No Little Pink Glasses For You And Me Dept.

"...to be happy to be alive in the full knowledge of all misery, our own included."


E.W. Dijkstra Archive: On the role of scientific thought (EWD447)

I wanted to be glad and happy with my eyes fully open, without fooling myself in the belief that we lived in a pink world: to be happy to be alive in the full knowledge of all misery, our own included.

When we talk about happiness, it seems to me we ultimately have to speak of it in this light. If happiness at its best means anything, it is the ability to feel joy at least as much despite what we know as because of it, and to do that in a way that is illuminated and not merely naïve.

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Tags: Buddhism philosophy religion Zen


All Doors, All Windows Dept.

Learn a little something creative from someone on the other side of the aisle.


Mike Leigh, he of Naked and many other fine films, used an open-ended approach to many of his films. Rather than write a script, he'd have actors improvise on a number of basic themes and with some rudimentary notes about what kinds of characters they were playing. Over time, the scenes would develop a direction and force of their own, and from them he would knit together a more formal story. But the open-endedness, the willingness to trust his performers (and for them, in turn, to trust him), was paramount.

As of late I have come to see the way creative types treat their ideas might be better akin to this sort of management — one where the ideas themselves are full participants in the act, and not just ingredients in a stew or parts requisitioned from a warehouse. I 'spect a lot of that's been coming out of the reading I've done as of late vis-a-vis theater and acting (e.g., Tadashi Suzuki), and I'm finding the advice in those venues a whole lot more helpful and relevant than anything from all those dismal how-to-be-a-writer books. Most of the truly useful advice I've received about writing has not been from other writers, but rather from creative people in other disciplines — the music producers in Behind the Glass, for instance, or the filmmakers and actors profiled in Ebert's interviews.

Let me stop short of saying that everyone else could do as well, or better, if they ditched their copy of Finish Your Novel, You Bozo and started reading Stanislavsky. But I'll stick my neck out far enough to suggest that every creative discipline is ultimately closed-ended in terms of what it can teach you about the creative process. Not everything's going to map to everything else, but there are some insights you just don't get from your immediate peers.

I'll be spending some time in the coming year going into this in greater depth, and I hope with more valuable insight to be gleaned from it.


Tags: creativity creators


Nailing Jelly To The Surface Of The Pond Dept.

Getting your ideas together for a new story can be just that tough.


LIKE THIS? — Gabriel Squailia

Why is this character straight and not gay? Why is this one Indian and not Black? What would happen if the main character were a woman instead? What if we started the first scene in the middle of an argument? In the middle of a fist-fight? With a man masturbating? What if the first sentence let us know exactly where we were? What if it gave away nothing? What if we never quite learned what was going on? What if we did, but it turned out to be wrong?

Logicians and philosophers like to speak of "counterfactuals", the sort of thing SF&F readers know best through their Harry Turtledove tomes ("What if the South hadn't lost the Civil War?"). What Gabe's talking about with his post is how every piece of work has this inherently counterfactual flavor to it while it's still in progress — it's protean, and so it can in the end become anything at all.

Yes, I'm grappling with this right now — gee, how did you ever guess? — and not with Welcome to the Fold, which is 99% locked down, but rather its successor project, tentatively titled Perfect Skin. That project, a resurrection of something I wrote ages ago and never finished (and subsequently lost), is in precisely that stage of amorphousness. All there is at the center of it is two characters and the rough outlines of a near-future setting.

You want more? Yeah. So do I.

The trick with this sort of thing, I've found, is not to push anything, but to just keep tossing and testing as uninhibitedly as possible. I've already filled a document with several thousand words of toss-and-test free-associative drivel-babble, and not one word of it is canon. Nor does it have to be. It just has to be part of the process driving me forward to let things run through my fingers until they come together.


Tags: ideas story ingredients storytelling writing


Don't Dream It, Be It

You could be the change, or you could just hold your breath and wait for it.


Some great thoughts in this essay (it's mainly about Interstellar, so warning, spoilers), esp. about how the possibility that this planet may be all we get:

Zachary Bonelli - "Perelandrian Dream"

Gene Roddenberry’s ideology, which was that humanity would go to the stars having overcome the colonial impulse, has clearly failed to take root in the popular culture.

I don't think the problem was that space mania didn't take root in popular culture; space mania was pretty big in the 60s and 70s. But it was big only in a superficial, decorative sense. What failed to take root was something deeper — a sense that this was something we all could (and ought to) take part in, a sense of the mission being shared amongst all of us equally instead of just being reserved for a select few heroes.

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Tags: science science fiction sociology


A Healthy Level Of Disconnect Dept.

On not getting too attached.


Abundance Without Attachment - NYTimes.com

The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of year is not an objection to the abundance per se, nor should it be. It is a healthy hunger for nonattachment. This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide. But then, ponder the three practices above. Move beyond attachment by collecting experiences, avoid excessive usefulness, and get to the center of your wheel. It might just turn out to be a happy holiday after all.

