Writing

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.

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

https://scroll.in/article/999215/decolonising-creative-writing-its-about-not-conforming-to-techniques-of-the-western-canon

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

https://mronline.org/2021/06/11/the-hell-of-the-same-capitalism-breaks-down-and-homogenizes-life-disconnects-the-past-present-and-future/

“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

Shopping

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.

The Plague and a Zoo

A Visit to Como Zoo and Japanese Garden  

Three silverback gorillas 
knuckling in the sun,   
two feather-duster ostriches, 
too hot to run, 
picking grass along a fence, 
while giraffes with shambling elegance  
perform a kind of mating dance.     

Bears and monkeys! Maybe cranes,   
though not in view. (The sign remains.)  
A deep, green garden,   
a silent pond,  
shining koi,  
and so we end.

I went to Como Zoo with a friend yesterday. I did not write this poem after that visit, but visits to the zoo are all pretty similar. It was pleasant.

The best part is probably the Conservatory, which is a classic 19th century conservatory, full of palm trees and orchids. We skipped the Japanese Garden, due to fatigue and heat.

I don’t know how the rest of you feel. I am unsettled now that Patrick and I have been vaccinated and can (in theory) go out and about. I have now been out with friends three times, all of us vaccinated and taking precautions when around others: masks and distancing and much washing of hands. Each time I go out, I feel like a hermit crab that is being forcibly removed from its shell. Yes, it’s worth it, but boy it is hard. (A hermit crab would probably not feel anything was worth getting pulled out of its shell.)

It’s possible we will get back to normal. What is normal? And in which countries? And when will the next pandemic arrive? One problem with writing SF is, one has a pretty dark imagination. In SF only the idiots say, “This isn’t a problem. We will get back to normal.”

Assimilation

I was reading the group blog Crooked Timber yesterday, and there was a discussion of immigrants. When do they become assimilated? The answer of course is, when the Borg finally win. But aside from that… The English apparently have a test. Ask people who they rooted for in world cricket matches. If they root for India or Pakistan or the West Indies rather than England, they are not assimilated.

One of my childhood memories is what a big deal it was when members of Scandinavian royal families visited Minnesota. They came here because the state was very heavily settled by immigrants from Scandinavia. They were visiting their relatives, and their relatives were excited by this. “Our king!” “Our crown prince!” At some point, the visits mostly stopped, I suspect because the older members of the immigrant community died, and the younger ones felt less connected to the Old Country.

A number of years ago, I met a young man at the local Finnish store. He was probably third generation Finnish-American. He was studying Finnish at the university and planned to move to Finland. My father’s parents came from Iceland, so I am the second generation born in North America. I studied Old Icelandic at the university, because Modern Icelandic wasn’t offered. I’ve been to Iceland twice. My brother has been many times. Over time, connections attenuate. But not always. The wonderful Minnesota poet Bill Holm, like me a couple of generations away from the Old Country, was described by Icelanders as being more Icelandic than they were.

There is no question in my mind that I am American. But it’s also clear to me that I am Icelandic-American. When do people assimilate? Some people get rid of the Old Country connections as quickly as possible. Some remain floating between two cultures, which is not a bad place to be. In 3 or 4 generations, the connections may vanish — or may not. Why does it matter?