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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, September 27, 2007

finding the feeling

Over the last couple of days I have read over some of my blog-posts of the past few months, and thought I detected a rather depressed tone. It seems that a couple of years ago, when I started this blog, I was more lighthearted and capable of humor in my posts. It looks a little like one of the possible effects of aging, in which the joie de vivre of youth is squeezed out by painful experience.

May it never be!

I don't think too much about the "tone" of my writing, since I generally regard this as hard to control, and anyway the effort to control it would be a contrivance, an affectation--something I want to avoid. But every once in a while it is pushed into my attention. I recall, for instance, the very first feedback I got from a literary agent. It was in response to my submission of a youthful adventure novel called The Black Orchid, which the agent (forget who) tore to shreds. One of her withering comments was something like, "...and the dry, stilted tone, which I suppose is an effort to make it sound 19th-century...." Apart from the general unwelcomeness of this "negative praise" (a term I learned from my father), I was struck by the criticism, because I hadn't been aware of trying to affect any particular tone, or to make it seem "period". My prose style, according to this agent, was therefore just boring and stilted, full stop.

Ouch. It's a jungle out there, I thought.

It smarted, but I didn't take it too seriously. I knew my writing stood up favorably in comparison with the great majority of published material. But it did give me some pause. My outlook did and does tend toward the detached and scientific, and my writing style inevitably reflects this. Am I too much of a "scientist" to write fiction and drama? Why do I want to write fiction and drama anyway?

Well, I just do. There is a creative spring within me that keeps burbling forth, and I want to channel that, give expression to it. But there's no denying that that spring percolates through the rational, analytical rock of my mind. A hardheaded Mercury in Capricorn is just not the gushing type, or given to effusiveness.

Of course, it's not a question of a dichotomy between "dry and factual" and "gushing and effusive". And it's not as though I want to read stuff that is merely dry and factual--although I tend to find such stuff much more persuasive than purely emotional outpourings. Rather, I like a balanced, detached, well-researched text powered by an underlying passion. I like adult discourse, not baby-talk. Passion drives the prose forward, motivates it, makes it matter. Clear, authoritative facts, enlisted in the cause of passion, make for powerful reading, I think.

Another way of cutting dryness is humor. This again should not be contrived--for that is painful to read. But if one has a natural humor, then this enlivens one's prose, creates warmth around detachment. Maybe when I'm feeling depressed this becomes muted, and conspicuous by its absence.

And yet another way of boosting the vitality of a naturally even and dry tone is to turn one's detached mind directly onto the emotions themselves--to take an interest in feelings and reporting their effects, rather than simply ignoring them, which is what a true dryasdust does. When a detached mind pays attention to the feeling side of life, the effect is especially powerful, I think. James Joyce was a master of this. A cool, detached, satirical Aquarian, he nonetheless saw into the living heart of people's feelings, and was able to evoke their manifestations in his writing. His dramatization of the painful fight at the Dedalus Christmas dinner in A Portrait of the Artist is one of many examples of his mastery: a cool detached eye seeing how a family suffers, and reporting it vividly, blow by blow.

In the end, you can't really camouflage who you are. As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam." But I do need to watch out. For I think I do unconsciously steer away from "emotional" writing, just because I dislike naked appeals to feeling as a way of making one's case. My desire for objectivity and evenhandedness has me purging my prose of words or expressions that might seem "loaded" or tending to bias the viewpoint. The result can be too much like report-writing (something I'm very good at).

I don't believe in trying to goose scenes in order to wring more "feeling" out of them. In season 2 of The Odyssey, when a new story editor was shoved in by the network to run the writing of the show, he threw around the words emotion and feeling as though merely saying them were the same as evoking them. I had contempt for both the intent and the method. If there's anything I like less than dry, insipid writing it's ungenuine and painted-on emotionality. Real feeling comes out of real situations, and to make them real, you need to be connected with truth--you have to tell it like it is.

When I (mainly accidentally) switch on a contemporary TV drama, the strained efforts at laughs and emotions simply embarrass me, if they don't provoke active feelings of horror, like witnessing someone losing their grip and defecating in public.

No, give me a good, well-written report.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007


What does a writer who's writing about his writing write about when he's not writing?

Last week I saw, in a book my mother had bought about writing, a snippet from Lawrence Durrell, which I paraphrase as, "All blocks are at bottom a form of egotism".

For I do feel rather blocked. But at the same time I recall Robert McKee's sterling advice, that the cure for writer's block is research. According to him, writer's block is simply lack of knowledge of your subject.

I suppose that writer's block is actually a symptom, and not a disorder in its own right. It could therefore have different causes, as a fever can have different causes. Durrell's egotistical block sounds like a symptom of the writer who has donned the hat of the editor or critic, and sits perched at the desk, waiting for the creator to come up with something so he can edit/criticize it. The creator, like a gopher in a hole surrounded by vigilant dogs, knows better than to poke his nose out in that environment.

I do suffer from that type of block, but it has not been debilitating. It has not prevented me from creating--although I do think it has limited the quality of what I have written, and I have taken various steps in my life to try to improve the situation. I have tried to both throw the hounds off the scent, and also toughen up that little gopher so it can sock it to the hounds if it does find them on-site when it emerges. I've used things like writing drills, in which inhibition is smashed by forcing oneself to write nonstop for a short period, like 15 minutes. But I think this obstacle is also overcome somewhat by taking on projects that are so challenging in other respects, such as in size and complexity, that one's attention is forced to those aspects, leaving one's actual manner of expression, one's use of words, to fend for itself.

But in general I think McKee's assessment is more to the point, and more debilitating if left untreated. For the slavering hounds called Editor and Critic can be thrown off the scent by one trick or another, but if you don't know what you're talking about or what you're trying to say in the first place, you really are stuck. Then it's true that only research can save you. You have to refuel the empty tank of your head.

This is what I've been trying to do. Yes, I've been researching my world and my topic almost nonstop for five years. Yes, I read from at least one and usually two or even three relevant books on it each day, and type notes into Word files. But I need to get my hands on the right books, the right topic areas. And it takes me time to get through them. I'm steady rather than fast.

