five (out of a promised six) volumes of his story.

What turned my writing MO around, however, was his answer to the question: "Do you use a computer to write?"

The expected reply, from a writer of such arcana, would be something along the lines of "Oh, heavens, no! I prefer a pencil and paper, the traditional, more natural way." Something old fogyish.

He didn't. He said something I immediately recognized as true:
"No, computer's too fast."

If I'm writing a bit of fluff, like this post, fast is fine. The computer gets the job done quickly and adds checking tools that keep you from gagging on my typos.

But if I'm conjuring something out of the depths of imagination, I don't need quick. I need slow. Handwriting slow. But even slower than that, which I'll get to in a trice.

The iPad app I use, Notability (there are others), enables handwriting. It's mostly used for note-taking in classes or meetings, etc. At its base, it's a drawing app that records your scribbles. With my Apple pencil, I just draw words on the screen. It's analogous to writing with pencil on paper.

On most occasions when I relate this experience, this is when people usually ask if the app then digitizes the handwriting (there are apps that do).

NO! Absolutely not. I don't want it to. I really WANT to type it all over again. Why? Because I can make changes while I'm re-thinking what I've written. It's a way to knead the clay again. Because it's true, WRITING IS REALLY RE-WRITING. What's the hurry? Where would I go instead? Why do I need "efficiency?" It's not an odious job I need to finish so I can move on to something better. It's an artistic experience, enjoyable all on its own, not dull piecework in a widget factory. I need time to live with the words, the visions, the nuances, the overtones, the surprises.

So, I started handwriting my novel.

In cursive.

Failure.

Not only was my cursive illegible, but, like a computer, it was "too fast."

So I reverted to grade school-level handwriting. Early grade school. Yes, I PRINTED. Ah, now I had time to envision the words and pictures bubbling up from my whatever, imagination, I suppose. But here, in the midst of retro slow, is where faster is better. Using the high-tech Apple pencil 2, I can switch between the writing tool and an eraser and back with just light finger taps on the barrel of the pencil, allowing me to continue writing and obviating the hash of cross-outs and overprinting. It's faster than with a 3-D pencil and eraser. And no eraser crumbs.

Most of the seventy-five thousands words I've written so far for my current novel have been hand printed on an iPad first. Yes, further refinements have come from the digital tools I use to process those teased-out emanations. But to generate new material, I stick with a "by hand" process. It may take a lot longer, but I think the writing I produce is better than trying to keep up with the inane flurry of evanescent sparks that my brain produces constantly.

I'm not in a hurry to get something finished.  I want to witness the miracle of creativity that, at least for me, comes with slow-cooking the words.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Cricket generator

Whenever I need stunning silence, I ask people to read my latest bit of writing. It also happens when I'd like some intelligent response, with a hint of honesty. When I don't get it, this is my little space in the cricket cloud where I can complain. It's also an opportunity to ruminate about my new occupation as a full-time author. When I'm not working on a novel or short story, I probably will drift here and dump too many words, a better alternative to asking a beta reader for a response.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Imagine a world...

**The story of how I lost faith in any religion because it finally occurred to me that there is no God, is detailed in posts here over the years. I know I should consider that subject closed, but it won't close completely because theism prompted and sustained some of the most devastating decisions I ever made. They tore up my life so deeply that I still feel the ravages of it, like a burn victim whose scars inhibit free movement. Yes, one can, and should, exercise effort to overcome those stiffnesses in areas of human life that come so naturally to most people. I suppose I can't lay it all at the feet of theism. There are plenty of other "nurture" and "nature" reasons why I'm a hobbling psychological wreck even as I approach the age of eighty.
I can—and have— wrung and washed my hands, and strode forth into what's left of my opportunities. So far, so good—and I'm surprised and pleased with how much good I've experienced as an atheist. But that doesn't preclude standing aghast at the magnitude of my error and its consequences, especially when I suffer a setback that challenges my self-worth. Then the enormity of the deception that commisioned me to be an evangelist for the right brand of religion, the right concept of God, and the foolish hope in the sublime harmony of a world filled with those who would accept what I hawked.
Around 2006, I encountered the writings of the so-called New Atheists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Paul Bloom. If my faith hadn't been already on the edge and sliding away, I might have withstood their arguments and hung on a little more. But down it all went, and I emerged from the rubble a stunned and wounded man. Some ten years later, a book came out that has had a more lasting impact on me, one whose arguments and language gain my continuing respect.

