Maybe we need to talk about why one writes. For a very few writers, it’s for money, which they actually get from writing, and possibly fame and glory. Why do the rest of us write? I have always told stories. I told stories to my kid brother before I could read and write. Back then, I think I was motivated simply by my love of stories. Over time, I learned more and more about the techniques of writing, and a lot of fiction I used to enjoy became painful to read, because it was badly written. And I became more and more aware of how difficult writing can be. Not always. Sometimes I write stories that rush out and are a pleasure all the way. “Mr. Catt,” for example. Other stories are hard to write. Some I never finish. Or finish years later. When things go well, writing is a lot of fun. More fun than accounting, which is how I made my living for years. I LIKE accounting. As much as writing? No. But writers like to talk about the bad days.

Time for Another Post

Facebook is down nation-wide and maybe worldwide, which leaves me with free time. So here I am.

I’m a slow writer, and I take a lot of breaks from writing. However, in the last year, and especially in the past month of so, I have been getting fiction done. I have two stories out to editors: “Grandmother Troll,” which is based on Icelandic folklore, and “The Ghost of Hugo Chavez,” about a journalist who is assigned to get an interview with Chavez, the former president of Venezuela. This is not entirely easy, since Chavez died in 2013. Fortunately my protagonist has the address of a Marxist Medium and Tarot Reader, who can reach Chavez in the afterlife.

I have run “Ghost” through two writing groups, and they mostly like it, though it’s possible it won’t sell: a story about the George Floyd demonstrations in Minneapolis and Hugo Chavez in the afterlife might be too specialized. I am pretty sure “Grandmother Troll” will sell.

I just finished a science fiction story titled “Valet Parking” and a fantasy titled “Mr. Catt.” Both are kind of weird. I’ve decided at my age I can write what I damn well please and not worry about the rules of writing. I was never good at the rules of writing, in any case.

That’s it. Aside from writing, I have been hiding out from COVID and communicating with the world via Zoom and facebook. I am cautious enough so I’m not assuming the plague is over. Too many people are not vaccinated. The high points of my life right now are going to the Farmers’ Market — which is great at the moment, full of late summer and autumn produce — and the grocery store for things not available at the Farmers’ Market. I’ve managed to get to a couple of museums. Museums do not tend to be crowded, unless there is a special exhibit. You can wander through mostly empty galleries, feeling mostly secure. And the American Swedish Institute has really fine cardamon rolls for sale.

I hope the writing continues. Writing has always been my way of coping with life’s difficulties. My goals (I always have goals, even at my age) are writing, more exercise and healthy eating. Also, a booster shot.

On shopping

What this article does not go into is a major problem of the 20th century: how to sell the massive overproduction of industrial capitalism. One answer was advertising, and all the marketing strategies listed here. There is also planned obsolescence and a constant increase in essential trivial ‘improvements.’ Once consumers have bought a handful of durable goods — a car, a fridge, a washer and dryer — how can you get them to buy more? You sell them on improvements. You sell them by having the durable goods break down. You sell them on buying as a solution to life’s problems.

There was a genuine fear at the end of WWII that the US would go back into a depression without a war to dispose of factory outputs. (The good thing about war is it destroys a lot of capital goods.) The answer was government spending, especially on more war goods, the so-called permanent war economy, and on the interstate highway system, and on help for white workers, especially the returning vets: government loans for education and housing.

Women were kicked out of the factories, so the returning guys had jobs. Unions, many formed during the Depression, made sure workers — not all, but many — had a living wage, with enough left over to shop for cars, made necessary by the new suburbs. (We are talking about white workers here, though many Black people ended in the factories of the north.)

Then, around 1980, the people in charge decided the system ran itself and didn’t need government help. Anyway, the system broke down, and here we are, with lots of pissed off consumers.

I forgot the new information technology. It was supposed to save the US economy. The trouble with it is, it uses less stuff. You used to be able to look at new car orders and know how the economy was going to do: car orders determined production of steel, glass, and rubber, production at all the companies that made auto parts, and production at the car plants themselves. That was a lot of jobs. You can tell by prices: a new car costs $40,000. (I just looked it up, and it’s hard to believe.) A new computer costs $400 to $4,000. That’s the cost of the materials and labor and profit for the bosses. The computer is a lot less. In addition, the materials are produced in the third world, and the assembly is done there. The only thing that remains American is the profit for the bosses.