Then there's the task of synthesis. If I read more than one authority on a subject, and they disagree, which version do I go with? What do I think happened? This is decision-making in the face of uncertainty, which is inherently stressful and hard. Each decision defines the world of my story a little more, gives it its character and its meaning. For each decision is made by particular criteria, whether conscious or unconscious. If I have a choice, then I should choose that which furthers the aims of my story, which is largely still an intuitive choice.

The other danger with research, also cautioned against by McKee, is that of spending all one's time in research and never getting down to writing. This is the sign of the nervous student or amateur. In McKee's view writing should proceed as a series of steps of writing and research. You write as much as you can, until you get blocked from lack of knowledge, then you turn to research. As soon as you know enough to proceed, you do so. You learn what you need to know in the course of writing, so that by the time you finish your final draft, you know the world of your story completely--and not before that time, if you've been writing efficiently.

I've been embroiled in the world of the cults of the Roman Empire, and seeing ways to incorporate this material in my work. It's very relevant, since my work is a spiritual story at bottom. I'm still stuck at the same chapter, but I find myself making notes in other chapters for how to rewrite them in draft 2. I am learning enough to find that my current draft, draft 1, is already becoming obsolete.

And yet I must finish it. Because going back to start a new draft before you've finished the current one is suicide, I think. Don't rewrite something that isn't written yet.

Patience. That's what I really need. I think that's what I'm really trying to learn.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

let excitment be your guide

"Write what you know" is a well-known and basic tip for writers. And it's a good one. After all, what else are you going to write?

For the fiction-writer, it's not a completely straightforward question. Because fiction is "made-up stuff", you can put as much of it in your work as you want. You "know" the stuff you make up, and then you write it down. There--you've written what you know!

That's a specious self-deception that I myself have bought into plenty during my life, and no doubt still do. To me, "writing what you know" always suggested writing about one's own family life and so on--subjects that never really excited me as a writer. But, driven by the commandment to write what you know, I would ever and again return to my own life and look for ways to fictionalize it. After all, was that not what James Joyce did with his magnificent Portrait of the Artist, and what Malcolm Lowry did with his brilliant Under the Volcano?

Starting at about age 18, I have spent, cumulatively, a great deal of time trying to find a way to mine my own life story for fictional material. All such efforts have so far gone bust. In about 2000, when my mother put me on to a very good book by Tristine Rainer called Your Life as Story, I became excited again by the idea of "lifewriting"--simply turning one's own life episodes into story. Once again, as in the past, I beavered away at finding the "story structure" of my own life. Now I felt I might be better able to accomplish it, since, like Tristine Rainer, I was now a scriptwriter and had studied story structure.

As with so many projects, I generated a lot of pages, but was not happy with where I got to. It gradually dawned on me that I would need a definite theme in order to provide a criterion for selection. What exact story would I be telling? But to know that, you need to have an idea of what your life is about. What is the purpose of my life?

In fact, Ms. Rainer provides strong counsel in how to search for exactly this, and I went through the exercise carefully, and was delighted with the result--for awhile. I came to feel that my life is many stories, has many themes. I thought, "Fine, pick one." I picked one--but it became obvious that it interlocks with all the others. How to disentangle them? How to simplify my life into a coherent story?

Ach--I just went and checked the folder called Lifewriting, and saw that yes, it does indeed contain many documents, some of considerable length. I never was able to solve my structural problems, and eventually gave up in despair.

Now what? You have to do what excites you. Excitement is the psychic energy that drives you forward--is perhaps the "intoxication" that Nietzsche said must precede the creation of any work of art. You need to be excited. I remember visiting the Pacific National Exhibition here in Vancouver with my friend Brad back when we were in school. At age 12, we loved James Bond-type action-adventure, and would talk enthusiastically about turning the various aspects of the busy exhibition-ground into sets for action-movie scenes. For us, a ride on the chairlift-style people-mover that traversed the site was like a movie-location survey. That creative excitement got us involved in story-writing, filmmaking, and animation. I remember staying up all night at his house making animated films with his 8mm movie camera. We were powered by excitement: how will this turn out? What will it look like?

I do seem to be naturally inclined toward the adventure genre (I note that The Odyssey, which I created and wrote with Warren Easton, was an adventure-fantasy show). The adventure genre, with its exploratory, revelatory, and questing elements, speaks to me--gets me excited. It's the genre of questing in uncharted territory, and that somehow connects with my heart.

But you need to know enough. In writing about your alien world, you need to know it, and that means research. You need to know enough about the world of your story to make your characters seem at home in it, and therefore to let your audience feel at home there as well.

Kimmie and I are currently watching the HBO series Rome. I watch with special interest because it is set in my period and place, and so I have researched that world myself--although not in as much depth, for one thing because I'm only a single person, and each department of the series--writing, art, wardrobe, props, hair, makeup--will have done its own research. But the show is striving for authenticity, and so it has authority, and the ability to involve me. (Some things I'm less happy with--such as the Forrest Gump-like appearance of its two commoner heroes at all the critical junctures of the period's history.) I'm very interested and excited by the prospect of creating authentic exotic worlds. The Odyssey was an example.

So, as much as possible, I try now to let spontaneous excitement be my guide--and follow that up with the discipline of research.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

what to write about?

Yesterday I talked about the problem of whether one knows enough about how to write as a possible barrier to progressing with the work: the "technical barrier".

Another barrier is what I suggested might be called the "subject barrier": whether one knows enough about what to write--one's subject. Do I know enough about what I'm trying to talk about?

Even before that is the related problem of what to write about in the first place. What is my subject? This, for me, has been an especially difficult one.

Throughout my life I recall having critical and judgmental thoughts about people who say things like, "I want to be a writer, but I don't know what to write about." I would think. What makes you think you want to be a writer, then? Maybe Wal-Mart greeter is more your speed.

Not coincidentally, that very description fit myself. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know what to write about. I'm still that way. Very gradually, over the course of years, I found the subject-matter for this work, The Mission, and decided to go ahead and start creating it. I knew it would take me years, but felt that was fair enough, since it had taken me years just to arrive at the project, to choose it.

