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I apologize

for my long silence. My brother died in July, and his death has put me badly off balance. I was lucky to have a sibling I really liked. He was a retired lawyer. I want to talk to him about Trump’s legal difficulties and current politics. We would agree about Gaza, though we might not agree about the exact term. Is it ethnic cleansing or genocide? Or merely mass murder? I miss buying Christmas and birthday gifts for him, because it was fun to find something he would like. I didn’t always. He was not especially interested in stuff. But I got him a mystery when he was recovering from his first stay in the hospital, and he liked it, and we had a long phone conversation about the book and mysteries in general. There are a lot of down sides to getting old. At the moment, it is the loss of relatives and friends that bothers me most.

Karl-Marx-Hof

This is the Karl-Marx-Hof, public housing built in Vienna in 1927-30. It’s still in operation. Most the site was not built on, but rather made into gardens and playgrounds. It was designed to hold 5,000 residents. I think it’s spectacular. It’s a pendant to my post about cars. Fewer cars and suburbs. More public housing. Of course there are also row houses like the ones in Eastern cities, duplexes and four plexes. There are plenty of ways to shelter people that can lead to cities without cars.

Electric Cars

The Covid epidemic may have given us a partial solution to the problem of the car. More people are working from home, and more people are buying online and having stuff delivered. One delivery van delivering to a number of households is more energy efficient than all those people getting in their cars and going shopping. (We should hope the delivery is done by UPS or the post office, both of which are unionized.) However, we have a long way to go before we take a really serious look at the individual car.

Cars and suburbs powered the US economy after WWII. Which was fine, I guess. Cars and suburbs got people houses, which they wanted, and got white people away from PoC, which they wanted. But both individual cars and suburban houses are energy inefficient. And don’t talk to me about freedom. You are not free if you are tied to a car; and most cars are used for urban commutes. I don’t find driving in traffic on 494 a liberating experience.

The economist Michael Hudson says public services — education, transportation, health care in countries that have it, public housing in places that have it — enable bosses to pay workers less, since the workers don’t need the extra pay for school, cars, health care, housing… It’s a win-win situation, which is currently being destroyed by privatization.

The Covid epidemic may have given us a partial solution to the problem of the car. More people are working from home, and more people are buying online and having stuff delivered. One delivery van delivering to a number of households is more energy efficient than all those people getting in their cars and going shopping. (We should hope the delivery is done by UPS or the post office, both of which are unionized.) However, we have a long way to go before we take a really serious look at the individual car.

Bald Eagles

We went shopping in a nearby suburb — first to Duluth Trading, where we each bought a pair of underpants, then to the grocery store. The day is gorgeous: a cloudless blue sky, bright sun, and cold air. A perfect January day, though we could use more snow. The way back went down to the Mississippi and then along it. As we got to the river, I saw three large birds with long wings. Eagles, almost certainly, flying above the river. Then, as we drove along the river, I saw an adult eagle perched in a tree, its white head and tail unmistakable. A bit farther on, another large bird with long wings flew toward us. Patrick saw this one. He had missed the earlier ones, being busy driving. It was another eagle, probably not fully mature. I saw some white on its head, but not much. Finally, as we approached downtown, we saw five more birds over the Robert Street Bridge. Again, big and with long wings held straight out as they soared. So, ten eagles almost certainly. Nothing else is so big with such long wings. We have seen that many eagles south of the Metro Area along the Mississippi and Lake Pepin, which is a wide place in the river. But never so many in the Cities.

Writing

“When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas . . . But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”

—Philip Guston, paraphrasing John Cage

There are stories that seem to write themselves. They come quickly and easily, and I feel as if someone else — the muse — is responsible for them. This happens rarely. I’m not sure these stories are better than the ones I struggle with, where every word needs to be torn out of whatever place holds words and then planted in the text with scraped metaphoric hands.

And there are stories that partly come easily and partly are a fight. I’m not sure I believe in the classic Freudian subconscious, but I used to say I wrote out of my subconscious. I certainly do rely on instinct, feeling, the irrational a lot. Sometimes entire lines or paragraphs float up out of nowhere. Sometimes there is an image or situation that haunts me. It has to go into the story, though I’m not sure why. This can be a difficult way to write, since I don’t have a plot to rely on. I am feeling my way through the story. Don’t ever write a novel this way. I have written four. It’s a hard, slow process. The good part of it is, I can end in unexpected places.

I did plot Ring of Swords; and planning ahead makes a certain kind of complexity possible. My earlier novels are basically picaresque. I set my characters in motion and they travel and have experiences. It’s a simple kind of story. One damn thing after another.