The Current State of the Planet

There are huge floods in China. Siberia is burning, and our skies here in Minnesota are full of smoke from forest fires in Canada. The fires may spread into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. We are now officially in a drought. The two city governments have told us to water our lawns on alternate days in the evening. Patrick mentioned turning off the tap while brushing teeth. I will have to remember to do this.

One of my pleasures in life is reading about paleontology. One of the things I have learned is how much the climate of Earth has varied over time, and how often changes in temperature have been connected with large scale extinction. A few degrees up or down, and a lot of lifeforms die.

I’m not saying humans will die off, though it’s possible, I suppose. Either there will be radical political and economic changes in society, and a lot of us will survive. Or this society will continue for a while, until it breaks down, and most of us will die.

One of my mistakes in Ring of Swords was having the human population of Earth be nine billion two hundred years from now. It should be much lower, and Earth should be much more damaged than I make it.

I solved the problem of what happens next in my Lydia Duluth stories by having alien AIs show up as human civilization is collapsing and offer humanity the stars, via an alien technology which is too complex or too weird for humans to understand.

This is a grim post. Sorry. On the other hand, humanity makes it through and to the stars in Ring and in the Lydia Duluth stories. That’s cheery.

Write What You Know, Show — Don’t Tell

The above is pretty good essay about the godawful rules that are taught, or can be taught, in writing programs.

Reading about pruning adjectives and adverbs makes me want to add more of both.

 The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
 Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
 Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
 The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
 Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
 The water which they beat to follow faster,
 As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
 It beggar'd all description: she did lie
 In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
 O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
 The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
 Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
 With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
 To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
 And what they undid did. 

Take out all the unnecessary words in the passage above. Then explain why Antony fell in love with Cleopatra…

And read my story “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters,” which is about the importance of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs AND propositions.

I came to writing on my own via reading folk tales, fairy tales, science fiction, the Icelandic sagas, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte… “Show , don’t tell” is absolute BS in science fiction, as is “write what you know.” The essay references the Iowa Writers Workshop. The head of the workshop used to fundraise from rich Midwesterners by telling them that American creative writing was a weapon against Communism. (The book MFA vs NYC has an interesting chapter on Iowa.)

Here is a quote from the above essay about the head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, in case you don’t want to read the entire piece:

“I learned that our current methods of teaching craft date back to at least 1936 and the creation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first MFA programme, which rose to prominence under Paul Engle, a white Iowan poet, who was invested in ‘Iowa as the home of the free individual, of the poet at peace with democratic capitalism, of the novelist devoted to the contemporary outlines of liberty.’”

I can see how a teacher in India would see these rules as western and colonial. But they are rooted in a specific kind of European and American literature at a specific moment in history… The bourgeois realistic novel of the 19th and 20th centuries… The American struggle against Communism and Socialism after World War Two…

This is the very famous opening of Austen’s most famous novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Austen is effing TELLING us.

I should probably stop now, before I get too agitated. I recommend the essay, and I absolutely agree that the rules this poor person learned should be unlearned. Depending on what kind of fiction you want to write, learn from folk tales, fairy tales, myths, science fiction, detective stories, Georgette Heyer romances, the stories written and told all over the world…

Andrea del Sarto

This is from a facebook discussion of craft vs content in writing. The argument was that many readers value content more than craft. It doesn’t really matter to them if a story is poorly written, as long as they like the message.

I wrote:

P.G. Wodehouse is frivolous. I have read him over and over, looking for content of redeeming social importance, and have not found it. But talk about craft! Boy, does that guy write well!

I think we need to add a third quality to content and craft. I just reread the poem “Andrea del Sarto” by Browning — about an artist who was supposed to have perfect skill, but lacked the divine spark, apparently due to his wife. Divine spark sounds corny, but there is something beyond skill. Maybe it’s included in ‘craft.’ The painter Caravaggio had it, along with skill. Passion? Honesty? Truth? It’s not the same as redeeming social (or spiritual) importance. It’s some kind of emotional or aesthetic force. I will also add that “Andrea del Sarto” is a scary poem to read if you are a writer. You think, have I done this? Have I tamped down whatever — passion, feeling, the divine spark — and created a calm, gray art like Browning’s Andrea? That is a deeply disturbing poem.

 Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
 Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
 Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
 I know both what I want and what might gain,
 And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
 "Had I been two, another and myself,
 "Our head would have o'erlooked the world!" No doubt.  