Before this, there have been many other projects: some complete, but many more incomplete. Aside from The Odyssey, which did see the light of day and make it onto the air, I would say that they were all more or less the wrong thing. What do I mean by "wrong"? Ultimately, I think, a mismatch between the subject and my true self, my true being.

How do you tell whether what you're doing is consonant with your true being? I'm not sure. Spontaneous passion is one clue: do you feel a real, emotional charge from the idea? Or is your enthusiasm really coming from some other source, such as the belief that you can have a hit, or that you're going along with some desirable crowd? Fashion is a powerful motivator. When I worked as a clerk at North Shore West Claim Centre in 1996, some of the estimators talked enthusiastically about their new cigar humidors--there was a buzz around cigars and how to appreciate them properly. Cigars were fashionable--they were appearing on the covers of magazines. How many cigars are those guys smoking now? What are they doing with their humidors? Much of fame and fortune is related to fashion, but, speaking for myself, I'm much too slow-moving to be able to respond to fashion effectively, and, more importantly, fashion is too shallow a motivator for anything that could be called art.

Only your intuition can tell you whether you're really on the beam of your true self. Intuition is sure, but quiet--easily drowned out by other inputs unless you tune in to it. It's that knowing voice within--the one that we wish we'd listened to when we later get into trouble by not following it. I'm slowly learning to listen to mine. Very slowly, it sometimes seems.

A person truly in tune with his or her intuition is not seduced by externals: fame, fortune, fashion, peer acceptance. These things provide external reassurances that we're ok, we're doing the right thing.

But for an artist, these things are inauthentic (they're inauthentic for everyone, in my opinion). In the long run, our success in life cannot be measured by how well we conform, certainly not in an individualistic part of the world such as the West. We should conform only as much as is necessary to provide us with the freedom to be ourselves.

All right: so finding the subject of one's work is an intuitive matter. There's no quick way of finding it except by exercising our intuition. Then there is the next phase of knowledge of subject: knowing enough about the subject to write about it.

But that's another topic...

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

technical barriers

Rain has returned at last. It falls heavily in the somber twilight. The dark greenery glints in the amber light from the bright lamp on the east wall of our building--a manufactured star in a dull space.

I study my way forward. By that I mean that my progress, such as it is now, is via study. It is as though there are two urges within me: the urge to create, and the urge to know, and that these compete for processor-time in my brain.

The creative urge presses forward, a variant of the mating instinct, seeking the joy of creation: bringing the new into being, the divine prerogative and act, according to Mircea Eliade. But this runs into two (main) barriers: technique and subject (for want of better terms).

The technical barrier is about matching one's ability to the task at hand. Can I do this? A clearer example would be in music. You might be able to play some piano, but if someone drops the sheet-music for "Claire de Lune" in front of you, do you have the chops to play it? In the case of a musical instrument, the issue of one's adequacy is clear and stark. If you don't read music, for example, that settles the question right away.

In writing it's less clear. We all learn to "write" as part of our elementary education. Our very ability to read fiction seems to point to our ability to write it, since, unlike with music, literacy empowers both reading and writing at the same time.

But of course it's not so. I remember being so inspired as a young man by reading James Joyce that I felt I must be able to write as he did. My ability to experience the power of his language must mean that I had it in me to create such language myself. Only gradually did it become clear that I was nowhere near being able to write as Joyce did--that even if I could acquire Joyce's vocabulary and command of grammar and so on, I would still be only at the base of the mountain of his achievement. Even though I had direct experience of the power of his writing, I really didn't have the first idea of how he achieved his effects. It wasn't just that I didn't have access to his toolkit; I didn't even know what was in his toolkit, or where I might find a kit like it.

It's a little like what Robert McKee says about would-be screenwriters. The apparent simplicity of the final document leads them to severely underestimate the difficulty of creating one. In his words, it's like saying, "I like opera; I think I'll write one." Few opera-lovers would make that mistake, but movie-lovers--and book-lovers--make it all the time.

Writing seduces us into thinking we can do it. (Incidentally, this general delusion of universal proficiency in writing helps to depress the value of writers' work.)

I remember getting an oil-painting set when I was about 12 years old, along with a canvas. Yahoo! I loved all kinds of artistic creation, and was a fairly talented drawer. Now I could create paintings--beautiful, detailed works in color. Fantastic!

I put the canvas on the easel, squeezed some colors onto the palette in the kit, and faced my creative task. I visualized a scene--yes, a scene of trees in the full leaf of summer, with light shining through their leaves. Fantastic! I started mixing green with yellow, a dab of blue...

It soon became clear that I had no idea how to paint. How did those guys get their trees to look realistic? How did they manage to avoid creating messy blobs? How did they get any detail in there? How did they prevent all their colors from merging into excremental brown on their palette?

I abandoned my painting, realizing that I had a lot to learn before I could face a canvas with some sense of knowing what I was doing. Having a painting kit didn't really teach me anything about painting, but I did acquire a new respect for skilled painters. I learned how hard it is to do what they do.

Creative writing is not so different. Apart from the inspirational and creative aspects of the art, it's a skill. What makes it especially difficult and confusing is that there does not even seem to be universal consensus on what constitutes really good technique in writing--no equivalent of the painter's criterion of "likeness". I think this is because writing, unlike the other arts, does not work with the senses directly. Rather, the senses of sight and hearing are used to convey an abstract entity to the imagination of the audience. The real medium of writing is concepts--invisible, tucked away in each person's mind, colored with personal associations. The writer's tubes of paint are concepts, and they do their work in the secret recesses of the soul.

So much for technical barriers. I was going to get on to subject, but perhaps that will be tomorrow. Now the writer needs breakfast.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

permit me to do my best

In this household, on Saturday nights, Paul's 80s Festival rolls on. We've made it up to 1988. Last Saturday we watched, for the third time, Babette's Feast, a Danish gem based on a story by Karen Blixen.