The Big Picture by Sean Carroll was published in May 2016.
I bought the book and made copious notes in it on my Kindle, but somehow forgot about it until about a year ago. I now listen to the audiobook every night when I awake—as we oldsters tend to do. It puts me back to sleep, not because it's boring, but because the ideas still intrigue and overwhelm me. If I should wake up again later, I'm usually surprised to hear a section I don't remember. So, it's like reading a new version of the book every night.
Today, I came across Carroll's itemization of why atheism is a more valid view than theism. I post them here as a reminder of how weak the concept of a God is, and how amazing it is that so many people, especially I, took that concept into some outrageously stupid extremes:

  • So imagine a world that is very much like ours, except that evil does not exist. People in this world are much like us, and seem able to make their own choices, but they always end up choosing to do good rather than evil. In that world, the relevant data is the absence of evil. How would that be construed, as far as theism is concerned? It’s hard to doubt that the absence of evil would be taken as very strong evidence in favor of the existence of God. If humanity simply evolved according to natural selection, without any divine guidance or interference, we would expect to inherit a wide variety of natural impulses—some for good, some for not so good. The absence of evil in the world would be hard to explain under atheism, but relatively easy under theism, so it would count as evidence for the existence of God. But if that’s true, the fact that we do experience evil is unambiguously evidence against the existence of God. If the likelihood of no evil is larger under theism, then the likelihood of evil is larger under atheism, so evil’s existence increases our credence that atheism is correct. Put in those terms, it’s easy to come up with features of our universe that provide evidence for atheism over theism. 
  • Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all. 
  • Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently came up with precisely the same doctrines and stories about God. 
  • Imagine a universe that was relatively small, with just the sun and moon and Earth, no other stars or galaxies. 
  • Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information. 
  • Imagine a world in which human beings were completely separate from the rest of biological history. 
  • Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living, telling compelling stories of life in heaven. 
  • Imagine a world that was free of random suffering. 
  • Imagine a world that was perfectly just, in which the relative state of happiness of each person was precisely proportional to their virtue. 
  • In any of those worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as evidence for God's existence. It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism.
  • How strong that evidence is, is another question entirely. We could try to quantify the overall effect, but we’re faced with a very difficult obstacle: theism isn’t very well defined. There have been many attempts, along the lines of “God is the most perfect being conceivable,” or “God is the grounding of all existence, the universal condition of possibility.” Those sound crisp and unambiguous, but they don’t lead to precise likelihoods along the lines of “the probability that God, if he exists, would give clear instructions on how to find grace to people of all times and cultures.” Even if one claims that the notion of God itself is well defined, the connection between that concept and the actuality of our world remains obscure. 
  • One could try to avoid the problem by denying that theism makes any predictions at all for what the world should be like—God’s essence is mysterious and impenetrable to our minds. That doesn’t solve the problem—as long as atheism does make predictions, evidence can still accumulate one way or the other—but it does ameliorate it somewhat. Only at a significant cost, however: if an ontology predicts almost nothing, it ends up explaining almost nothing, and there’s no reason to believe it.
  • There are some features of our world that count as evidence in favor of theism, just as some features are evidence for atheism. 
  • Imagine a world in which nobody had thought of the concept of God—the idea had simply never occurred. Given our definition of theism, that’s a very unlikely world if God exists. It would seem a shame for God to go to all the trouble to create the universe and humankind, and then never let us know about his existence. So it’s perfectly reasonable to say that the simple fact that people think about God counts as some evidence that he is real.
  • Imagine a world with physical matter, but in which life never arose. Or a universe with life, but no consciousness. Or a universe with conscious beings, but ones who found no joy or meaning in their existence. At first glance, the likelihoods of such versions of reality would seem to be higher under atheism than under theism. 
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Friday, September 20, 2019

Spoiler alert: the future


**I admit to being a snob. I manage to control it somewhat but I get extra snobbish when I read a book that requires some thought, some re-reading, some dictionary or knowledge base inquiries. But overall, one that requires time, a resource few people I know—and would recommend a book to—have.

