Wednesday Words of Wisdom #9 —Reality

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

Shirley Jackson

I keep meaning to read The Haunting of Hill House… That’ll happen eventually.

In the meantime, I just finished re-listening to the audiobook of Going Bovine, by Libba Bray. It’s one of those books where (no spoilers, kinda) you get to the end and wonder how much of it was real and how much was the unreliable narrator imagining things. It’s hard to tell what even he thought was real or not, in the end. But it’s a beautiful book that at its heart has to do with the stories we tell ourselves to make reality bearable, or worthwhile, or at least make some sort of sense.

The vocabulary I use for this idea comes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, particularly Hogfather which I recommend highly for its own merits and for being kind of a Christmas story.

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

Hogfather

Another source is the incomparable Douglas Adams.

Trin Tragula, for that was his name, was a dreamer, a speculative thinker, or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he would spend staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake. “Have some sense of proportion,” she would say, thirty-eight times a day. And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex – just to show her. And in one end he plugged the whole of reality, as extrapolated from a fairy cake, and in the other end he plugged his wife – so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock annihilated her brain. But to his satisfaction, he realised he had conclusively proved that if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have, is a sense of proportion.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio series), Fit the 8th

ZAPHOD:
The universe does that to a guy?

GARGRAVARR:
The whole infinite Universe. The Infinite sums. The Infinite distances between them, and yourself. An invisible dot on an invisible dot. Infinitely small.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio series), Fit the 8th

Absolute reality lacks meaning. Absolute reality is the universe before it’s been run through the filter of our perception. From the day we’re born we start hearing and telling stories, starting with nursery rhymes and “when you were a tiny baby” anecdotes and going from there. To be human is to be a storyteller.

I feel like I have written posts about this idea before. It’s something I keep circling back to, like an itch I keep trying to scratch, because it keeps coming up in my writing.

In the second draft of my NaNo novel I’m still thinking through the stories my main character tells himself about who he is, what he wants, whether or not he’s okay with how repetitive his life has become and why, and so on and so forth. People have been telling him stories his whole life about what is and isn’t okay, especially his father, and over the course of the story he needs to question and confront things that have seemed like solid reality but are in truth a lot more subjective. And that’s just the main character! I’m relatively certain of his character growth throughout the novel, but not so much with the love interest. I haven’t even tackled any of his stories yet.

The idea also creeps into a short (ish) story that I’m currently working on, involving dreams. I’m not going to say much more than that because I’m going to be posting it in April.

How do you think ideas about reality and the stories we tell ourselves about the rightness in the universe show up in your writing?

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #8 —Gravity

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My reading habits generally alternate between sci-fi and fantasy, with some other things scattered in their occasionally. Right now I’m swinging back to fantasy as I re-listen to Sunshine by Robin McKinley for probably the billionth time. But last week I was on sci-fi, and I started listening to Enders Game with the vague sense that I’d heard the punchline that comes at the end. Turns out I had, and it probably has something to do with the movie version coming out in 2013 even though I haven’t seen it yet.

So I had a kind of weird “omnipotent newcomer” experience with the book that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Say what you will about spoilers, but it was a cool experience.

One of the things that struck me the most while listening to this story was the exploration of directional instructions and personal orientation. Some of the coolest scenes were set in the Battle Room, in null gravity.

“From now on, you forget about gravity before you go through the door. The old gravity is gone, erased. Understand me? Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember — the enemy’s gate is down. Your feet are toward the enemy’s gate. Up is toward your own gate. North is that way, south is that way, east is that way, west is — what way? They pointed.”

~ Orson Scott Card

What I love about science fiction is that it bends your mind into a pretzel thinking about something you’ve never really thought about before in a totally new way. Earth is not the center of the universe. Gravity is a matter of perspective, otherwise people would keep falling off Australia into space. This novel calls for both the characters and the reader to reorient their understanding of directions based to their own context rather than on a planet’s gravitational pull.

Every genre has its own way of calling for this reorientation, this suspension of disbelief, though some are more dramatic than others. Sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism — these are a few of my favorite things.

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #7 — Doing the Dishes

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” ~ Agatha Christie

I’ve done a lot of things while doing the dishes, but mostly my main goals while doing so are (a) getting the dishes washed and (b) getting dirt from under my fingernails.

But I get the point. A lot of story planning often happens while taking care of menial tasks that don’t require a great deal of thought. Mild boredom leads to idle speculation, idle speculation leads to new character or plot ideas, new character or plot ideas lead to the write side. Continue reading “Wednesday Words of Wisdom #7 — Doing the Dishes”

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #6 — A Writer’s Rituals

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room.” ~ Tom Waits

My first thought upon reading this was of some of the books I’ve read that involve summoning demons. Which is the sort of thing that typically you’d only do when you’re staring down a big problem and starting to get desperate, or your the evil mastermind who might be a liiiittle too cocky…

As a writer, I have at times felt I fit both those descriptions. Sometimes even at the same time.