If you haven't seen the movie (or read the story), it takes place in a windswept Danish fishing village of the 19th century. Two beautiful sisters are daughters of the local Protestant minister, and devote themselves wholeheartedly to his program of piety and good works among the tiny congregation. Chance events in the outer world bring two young men to the village, one a dissipated and conflicted soldier, the other a successful Parisian tenor. Each falls in love with a different one of the daughters, and each is eventually, but gently, driven off by the strength of the girls' attachment to their father and his mission.

Seventeen years later, a Frenchwoman, Babette, appears at their doorstep, a refugee from the violence rocking Paris in 1871, sent to their care by the tenor, Achille Papin, whose heart still aches for the Danish girl whose singing voice had enchanted him long ago. Although they are poor, they take Babette in as their servant. One day Babette discovers that she's won a French lottery, and insists on celebrating her mistresses' late father's birthday with a feast.

I'll say no more about the story, which remains a quiet, unpretentious, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. What struck me most about it on this viewing, though, was the scene in which the older and world-weary Achille Papin composes his letter of introduction for Babette. He reflects ruefully on the fleetingness of fame and fortune, and writes (to the best of my memory): "The artist, the world over, has a single cry: 'Let me be permitted to do my very best!'"

Even as I typed those words now, I found that tears came to my eyes. In this one scene, this one line, an experienced artist has expressed the soul of artistic integrity. (This theme lies close to the heart of the story, for it turns out that Babette too is an artist.) This theme of the artist and his integrity touches me deeply. It forms part of the core of some of my very favorite works, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Sunset Boulevard.

Last night, after Kimmie and I watched a couple of episodes of Fawlty Towers on a DVD from the library, I played the interview with John Cleese that comes as a special feature with the show. In the interview a much older John Cleese reminisced about creating the show (it first aired in 1975) with his then-wife Connie Booth. (Basil Fawlty was based on a real hotelier in Torquay, England, who had accommodated Cleese, Booth, and members of the Monty Python troupe.)

According to Cleese, everyone at the BBC who heard the show concept or read the first script thought it was a dud. They variously regarded it as boring, cliched, and unfunny. It presumably got made because of Cleese's track record and recognition value with Monty Python. When the first season of six episodes ran, it got poor reviews.

But after six more episodes, an audience had found the show and loved it. It became a major worldwide success, and is often regarded as a high point of the sitcom format.

Cleese narrated the early difficulties of the show cheerfully and without rancor, but I felt for him. It's painful to be told by supposedly knowledgeable people that your work is no good. At that point you're driven back on yourself, on your faith in the material itself--on the tenacity of your own convictions about what constitutes quality. When they wrote the show, they thought it was funny. The world agreed with them. The only people offside were the "professionals" in charge of allowing the created work to be produced.

The reason I bring it up is because of one quote from Cleese. He said that he had once asked a film distributor what was the toughest kind of show to sell. The distributor replied: "Anything original."

There you have it. Originality, toxic to the salesman, is the life's blood of the true artist. The true artist wants to do his very best, to be permitted to do his very best. His heart will never be happy with mere familiarity and imitation.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

the seeds of today

I'm in one of my work slowdowns. I suppose I'm like one lost in the woods: the advice is to stop and figure out where you are and where you're going, rather than striking out in some direction, hoping it's the right one.

Action does feel better than inaction: it seems like you're achieving something, rather than just sitting there thinking (or worrying). And yet, in order to arrive anywhere, you need to know where you're going. It's better to get that sorted out and proceed calmly.

I continue to learn about the ancient world. The research books I'm currently reading are Isis in the Ancient World by R. E. Witt, and The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan. Kimmie and I have also taken to watching the HBO series Rome, which is set right in my period. Very impressive. (A fun challenge: try to count all the producer credits at the head of each episode. I haven't counted, but I'm going to guess it's about 14.) Each book (or show) takes me on a tour through another piece of the ancient world, and enlarges my "experience" of it. I feel that my task is to get beyond the facts to the feel of that world--the underlying feelings and motives of its people.

I've read that good writing makes the strange seem familiar, and the familiar seem strange (I thought this was Samuel Johnson, but I can't find the source). Well, writing historical fiction presents special problems of strangeness and familiarity. The strangeness is obvious, so the challenge, I think, is to find the familiarity. Other forms of--what shall I call it?--"displaced fiction", such as fantasy and science fiction, present their own challenges with regard to strangeness and familiarity.

In the case of fantasy, it's a purely invented world, which maybe poses special problems in making it seem familiar enough. (My guess is that fantasy characterizations might therefore tend to be somewhat restricted--when the world is too strange, the characters need to be somewhat standard-issue.) With science fiction, it's a matter (often) of extrapolation from the current world: perceiving the seeds of a possible future in our present, and growing these into a jungle of consequences.

Historical fiction presents a different case again. The idea is essentially to present a world that factually was, and thus give the story the authority of factuality. It's "factual", but nonetheless makes imaginative demands of the reader, just as fantasy and science fiction do. Like science fiction, it is linked causally to the present, but instead of growing the seeds of present facts into big consequences, it shows the present as the jungle of consequences which has grown from the seeds of the past. In some sense it answers the question, "how did we get here?"

It's a tall order. Can I answer it even for my own life? How did I get here?

Of course, it might not matter. If you're lost in the woods, then how you got there is less important than how you'll get out. And yet I think it's important to know the history of a situation--including one's own. Knowing the history tells you what causal factors have been at work, and may still be at work. As with the science of ballistics, to know where you've come from is to know where you're going. Or at least, where you will be going unless you make deliberate changes.

So I float over the foggy landscape of the deep past, searching for the seeds of today. I like to think that I'm not actually lost in the woods, I've simply stopped to gather seeds.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

restless and dissatisfied--just like the pros

Gradually I'm becoming acquainted with my updated computer. Except for the box itself, which is a new black tower resting on bricks under the table (on bricks because I'm in the basement, and there have been floods here before...), it's still the same old gear: same massive 19" Dell CRT (works great), same Harmon/Kardon speakers, same Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. Yesterday I did switch to a new optical mouse, but mainly it's the same physical experience sitting here--it's just that the computer behaves differently: it's very noticeably faster, snappier. Now, when I click a command, it executes--immediately! I feel more in charge again, instead of feeling that I'm asking the PC to do me favors all the time, which is how it felt before.