There are a couple of problems with plots. You can reach a point where you know what the plot tells you to do, but it doesn’t seem plausible. This is when writers say their characters are fighting them. The characters don’t want to do what the plot requires. Then you either change the plot, or you try to figure out why the character would do what the plot requires.

The other problem is, a story that is too well plotted may seem lifeless, as if written by a machine. (I will tiptoe past ChatGPT and actual machine writing.) The writer is doing a job, not exploring an idea or situation.

One advantage of genre fiction is, it gives you a plot: the romance, the investigation, the space war… Then you can concentrate on other things, the stuff that floats up out of your mind, or that ideas that interest you. The genre plot will trudge along and bring the story to its end. Some SFF plots are clearly of this kind: the fantasy quest, the saving the kingdom or the world. They will trudge to their preordained end, long after I have stopped reading. Other SFF plots are a lot more quirky and interesting.

I am not sure that Guston is talking about any of this. But the stories that seem to come out of nowhere feel as if I have left the room and the story is typing itself. I wish this would happen more often. I could come in after a walk and find a complete story on the computer, ready to go out.

There was a period in my 20s when I was mostly writing poetry. Then, starting around the time I was 30, I concentrated on fiction. In a lot of ways, I write fiction the way I write lyric poetry: more or less intuitively. Obviously I have characters, and they interest me, but… In my current story two characters are trapped in a sinkhole. This provides a little drama and excitement. But the situation, the image seems important: the dark hole with sheer walls. I’m not sure the situation is plausible, but then neither are the characters. One is a cat that is six feet tall when he stands on his hind legs, as he almost always does. The other is a small dragon. Both are intelligent and talk. The cat wears clothes. What does the sinkhole mean? I have a certain number of caves in my fiction, which must represent something. Fear of falling? The unconscious? The deep, dark, scary basement of reality? As a rule, I don’t over analyze my fiction, for fear it will lose power if I know what I’m doing. So the meaning of the sinkhole will most likely remain unknown…

Stories

I looked up M. John Harrison on the Internet and this led to several reviews, which I cannot now refind. Anyway, one talked about the inability of fiction to accurately portray the real world. (I wish I could find that review.) I was not aware that stories are supposed to accurately portray the real world. For that, we have nonfiction and human experience. What is the function of stories? Entertainment and commentary on the real world. Models that look at certain aspects of reality. I think. I wish I could find that review.

I make up stories as a way of coping with a world that often seems unfair and violent. It is my way of lighting one candle, rather that cursing the dark. Though I also curse the dark.

I also make up stories because I love stories. I made up stories before I could read and write, and told them to my kid brother. It seems to me many (most?) children love stories and make up stories, just as most (all?) kids draw. I am speaking about the culture I know: the US. I can’t speak about other cultures, though stories seem universal. They are funny. They are entertaining. They have morals. They explain the world, rather than portraying it.

Cakes and Gramsci

There is a 104 year old lady who is entering the cake making contest at the Minnesota State Fair. She has won many ribbons and wants to win some more. She attributes her robust age to beginning every morning by thinking, “It’s going to be a wonderful day.” I am going to try this. Once again I quote Gramsci:

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Gramsci and a 104 year old champion cake maker… Models for this era…

SFF

I was thinking of the uses of SFF. When I was a kid, the stories told me about police states and nuclear holocaust, which was a lot more honest than 1950s sitcoms. Of course there is escapist SFF and wish-fulfillment fantasies, but the best of SFF is real and — because it isn’t confined by current reality — it can issue warnings and show better alternatives. Good stuff.

Mr. Catt

I have not been keeping up with the posts here. Okay, here is one, lifted from facebook:

Today is a haircut, followed by a visit to a dry cleaners to drop off blankets and a few shirts. Followed by — what?

I could go to a local coffee shop and finish the new Mr. Catt story which is currently scribbled in a notebook in fragments. After that, I will need to input it and revise it. I don’t know how I feel about the story, but it has been fun to write.

Writing it has been slow. Which is fairly typical. I write more slowly than I used to, and I have never been a fast writer. Toward the end of her life Le Guin said she no longer had the energy for writing fiction. I am keeping going, though slowly.

On the plus side, I have written three poems. Le Guin switched to poetry late in life. I think her prose is a lot better. Two of my poems are about grief, since both Patrick and I have lost family members. Gee, that is hard. The third poem is about time travel. I should send that one to Asimov’s.

New Posts

I had to revise my last post twice after posting it, so those who follow me will get three notices of new posts instead of one. I apologize. I wasn’t thinking…