Browning could be brutal…

Capitalism and SFF

“Capitalism is often interpreted as a religion. However, if religion is understood in terms of Religare, as something that binds, then capitalism is anything but a religion because it lacks any force to assemble, to create community…And what is essential to religion is contemplative rest, but this is the antithesis of Capital. Capital never rests. It is in its nature that it must always work and continue moving. To the extent that they lose the capacity for contemplative rest, humans conform to Capital. The distinction between the sacred and profane is also an essential characteristic of religion. The sacred unites those things and values that give validity to a community. The formation of community is its essential trait. Capitalism, by contrast, erases the distinction between the sacred and the profane by totalizing the profane. It makes everything comparable to everything else and thus equal to everything else. Capitalism brings forth a hell of the same.

— Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, October 26, 2020

I like the quote from Byung-Chul Han and am thinking it might be a good idea to read his book. Otherwise, I found the essay I have linked to above dark, maybe too dark.

And I wonder if science fiction and fantasy are a way of dealing with “the hell of the same.” They provide us with myths. They are set in time, rather than an endless, chaotic present. At their best, they help us see the present and imagine a future that is different.

I think the author of this essay confuses the tendency of capitalism with the current reality. The complete breakdown of society has not yet happened. This society would have a hard time operating without a lot of unpaid or underpaid social labor, which happens because people still feel connected to each other: caring for families, doing community work, putting on SFF cons… A perfect capitalist society would require feral children and old people dying in the streets. (Read Dickens. Those things happen in his books. In some ways, Victorian England was more perfectly capitalist than our current society.) I would say we are still engaged in a struggle with capitalism, still trying to maintain a society in the face of Thatcher’s famous quote: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” She is wrong. We only function with cooperation, including cooperation with people we don’t know


My favorite way of shopping, something I have barely done in the past year and a half, is to go with a friend. We wander around, chatting, and go into stores now and then. Sometimes one of us buys something. Often we do not. Then we have lunch — or did, before the plague. This is classic American recreational shopping. I think it would be better if Americans did not do this. Too much crap is made and bought and then tossed away. Capitalism is built on landfills. It used to be built on railroads and steel mills.

Of course capitalism has always overused natural resources and created too much environmental damage. I am not saying that capitalism is the only culprit. Ordinary, old-fashioned agriculture can do a lot of damage. Iceland used to have trees. The settlers cut them down, and the sheep then cropped the little seedlings that tried to grow up. And now there are no trees, except in Reykjavik and a few, carefully protected, new forests. There used to be forests in a lot of countries that now have barren mountains and worn-out fields.

This brings us to Mencius, translated by I. A. Richardson:

Master Meng said: There was once a fine forest on the Ox Mountain,
Near the capital of a populous country.
The men came out with axes and cut down the trees.
Was it still a fine forest?
Yet, resting in the alternation of days and nights, moistened by dew,
The stumps sprouted, the trees began to grow again.
Then out came goats and cattle to browse on the young shoots.
The Ox Mountain was stripped utterly bare.
And the people, seeing it stripped utterly bare,
Think that the Ox Mountain never had any woods on it at all.

Our mind too, stripped bare, like the mountain,
Still cannot be without some basic tendency to love.
But just as men with axes, cutting down the trees every morning,
Destroy the beauty of the forest,
So we, by our daily actions, destroy our right mind.

There is more to the Mencius quote, but this gives the idea.

Being the Majority

I’m reading the blog of Camestros Felapton — his history of the political struggles in the SFF community over the past decade or so. What fascinates me about SFF rightwingers is their belief that they are a majority. That they represent the opinions and values of the great mass of Americans. The Hugo vote must be somehow fixed, because in a fair election the books they liked (and which they often had written) would win. The people who believe the American election was stolen are much the same. Of course Trump won, they think, because most people supported him. So if he didn’t get the votes, there must be some kind of fraud.

I find this belief baffling. The Hugo Awards clearly represent the opinions of Worldcon members. They are the ones who vote on the Hugos. When Hugo nomination time rolls around, people do point out which of their stories are eligible. There may be a little politicking: people asking friends to vote for them. But that’s it. There is no fraud, even if you — or I — don’t like the results.

Polls and recent elections suggest that the majority of Americans who vote favor the Democrats, though not by a huge amount. The Electoral College makes it harder for Democrats to win presidential elections; and the way the Senate is set up (two senators per state, regardless of population) favors Republicans, who tend to represent states with low populations. And there is gerrymandering and laws that make it more difficult for people of color to vote. Still and all, in spite of this, Democrats are the majority of the voting population. With all his failings, Biden is more popular than Trump.

Of course the belief that there is some kind of fraud legitimates attempts to overthrow elections. As a number of blogs have pointed, the final argument seems to be: any election that a Democrat wins is fraudulent, because real Americans will always vote Republican.