I'm now running Windows XP Home Edition, which means learning a new user interface. I've decided to take this more seriously than I did when I got the old Windows 98 computer. I see I still have the Windows 98 Bible in my nearby bookshelf, and a bookmark about 12% into the text. That's as far as I got with my read-through by the keyboard.

I enjoy this thorough method of learning from the ground up. My gaining of familiarity with a subject tends to be slow, but total. I notice it's different from the way most other people learn. Most people seem to jump into the middle somewhere, and start working their way around from there. With a computer, for instance, I think many people move as quickly as they can to achieving some particular result with it, and build out from that early accomplishment.

This approach gains quick but limited--although always growing--proficiency. Why isn't that my style? I think the reason is that in that approach, you never know for sure how much mastery you've gained. How much more of this subject is there to learn? Do I know 60%? 80%? If you don't survey the field beforehand, you might never know (and probably, of course, never care either!).

Another, more important factor is one's attitude to learning in general. For each of us, this is different according to what topic is under consideration. I recall reading in a Scientific American article about expertise that one important difference between the expert or master and the average practitioner of any subject is the point at which one is satisfied with one's level of knowledge or command. In any skill, we usually reach a point where we're satisfied: we can do what we want to do, and don't push to improve beyond that point.

An example might be cooking: if you're not a gourmet, you may achieve a level of proficiency with a range of dishes that you're content with. You may learn more, but it will be slowly, unsystematically. But if you have a passion for food and its preparation (as, say, Kimmie does), you won't rest content. You'll be on the lookout for new techniques and ideas; you'll tweak already excellent recipes using promising new tips; you'll keep reading up on your subject and keep practicing it often. You may never come to a point where you say to yourself, "okay, that's enough--on to other things".

The greats are never content, but are always obsessed with improvement, even when they're already the best in the world, or near it.

I've plateaued in most of my activities in life--chess, drawing, guitar--but there are two in which I remain restless: writing and what I suppose I could call general knowledge. I'm not satisfied with what I know, or with how I express it. In a sense I'm driven by a feeling of lack in these areas. So I keep practicing: I read, I write. In my own opinion, I don't do enough of either one.

Well then. I'll finish off this bit of writing, so I can go read a bit over breakfast.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

the lion's roar

According to Joseph Campbell, religion begins with art. Before there is any such thing as a church, or a priest, or a prophet, there is the poet: the sensitive soul to whom comes inspiration, a vision, an experience, and the capacity to give it expression.

If the poet's words evoke a similar inspiration in others, then there is the possibility of the spread of a spiritual idea. Depending on how powerful and infectious this original idea is, there is the possibility of institutionalization: the development of a social structure based on the idea. A sect is born, which may possibly, depending on many factors, grow into a religion.

One of the points that Campbell makes in his Masks of God tetralogy is that in our modern age the traditional institutional religions have lost their inspiring force. In the Christian West this loss of inspiration was already happening in the 12th century, just when the cities of Europe were throwing up cathedrals to exalt the God that everyone said they believed in. But the most sensitive souls of the time, the poets, recognized in their own hearts that the forms of Christianity, then more than 1,000 years old, had ceased to inspire educated people. The rites had become a mere routine, and the pulse of genuine life and meaning had to be sought elsewhere.

Where? God was dead. Where was the living water of spiritual value to be found?

This sought-for spiritual life, according to Campbell, became symbolized as the Holy Grail, and the new spiritual story that could excite modern imaginations and rouse modern hearts was the quest. This vision was articulated not by priests, schooled in an already institutionalized faith, and not by prophets, proclaiming the words of a god already known, but by poets, sensitive to their own experience and their own genuine perception of value. They were not professing a creed, not repeating words given them by others; they wrote about what they truly thought and felt. They looked into their own hearts and reported back.

In this way a work of art can turn into a rite: a structured experience that leads one to particular feelings and insights. The architecture and services of a church are intended to have this effect. Originally it certainly does (or the church could not survive), but over time it becomes stale. Endless repetition of the same experience loses its living force, and boredom sets in. It becomes mere duty, habit.

Speaking for myself, I can say that certain works of art--especially novels--have acted as rites for me. The single most powerful instance was reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce when I was 18. I did not understand conceptually what I was going through while reading it, but it was emotionally powerful and undeniable. I experienced the power of language, of poetry, to reconfigure my soul. As with any effective rite, it changed me; I was a changed person, a deeper person, on finishing that book. It initiated me into the sensibility of a poet, and passed to me some of the mental and emotional tools I would need if I were to take up that calling. It showed me how to open to the creative life, how to be an artist.

In Vajrayana Buddhism there is an expression: "The lion's roar is fearless". The lion's roar is the truth. A tyrant can kill 10 million people but cannot scratch the truth. Each of us can die and will, but the truth cannot be killed. Fear of death, though, has us cringing from the truth--hiding, concealing, denying, avoiding. The artist, when he or she is true to his or her vocation, embraces the truth as he or she finds it--and proclaims it, whatever the consequences. That is the lion's roar, sending a shock and a shiver of alertness through all the other creatures within earshot.

This vocation is supremely worth following, wherever it leads. Like any sacred thing, it must be kept pure. It is a desecration to use it for petty motives of social or financial gain. That is the artist's equivalent of simony.

Right. On with it.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

a busy break

I'm back.

Getting new computers proved to be a bit chaotic. The local store, Lynx IT, where I bought the machines (one new desktop, built onsite by the guys; one used Dell desktop for Kimmie's sewing-room; and--a splurge--one "reconditioned" Hewlett-Packard laptop, my first portable computer, and not yet out of its box) tends to have surges of customers that divert their attention. In the midst of all that I walked away with less than my full purchase on Monday--and also brought home my old PC instead of the "new" used one, which looks very similar!