I normally flinch whenever pop Buddhism rears its head, but this is a better-than-average example of same. It isn't having things that creates problems; it's when the having becomes more important than anything else.

When I moved cross-country earlier this year, I got rid of about two-thirds of everything I owned. Most of it was books, some electronics, tons of DVDs I'd never even watched, a bunch of clabber I don't know why I ever accumulated in the first place. Moving gave me the freedom to ditch it once and for all, and to not start forming new attachments I couldn't manage. It wasn't just the cleaning-out that was healthy; it was the new mindset that came after the cleaning-out. By the end of the current year, after I'd spent about nine months in my new place, I'd set aside another eight boxes or so of things to cycle out. I didn't even try to wring money out of them, as I might have in a previous lifetime; I just drove them over to Goodwill and let them go. Plus, I had far less of an interest in having things just for the sake of knowing they were sitting around, so to speak, and within arm's reach.

This turnabout at the seat of my thinking, where I let things pass casually through my hands instead of finding creative justifications for keeping everything, had been gathering force for some time. I think the real seeds of it were sown back when I was working on Flight of the Vajra, when I had the quiet — and scary — realization that nothing I really wanted in this world had a pricetag. I couldn't go out and buy the things I most wanted to see exist, because they didn't exist. I had to go through the tedium and difficulty of bringing them into existence.

Once that clicked, it actually became difficult for me to form the kinds of attachments I used to create quite casually to things that crossed my path. But I also don't doubt for a moment this kind of turnabout is exceedingly rare. For most people, there's a whole world full of reasons not to develop that kind of insight — and from what I've seen, that includes other creators. This is not so much me wagging my finger at them disapprovingly as it is noticing how being a creator doesn't automatically give a person a leg up in seeing their attachments for what they are.


Tags: Buddhism spirituality Zen


Fifty Million Elvis Fans Strike Back Dept.

Because if it's popular, it has to be good! Right? Right?


Some great insights into the success of one of the most amazingly awful books to make Amazon's bestseller lists:

Zachary Bonelli - "Tunnel Vision"

... the lens of hyper-consumerism changes attitudes toward literature to such an extant that sane, intelligent individuals end up drawing nonsensical and bizarre conclusions.

... there is no paradox when it comes to Billionaire Dinosaur’s popularity. My natural conclusion: a significant number of individuals in the Western world are so philosophically and intellectually weak (due to poor education and the omniprescence of manipulative market systems) that they blissfully and mindlessly consume harmfully insipid entertainment. Those who have bought into the central tenets of consumerism cannot draw this conclusion. It does not fit with any consumerist system of thought about how the world works. Hence, the quote that began this post; Phronk eventually throws up his hands and declares that, since he can find nothing any of substance or quality in the writing or the publication of Billionaire Dinosaur, its quality must lie in its effect on others, because if it’s popular, then it must generate quality somewhere and somehow

There's actually a germ of truth to the idea that "if it's popular, it must somehow be good," better known as the Fifty Million Elvis Fans Principle. It's just not the germ of truth that the fellows Bonelli quotes think it is.

Here's how this works. If you take anything that's popular and you scrutinize it enough, you'll find something about it that draws an audience. Note that this something is not always a good thing; sometimes what makes something popular is the fact that it plays to an audience's worst instincts, or its need to have its prejudices confirmed. Billionaire Dinosaur (there's more to that title but I won't print it here, trust me) seems to getting the attention it does mostly for the same reason people slow down to stare at a road accident. it's not the work itself that people are interested in, but the buzz around the work.

From what I can tell, a fair majority of the interest in creative work offered in a mass-market context operates along the same lines. The work itself — the story, the experience we have with it on a personal leve — becomes less important than the conversation around the work, which is something that takes place in public between people. It's easier to talk about something that happened between you and your friends than it is to talk about something that happened deep inside you, in big part because we practice doing the former a whole hell of a lot more than we do the latter. (Yes, I say this even in the face of a whole subculture of navel-gazing and pseudo-psychologizing; the reasons why are worth a post unto itself.)

Another convenient side effect of this kind of socialization, in my purview, is how shows that present really ugly, vile material (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) can become mainstream hits. It's not that we've become by default inured to such things; it's that the water-cooler conversation around them, even if it doesn't take place at any particular water cooler, makes the material all the easier to stomach. If we're all grossed out together, then we're all by definition that much less grossed out, because we can share the feeling (and because the baseline for what constitutes an outlier for any one of us has been moved).

Does that count as "quality"? I suspect you could fashion an argument that it does; it's quality in the sense that it gives people something lively and stimulating to swap words over. But people can do that about something that has no value apart from the noise generated around it, and every conversation eventually ends. It may be fun to produce or read stuff that has no other significance, and which is in some way designed to be disposable, but one of the weird things about living in the digital age is how nothing ever really goes away completely. Our culture can now preserve anything for which the slightest rationale can be hatched to preserve it. Parallels come to mind of the gyres of plastic now found in our oceans. Not good parallels, as you might imagine.