But also typically, if you’re thinking far enough ahead you build plenty of safeguards into your summoning circle and take a healthy step back as soon as you’re done casting. The methods you use are important, because for better or worse they will shape the overall outcome. There often is a great deal of ritual involved, perhaps because in any situation it’s more comforting to stick with something you know and consider tried and tested, rather than taking the risk of totally making things up as you go along.

(How far can I carry this metaphor? This is already farther than I expected to get when I started writing, to be honest.)

You have to be brave. Some things are easy to botch, whether it’s summoning a demon or trying to make what’s on the page as grand and complete as the vision in your head. If you allow yourself to be intimidated, it makes the task that much harder.

You have to be respectful. Granted, the characters in your imagination are less likely to bite your head off than infernal hellspawn, but minding your manners and giving them what they consider their due is probably the simplest way to get them to cooperate.

And sometimes they’re just gonna roar on out of there, and you’ve got to do your best to just get out of the way and let it happen. The most interesting characters are sometimes the most willful ones, and the most demanding to have their own story.

So… yeah. I’m going to go sit at my desk with a cup of tea (still steaming, with milk and honey) and a cat in my lap (trying to keep her off of my keyboard), and do some conjuring.

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #5

“[Nurture] all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. To accept these realities is to accept contentment as the maturation of happiness, and to acknowledge that clarity and grace can be found in genuine unvarnished existence.” ~ Richard Powell

This quote jumped out at me someone’s email signature recently and I had to write it down. It speaks to me so much as a writer. Especially the last two, but I think that the first is an important point as well. As I am learning to manage my anxiety and struggling to establish a meditation practice in my life (something I’ve been trying to do on and off for the past couple of years), clarity is important to me. Clarity of purpose in life and clarity of vision in my writing, and not letting myself being intimidated by things I don’t know how to do. The world building and amount of research I have ahead of me for my novel is daunting but I have to go for it or the story will never get written.

So let’s break this down.

ww #5a

One of the classic reasons to write is to create something that will last after you’re gone. It’s to preserve ideas, for sure, but I can’t really imagine anyone who doesn’t, in some corner of their soul, want to have a little slice of cover-bound immortality. Even if you factor in the universe outliving the human race (which is the ultimate “nothing lasts”), a writer’s words might stick around for generations and that’s still better than what we could do with our own lifespans.

What definitely doesn’t last are the little roadblocks of writing. A hundred years from now, it’s not going to matter which chapters that gave you the most headache or how many hard criticisms you have to hear along the way. With anything that makes me frustrated or upset, it’s important to breathe, take a step back, and view it with only as much passion as is necessary. I’m working on having a better perspective in life; not everything is personal or the end of the world. Continue reading “Wednesday Words of Wisdom #5”

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #4 — Hostages

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“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable.” ~ Joss Whedon

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I am not surprised to see a quote like this come from someone who’s created some of my favorite characters and then murdered them. Why Wash, why? Still, this is classic advice.

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” ~ William Faulkner

As writers, we like our characters. We like our plots We like our settings. And sometimes we get so overfond of them that it’s hard to hear the constructive criticisms they sometimes need. We “kill our darlings” and resurrect them in another form with every fresh round of editing — or maybe we put them to rest and let them stay there. Maybe they’ll reincarnate in a different story entirely someday.

Joss’ quote is more like… holding your darlings hostage. Because taking your best idea out? Your best idea? (My immediate suspicion is that my favorite idea or scene is central, the one I’m building my entire story concept on.) Either you grit your teeth and do it, or you kick into high gear and figure out how to save it. You bargain. You manage another page so that you can justify keeping your favorite.

When it really comes down to it, what would you do? Would you take this advice? Would you need someone else to tell you to write more or cut it? I know I would. Could be a cool group writing exercise.

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #3 – Writing Time

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“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e. do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.” ~ J. K. Rowling

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I am not the kind of person who sets up writing days for myself. I do try to put blocks of writing time on my calendar, but those are subject to, um, forgetting to do that. On the occasions when I do have a writing day, it’s both wonderful and ineffably spontaneous.

But the appeal is undeniable. I’ve seen lots of advice along the lines of not waiting for “the right mood” because then you might end up waiting around forever, rather than writing the whatever it is you know is inside you somewhere. Once you manage to carve that out of your life — which takes a greater combination of energy and willpower than I have at the moment— hang onto it with tooth and nail. There will always be other priorities to consider, but that’s just life. If your writing time is important to you then carve out time somewhere else for the other stuff.

So far this post is a little “do ask JK days and not as I do.” Oops. On the other hand, I have set this posting schedule and held myself to it. Since doing so, I’ve written more than I have in years! So maybe I do have writing times, albeit more in the form of self-imposed deadlines. This strategy might not work for everyone, but since I never fell into the write-it-the-night-before camp in school I think this is just what works for me. It might not be writing days but I do put up a fight when it comes to getting my posts up as planned.

What’s your writing time strategy, blog-writing or otherwise? Do you have different strategies for different types of writing?