Plugging in the cables that form a rat's nest under my table, I discovered that I could not get online. Was it the used router my dad gave me? The unfamiliar operating system (Windows XP Home)? The extra cables? After half an hour on the phone with John at Shaw, my ISP, he concluded it must be the modem. Yesterday in the hot morning sun I made trips to Lynx IT and Shaw to swap and acquire the right gear and spent the rest of the day trying to make it work.

I was worried about the new cable modem, since John had discovered that the cable signal here is weak, and the new-model modem won't function with a weak signal. If it didn't work, then it would mean a service call from a Shaw technician, which might take a week to happen. But when I got it all plugged in, it worked excellently--and is working still. (The router works great--thanks Dad.)

One nice thing about buying from Lynx IT is that they configured the PCs for me and transferred data from my old box into the new one. They struggled with this awhile on Tuesday, having trouble shifting my masses of e-mails in Mozilla Thunderbird, the e-mail client I use. While I waited I zipped to the bookstore to buy a copy of Microsoft Windows XP, Inside Out, a massive (and expensive) text, but apparently thorough, and aimed at experienced computer-users. Following my customary practice, which is to learn everything from the ground up, I've started reading it systematically here beside the computer.

I've set up Kimmie's computer--it looks very smart (I gave her the new flatscreen monitor; I'll continue to use my massive but perfectly functional 19-inch CRT) on the new white Mikael computer table we got from Ikea on Monday (only $59)--but am having trouble getting her online. And, as I say, the new laptop still rests in its box.

What hit home over the two days I was offline was how much my life has become centered around the computer, particularly around being online. Without the Web or e-mail I felt cut off; I felt my solitude. Much of my day is built around computer activities.

The new computer is much perkier, much quicker; I notice a big improvement in performance. So mission accomplished as far as that goes. As for the rest of it, getting a household network set up, integrating a high-end laptop into my lifestyle--time will tell.

Even though I've been so busy, dashing around, feeling a certain edge of stress, I have also felt delinquent in having set aside my writing. This blog-post is my reentry into my proper function.

I want to believe I have time to do everything I want to in life, but it's not something I can take for granted. People die, often unexpectedly and early. I'm haunted by a phrase I read in the short story "The Wall" by Jean-Paul Sartre when I was 18. The narrator had been captured by enemies (I think in the Spanish Civil War) and was to be shot at dawn. He realized that he and his comrades, all suddenly on the brink of death, had been "writing checks against eternity".

Ultimately there is only one asset: time. We're all born with a stock of it, but we can't be sure how much. We know only that it's finite, and continuously being spent.

Time to pick up my burden again and keep lugging it.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

summer delights--at last

Summer has belatedly arrived, with clear skies and sun bearing down. I seem to recall the first few weeks of school being that way. I never minded particularly, since I enjoy good weather from indoors as well as out, and I've always been at rather a loose end in the fine weather anyway. Even as a young child I looked off our back deck on sunny summer days over the dusty quiet of the neighborhood. Friends were on vacation, the park was vacant. There seemed to be endless possibilities, and yet--what to do? I recall a feeling of nervous anticipation, as though something were expected of me.

That feeling stuck with me on into young adulthood. The main summer feeling, for me, has been one of solitude. In my mid-20s, on days off work, I would launch myself from my basement suite or apartment on long walks through the city. I recognized the splendor and beauty of the swishing trees and the hazy greenish water of the beaches, but felt apart from all the summer barbecuing, sunbathing, and restaurant-going of the people around me. I felt alienated. It seemed that others knew how to enjoy summer fully, but I didn't. There was some kind of cosmic fun and relaxation that I was missing out on.

I no longer feel that way. For not only do I now have companionship in my life, but I do not envy others' seeming enjoyment of their leisure. I have come to realize that what most people find fun and enjoyable I simply do not. Beach parties, house parties, nightclubs, staying up late and getting drunk--no thanks. To me, all those things are more or less desperate attempts to have fun, or attempts to convince oneself that one is having a good time. I suspect that deep in many people's hearts is the nagging doubt that I've felt: that they are somehow missing out, that others are, somehow, enjoying life more.

Now I know what fun is for me. I ask for no higher, indeed for no other, form of entertainment than a good informative book, a fresh highlighter, and a quiet afternoon in my own house. If sunshine comes in to brighten the room, as it did yesterday as I read, then so much the better.

On Friday I bought new computers (yes, plural) at a store nearby where they build them from scratch and customize them, as well as selling used and "reconditioned" ones. Today I take in this old Dell box to have most of its contents transferred to the new PC. I will get online again as soon as I can.

Enjoy the remainder of summer.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

not afraid

In yesterday's post I talked about Who Are We?, a nonfiction book project that I work on as a kind of hobby apart from the fictional opus that is the (supposed) subject of this blog.

But I have other projects on the go as well. They might not actually be developed enough to be termed projects, but I have them on the go in any case. Within the folder labeled Writing on my PC, for example, one of the subfolders is labeled Thinking. In this folder I have set up a number of Word documents, each devoted to a topic area--things that I like to think about, at least sometimes. One of these is Identity, of course, but there are others, things like Evil, History, Purpose, and Story.

What do I think about these things? What do I believe?

Here I record my thoughts, mainly sparked by material that I read. In a sense these files are my way of entering into dialogue with the authors I read.

Where are all these files going? I don't know. They represent what William James called "thought in movement"--the thinking process of the mind seeking the stillness of "thought at rest", the condition of knowledge or belief that can serve as the basis of action. (I've talked about this in previous posts, such as this one.)

I think one function of religion is to put an end to such questing. Rather than being suspended in uncertainty, unknowing and therefore unable to take action, we click into a belief system that seems to work for us. A revealed, worked-out religion provides a backstop of belief: answers to the basic, most searching questions.

If it's a religion that we are not raised in, then it can't be just anything, of course: a chosen religion has to suit our outlook, has to be "believable". In my late teens and 20s I searched hard for this believable faith, and eventually found it in Buddhism--more particularly in the Vajrayana Buddhism that I discovered (or was led to) in my quest.