Tags: audiences creativity creators marketing masscult media media ecology


Many Legs And No Brain Dept.

There is no creativity by committee, but we love to believe otherwise.


James Horner Says 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' Was "Terrible" - /Film

I look for those people [such as Phil Alden Robinson, director of Sneakers and Field of Dreams], almost 90% of those type of filmmakers are gone. Now, the filmmakers are making the DC/Marvel Comics, all of that stuff. The world of the director being the laser focus is very different now. I’m used to working with the director and producer and that’s my relationship, it’s very simple. When you deal on films now you have a director who’s coming in on his second movie, he’s unsure, you have four producers, and financiers, and they all want to have a say in the score, and there’s no way of doing a score. So, it’s easier to do something that’s huge and impressive each time, relatively the same each time. It sounds stunning… But just saturated and they’re happy, they’re absolutely happy. You can’t get eight people, on an emotional scene that’s intimate, to all agree. It’s impossible.

Emphasis mine.

You might think this kind of pressure only exists when it's a bunch of producer-cooks all spoiling the broth, but in my current line of thinking, the pressure extends to the relationship between an audience and a creator. The door swings both ways far more freely than it used to; technology has allowed people to express their sense of entitlement to a creator's work all the more openly. Neil Gaiman did his own testy slap-back at this when he told us that George R.R. Martin was not our bitch, but I'm not sure the lesson has sunk in.

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Tags: audiences creativity creators masscult


My Way Dept.

On my end: Less blog, more books.


Various kinds of work have kept me busier than I would have liked these past couple of weeks — the start of the third draft for Welcome to the Fold, the flood of material I've been assembling for Ganriki.org (anime/manga/J-culture fans, take note, that's the project I booted up after being booted from About.com), and just a farrago of other goodies. All of it has made for a major indictment of my time-management skills.

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Tags: Welcome to the Fold work writing


A Better Man Than This Dept.

Belief's a label you earn, not self-apply.


The Temptation to Dehumanize by Ed Kilgore | Political Animal | The Washington Monthly

... the thing that bothers me most about the dehumanizing of the poor and the dispossessed is its violent conflict with the supposed religious ethic of this country, particularly when it is promoted by people who think of themselves as good Christians. For the life of me I cannot understand Christians who do not grasp that an essential tenet of their faith is the radical equality of human beings as subjects of both divine judgment and redemptionEvery human being is made in the image of God, and how one treats those Jesus called “the least of these” is the acid test of Christian ethics, certainly as important as obedience to rules of sexual behavior or social order.

I can understand how some of them don't grasp that essential tenet: it's because there's a big difference between being labeled a Christian, and actually being one. The former is about getting in with a group and winning approval and being awarded a certain label; the latter is about something that no label can contain.

Part of what drew me to Buddhism and Zen in particular was how little of it is based on this kind of social-approval malarkey. The only thing that matters with Zen is how you keep your mind in any given moment, and how that attitude manifests in your behavior. What you say you think has nothing to do with it. Granted, there are Buddhist institutions where that kind of thing can be ossified and made just as ritualized and ossified as anything else, but the practice itself doesn't care about the cut of your jib.

I know a few people who are Christian not only in their professed philosophy but in their actual behavior. From what I can tell it's a conscious effort on both parts. Too many people just want to be rewarded with a label without actually doing anything to earn it, and the worst part is that it's easier than ever to surround themselves with people who will give them just that.


Tags: Buddhism Christianity philosophy religion Zen


Give It Up Dept.

On the Fiction of Resignation.


Article « By Cozzens Possessed « Commentary Magazine (Dwight MacDonald)

In the Novel of Resignation, the highest reach of enlightenment is to realize how awful the System is and yet to accept it on its own terms. Because otherwise there wouldn’t be any System. Marquand invented the genre, Sloan Wilson carried it on in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and Herman Wouk formulated it most unmistakably in The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s moral is that it is better to obey a lunatic, cowardly Captain Queeg, even if the result is disaster, than to follow the sensible advice of an officer of lower grade (who is pictured as a smooth-talking, destructive, cynical, irresponsible conniver — in short, an intellectual) and save the ship. Because otherwise there wouldn’t be any U.S. navy. In short, the conventional world, the System, is confused with Life. And since Life is Like That, it is childish if not worse to insist on something better. This is typically American: either juvenile revolt or the immature acceptance of everything; there is no modulation, no development, merely the blank confrontation of untenable extremes; “maturity” means simply to replace wholesale revolt with wholesale acceptance.

Some part of me is a terrible sucker for scathing reviews of over-hyped books, in big part because such events afford a critic the opportunity to frame a larger cultural discussion around a specific (and often putrid) example.

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Tags: Dwight Macdonald fiction philosophy writing


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