I came from immigrant parents with scant education who yielded me up to the educational establishment of their time like good Catholic wannabe Americans, to educators who applauded me for every micro-fathom of comprehension into the complex, context-rich arguments they exposed me to; which education—even just the fact of it—set me apart from the ignominy of my lower-class origins, indeed, apart and above and OUT of that bland ghetto resting on its prodigious accomplishments. Yes, though I long ago eschewed the theology, I retain that old-time Jesuit hubris, am a snob who instinctively disdains those who cannot, will not, read extended treatises of urgent importance, like "The Uninhabitable Earth," by David Wallace-Wells. I am also a fool, hence, this post.

I fear that most of the educators of Gen-X, abetted by technologists, did not train them to be patient as they faced books layered with information and nuance; in other words, that lifelong they have subsisted on scraps of wisdom from the bumper sticker, the headline, the tweet, the 2x-speed podcast, the mantra—in other words, that their minds have dined mostly on the polished rice (so-called high points) of complex issues sans their hard but sustaining husks—in other words, because they think skimming is enough—in other words, because they don't have the time or inclination for such—in other words, that they will not understand and therefore will not contribute to resisting the ineluctable flaming grindstone that is rolling toward them—in other words, that they will not read the deeply context-rich arguments that stir me, and therefore be themselves stirred. They will make a snap judgment and go on heedless, rushed, preoccupied with vamping into an obsolete future. Even so, for the curious, I've plucked and polished a few grains of rice from the book and strewn them at the end of this screed.

It does not gladden me to know I will not have to endure the consequences of my (and their) generation's ignorance and inaction. Even if I live the vaunted "long" life," I will not suffer as Gen-Xers will, won't have to stand aghast as the foundations of their lives crumble and the superstructures cave.

It should sadden them, too, but more keenly. Because they have kids and grandkids who will have so much to cope with that they may deem themselves unlucky to have survived the catastrophes, even as they adapt to roles in a dusted-off diorama of primitive human history. Life does not necessarily go on, and that could be a good thing.

Review of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. In addition to the engaging urgency of the content, the book is masterfully written. It's not an easy read for those used to the leniencies of something like "ZIP reads," but it's a good workout for the brain, maybe even for one's character. If these tidbits induce anyone to take it on full-strength I will have succeeded. In any case, I will get back to dying my way out of the spoiled future.

Quotes:

  • This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.
  • The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. 
  • The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary resetmore than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.
  • Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that  killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.
  • A hotter planet is, on net, bad for plant life, which means what is called “forest dieback”—the decline and retreat of jungle basins as big as countries
  • the optimists have never, in the half century of climate anxiety we’ve already endured, been right.
  • technocratic faith, which is really market faith 
  • in the coming decades many of the most punishing climate horrors will indeed hit those least able to respond and recover. This is what is often called the problem of environmental justice; a sharper, less gauzy phrase would be “climate caste system,” environmental apartheid.
  • mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue are flying through the streets of Copenhagen and Chicago
  • We have all already left behind the narrow window of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, but not just evolve—that window has enclosed everything we remember as history, and value as progress, and study as politics. 
  • That has been the work of a single generation. The second generation faces a very different task: the project of preserving our collective future, forestalling that devastation and engineering an alternate path. There is simply no analogy to draw on, outside of mythology and theology—and perhaps the Cold War prospect of mutually assured destruction.
  • In folklore and comic books and church pews and movie theaters, stories about the fate of the earth often perversely counsel passivity in their audiences, and perhaps it should not surprise us that the threat of climate change is no different
  • Marshall Islands and Miami Beach, each sinking over time into snorkelers’ paradises;
  • The project of unplugging the entire industrial world from fossil fuels is intimidating, and must be done in fairly short order—by 2040, many scientists say
  • Species individuated over millions of years of evolution but forced together by climate change have begun to mate with one another for the first time, producing a whole new class of hybrid species: the pizzly bear, the coy-wolf. The zoos are already natural history museums
  • Because the planet is as big as it is, and as ecologically diverse; because humans have proven themselves an adaptable species, and will likely continue to adapt to outmaneuver a lethal threat; and because the devastating effects of warming will soon become too extreme to ignore, or deny, if they haven’t already; because of all that, it is unlikely that climate change will render the planet truly uninhabitable. But if we do nothing about carbon emissions, if the next thirty years of industrial activity trace the same arc upward as the last thirty years have, whole regions will become unlivable by any standard we have today as soon as the end of this century.