I would not say that I've left that faith altogether behind. But my relationship with it has changed. There are a number of reasons for this, or factors in my decision to distance myself from the practice of those teachings. An important one, as I've expressed before, is the realization that I felt I could not be fully free as an artist so long as I held a received faith as my truth--my final "belief". I can hear my Buddhist companions expressing dismay that I could make such an elementary mistake: to regard Buddhism as a "faith". As one Western teacher of Buddhism put it: "I became a Buddhist because here no one ever asked me to believe anything."

That's true--but only up to a point. It's certainly true that our training was never to accept anything merely on someone's say-so, not even that of our teacher or the Buddha, but to test the words against our own experience. In this way, Buddhist practitioners become realized people--people whose knowledge of the teachings may be slight, but is nonetheless genuine and practical. They are not mere parrots or Bible-thumpers. (I had a couple of these appear at my door yesterday--two attractive young women asking me whether I read the Bible. Yup, read it.)

But there are aspects of Buddhism that must be taken on faith. One is the doctrine of karma and rebirth: that we continually experience the results of actions we've made in the past, including an infinite series of previous lives. (Interestingly, while many Westerners struggle with both karma and rebirth, I have no problem with either and believe in them both.) Another, of course, is that there is indeed such a thing as supreme, perfect, complete, great enlightenment and that the Buddha attained it. This is made easier by being in the presence of an authentic teacher or guru, such as Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche (whom I never did meet or see in person), who is a living example of such enlightenment.

Furthermore, over the centuries and millennia Buddhism has accumulated a great deal of elaborate doctrine and what amounts to a theology of enlightenment, Buddha-realms, bodhisattvas, and so on. It's said that very advanced practitioners experience these things directly--but I wouldn't know.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing these teachings, which in my own experience I can say are profound, powerful, and extremely effective. They have survived for a reason, and have caught hold in the Western imagination for a reason. But as an artist, I saw, only very gradually, a need to go my separate way. Even in a great world faith, I found I was in it, but not truly of it.

I may have made a very big mistake.

So be it. As an artist I find my credo not in any sacred text, but in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in the words of his hero Stephen Dedalus speaking to his friend Cranly:

You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

who are we?

As established in yesterday's post, I never have only one project on the go. What else, then, have I got going besides a massive novel (and intended sequels thereto)?

One project, I suppose potentially a nonfiction book, is a more or less directed inquiry into my own beliefs. What do I believe? What do I think is true?

I remember reading, years ago, I think in an astrological text by Zipporah Dobyns, that it is a good idea to discover what one's beliefs are, to bring them from the darkness of unconsciousness into conscious awareness. Twenty years later I'm still working on it.

Who knew that this task would be so difficult? It is much complicated by the fact that, as the painter Robert Henri put it,

Most folks don't think what they think they think.

He's pointing to our capacity for self-deception. For while we tend to deceive others more or less all the time, or at least conceal our true thoughts from them, the issue of self-deception is less obvious, and indeed impossible to discover without outside help. It doesn't have to be professional help: other people are well able to act as mirrors for our self-deceptions. Others can see clearly where we're kidding ourselves, as we can see where they're kidding themselves.

The specific project I'm now working on is centered around the question of identity, and my working title for it is Who Are We? Who are we? I find this question provocative, mysterious, koan-like.

And indeed in a sense it's a very Buddhist question. Buddhist analysis shows that the root of all our suffering in life is one thing: what we call our ego, or the thing denoted by the word I. Then it instructs us to isolate this I to discover what exactly it is.

The Buddha's answer is that if you look long and hard enough, you will discover that there is no I. What we call I is a shifting collection of thoughts that exist first of all for convenience, and then become a matter of intense emotional attachment. When we look very closely, we find that everything we think I is, it isn't--and that it isn't anything other than these things either. It's a movie projected on mist.

Very well. I'm prepared to accept that the ego, the I, has no ultimate existence. It's not for me to contradict a wisdom tradition of 2,500 years' standing, or the teachings of a practice that has brought me so much personal benefit. But how about on the relative level? My keyboard and coffee-mug don't have any ultimate existence either, besides being a temporary agglomeration of atoms in a particular configuration. Nonetheless, for practical purposes, in those configurations they have existence and usefulness. As my teacher Sangpo at shedra, the monastic college at Gampo Abbey, taught us, relative truth is not so much in dispute, because it's all a matter of convention and convenience anyway. These are the things that are true essentially by agreement, rather than in the nature of things. If we argue over whether a certain thing is or is not a coffee-mug, for instance, it's really just an argument over a definition--not over the essence of anything.

All right. But in purely conventional terms, can I define what I am? Can I discover how I, and how we all, use what we all call I as the basis for our actions? What do I think I mean when I use it?

In writing my story for The Mission, I came to see the issue of identity, especially as it manifests in what we now call identity politics, as a key thematic strand. Why do "my people" hate "your people"? What's going on there? Why do we care about the fortunes of our local hockey team, even when its members hail from Sweden and Finland rather than anywhere nearby? Why do thousands get depressed if the team loses against "them"? Isn't that peculiar?

These questions are just a few bite-sized samplers of what got me involved in a parallel nonfiction project--a work of philosophy, really.

I have other projects too--but more of that perhaps another time.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

restless attention

I never have only one project on the go. I'm not like, say, Kimmie, who can keep at a single activity almost indefinitely. Up in her sewing-room, her "mad scientist's lab" as we call it, putting together patterns, fabrics, and trim for Barbie clothes (or as she now calls them, "11.5 FD clothes"--meaning 11.5-inch fashion dolls, the technical term), Kimmie can go all day, pausing only reluctantly for meal-breaks. (It helps that I provide room service for hot drinks and, later, wine.)

Not me. I tire of things. The activity of which I'm capable of the most sustained effort is reading, and the utmost I can manage there is about three hours. I can rarely read from a single book for longer than an hour, no matter how interesting I find it. It palls on me; my mind wanders and I feel overfed. I need a change.

For a long time I saw this trait as a sign of native dilettantism. If you can't focus on any one thing for any length of time, how can you achieve anything meaningful?

When I attended the Vajradhatu Buddhist Seminary in the Colorado Rockies in 1994, my meditation instructor was Ruth Astor, an elderly woman (who has since died) of, I believe, the famous American Astor family, which became prominent through the fur trade and New York real estate. A former filmmaker and veteran of the three-year meditation retreat, the pinnacle program for Vajrayana students, she was one of the instructors of the seminary, and developed a special fondness for me over the course of the 11-week program. One day I expressed to her my worries about this shifting attention of mine, how I couldn't stick with any one project. Her answer was immediate: "You need to organize your space so you can grab whatever you want to work on at that moment."

She didn't see my restless attention as any kind of problem in itself; she saw the issue only as one of setting up my office space. (She also predicted that I would be famous.)

I have tried to keep her advice in mind. The advent of the PC has made things a lot easier. Now I have folders for my various projects and ideas, and I can shift between them at will with a few keystrokes.

But still I worry. For as new ideas arise, new projects crop up, the old ones get muscled aside. They become the runts of the litter that can't make their way to a teat, and they shrivel and starve. I'm the sow lying on her side, unconcerned with the accumulating corpses of my farrow, because I'm always interested in the latest, and there's always plenty more where they came from.

In short, I write the way I read: with more or less intense concentration applied in short bursts. And as you can tell from the growing reading-list in the sidebar of this blog, I always have several books on the go, and many of these lapse unfinished. My interest and attention move on, and I need new inputs; the old ones die away, perhaps to be picked up another day.

Rarely do I commit to finishing the reading of a book. I can't stand the slog of continuing to read material that I have lost interest in, that I am continuing to read only because of an artificial decision to reach the end. I like to trust the wayward horse of my interest to find its own way. Because, even as it continually changes direction, it's always going somewhere. And I'd rather be animated by the passion of the present moment than by a promise made in the past.

But while this noncommittal, devil-may-care approach seems harmless in reading, I feel more anxious about applying it to writing--my creative output. Nonetheless, I have to acknowledge the pattern is there. Just as in my reading-list, so in my writing-list: there are a lot of unfinished works lying dead at the roadside. I have to take solace from the fact that, as in my reading-list, so in my writing-list, there are also finished works. I do finish reading some books, and I can even say that I also, sometimes, finish writing them.

At this stage, that's just going to have to do.

An interesting side-note: Three-year-retreats are conducted not in complete solitude, but in small groups. (The actual length of the retreat is three years, three months, and three days.) One of Ruth Astor's fellow retreatants was Migme, an ordained nun and one of the senior residents at Gampo Abbey, who had spent her working career as a paleobotanist. When I was a temporarily ordained monk at the Abbey in 2002, Migme, well into her 70s, was my meditation instructor. I remember how she teared up in recollection when I mentioned that Ruth Astor had been my MI at Seminary. As with Ruth, I felt that I had a special connection with Migme. It feels very significant to me, as well as profoundly fortunate, that I have had a deep and beneficial spiritual connection with these two women.

May I live up to the teachings I have received from them!

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Paul's 80s Festival rolls on. Since summer 2006 we've been watching one movie from the 1980s each Saturday. This week, due to rare social engagements, we pushed movie night back two days and last night watched the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. It was the third, maybe the fourth time we'd seen it, and, as always with the very best movies, Kimmie and I enjoyed it more this time than on any previous viewing.

The movie, excellent in every detail, stands the test of time admirably. As ever, I played close attention to the script, written by Bronx-born John Patrick Shanley. Here and there as I watched and laughed, I had that experience which I seldom feel while watching a movie: that the writing was at a higher level than what I could achieve myself--at least in that genre. I experienced the anxiety of the artist looking on superior work.

Shanley delivered the whole package: idea, story, characterization, and dialogue. The director, Canada's Norman Jewison, realized the script supremely well, showing his prowess through skillful use of the two main image systems: the moon and opera. The full moon hanging over Manhattan casts its spell over all the characters and knits together their stories. The main plot, about Loretta, a 37-year-old Italian widow played by Cher, becoming engaged to her boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello), whom she likes but does not love, is itself operatic. For Johnny, scurrying away to attend to his dying mother in Palermo, charges Loretta with the task of inviting Johnny's brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to their wedding, hoping thereby to end a years-long period of "bad blood" between the brothers. It turns out that Ronny, a baker, lost his left hand in a slicing machine when distracted by Johnny, and Ronny consequently also lost his then-girlfriend. Now, bitter and lonely, he shovels fuel into the hellish oven with his wooden hand, and carries an immense grudge.

Where another writer might have found dark drama--or an opera libretto--Shanley saw comedy. I'm reminded of something I said to Michael Conway Baker, who composed the soundtrack music for a little half-hour TV comedy that Warren and I wrote back in 1988 called "What's Wrong with Neil?", the writing of which Baker took the trouble to compliment me on at the wrap party: "A good comedy must first of all be a good drama." Baker agreed emphatically.

Moonstruck is a good drama. Hence, it's a good comedy. Loretta, shocked by the vehemence of Ronny's resentment of his brother and of his life, starts arguing with him and soon they're entwined passionately in his room above the bakery. Shanley places dazzling, even profound, insights into the mouths of his chippy blue-collar characters. Loretta, sharing some steak and whisky with Ronny in his room, observes that he, like a trapped wolf, had chewed off his own paw to escape the trap of a love that was not really for him. Many writers might have saved such gold for a big revealing moment near the climax of the movie; Shanley tosses it away while traveling through the story toward other things, a mark of great confidence and quality. He doesn't have to hoard his gold, he's got lots more. As a result, his characters quickly show great dignity and depth, even as they are peculiar and flawed people. Loretta here is revealed not only as sassy, unflappable and down-to-earth, but also insightful, concerned, and poetic.

It's very difficult to achieve writing of this quality. Indeed, I doubt that I can--a hard admission for me. Don't worry: I know I'm good. My excellence will just have to shine in other arenas.

The good news is that I get to enjoy the product of others' work, and my own background in writing lets me enjoy it at a deep level.

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