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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 27, 2007

species of writers

I thought I would check in with a quick post, to let you know that all is well. Kimmie has this week off from work, and so the routine is different. Snow fell in the night sometime, so now there is a powdery cold blanket of white outside. Traffic, much less than usual, is muted. In fact, right now I can hear none. Love it!

Christmas passed very pleasantly here, and Santa was most generous. Among other things, I received a pair of waterproof Helly Hansen walking-boots made in Vietnam. Maybe I'll break them in today. I have a stack of DVDs that I must return to the library. Shall I take a walk up to Lynn Valley?

As for writing, my god, what can I tell you. Among the stocking-stuffers I received was the Holiday Issue of The New York Review of Books. I rarely read book reviews (except readers' reviews on Amazon.com when I'm considering buying a book). This is partly because my reading program is governed by my research and interests, and therefore not by what people are touting as a good book. It is partly too because I like to find my own reading experiences, and not simply consume products that have been vetted and assessed by others; I like to form my own opinions.

Then there are the specific qualities of "reviewer culture" that I don' t like. There's something depressing and undignified in the attack/counterattack of book reviews. Criticisms are rebutted by authors, then reviewers might get a chance to counter-rebut. These exchanges are often tinged with bitterness, which, while understandable, is not edifying.

I'm not very attuned to literary culture in general, although I read quite a lot and love books. Too often I find reviewers and critics gushing over works that seem very uninteresting to me. I get the feeling that the whole system is governed much more by fashion than anyone realizes or acknowledges.

On top of all that are feelings of intimidation. This issue has an essay on Joyce Carol Oates (including a lovely black-and-white photo of her from 1975: a delicate-looking creature with enormous dark eyes). Oates is a serious, high-quality writer. I've read one or two of her short stories, and thought they were very good. But what she really is, is prolific. She's published dozens of novels, short-story collections, essays, and plays. She seems to spend much of each day writing--many daytime hours and a few nighttime ones.

Egad. If a writer is someone who writes (and I think you can make a good case for that definition), then Joyce Carol Oates is a writer. The real deal. I note that she's a Gemini (born 16 June 1938), the sign of writing and thinking and talking.

It makes me wonder: why aren't I churning out books and stories and scripts by the dozen? What's wrong with me? Why does my "work" in progress consist mostly of hundreds, nay, thousands of pages of notes? I write to myself, for god's sake! What am I doing?

Clearly, I'm some different kind of animal. A slow-spawning one.

Writers' methods must differ not only because our temperaments are different, but because our aims are different. What kind of experience are you looking for from a book? I remember reading a rueful comment by John Fowles, who was always embarrassed that his most popular book was The Magus, his second novel, published in 1965. He said (as I recall) that in it he had tried to create an experience "beyond the literary"--and meant this as a criticism.

I thought I knew what he meant--sort of. I remember my excitement and enjoyment when I first read The Magus, probably about 1977 or so. It was a fast-moving, thrilleresque story, but written with a mystical aim. It seemed to be an example of the "spiritual adventure-story" that I myself became interested in writing. (Last time I tried reading The Magus, about 10 years ago, I couldn't get into it.) But was it a bad thing to want to create an experience "beyond the literary"? And what is a "literary" experience, anyway?

Maybe I'm not sure what kind of experience I'm aiming to create. But whatever it is, it's not something I can come up with quickly. I'm seeing a book like a tree, or a tooth: something with roots. The roots are its hidden connection with reality. A work of fiction is a fantasy, but its power, its effect, comes from its connection with reality. I say this knowing how slippery and unsure a word reality is. But let it stand. Reality is that which we care about. A work of art affects us to the extent that it arises from or has implications for that which we care about.

My reality-detector is a fussy, finnicky gadget. As I work through my great epic, I think, "not real enough..." and am sent off on another errand, in search of more reality, like finding potting soil with which to surround the deep, vast root-system of the oak I'm planting.

I guess it's like the sloth watching the cheetah (assuming they could find a continent to share). The cheetah is dynamic, fast-moving. The sloth, for whatever reason, conserves its energy. (The sloth was named after the sin, by the way--not the other way round.) Its habits are so sedentary that lichen grows in its fur, tinging it green as though it were a rock or a stump. But sloths have their place.

At least, I hope we do.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

if it feels good...

My musings yesterday about Abraham Maslow's psychological ideas were prompted by thoughts about motivation, or more generally: why do we do what we do?

As long as you don't look at it too closely, the question seems simple. I'm hungry, so I go into the kitchen to pull a slice of cold pizza out of the fridge and eat it. And yes that is simple: an instance of keeping one of the most basic survival needs satisfied. Without food, you can't pursue your other goals for very long. Before long, more and more of your attention and effort will be applied to the problem of getting fed, until that becomes the first, last, and only thing on your mind, and all of your ingenuity and effort are bent on it.

As we satisfy those more basic needs and move up Maslow's hierarchy, our behavior becomes more subtle and indirect. The higher needs involve other people, first singly, then as groups. The needs for belonging and esteem are social needs that can only be satisfied by numbers of people around us, each of whom is an individual and must be treated in an individualized way. You can't just go to people and say, "respect me" or "esteem me", and expect them to comply. On the contrary, you'll lower yourself in their esteem by doing so. Respect and esteem are gained only by reading the norms of one's society accurately, and consistently directing one's behavior to meet or exceed those norms.

At least, that's my first stab at suggesting how to gain respect and esteem--the need for which, according to Maslow, is innate for us all.

But, as I mentioned yesterday, Maslow was interested most of all in the needs that exist in us beyond those innate "deficiency" needs (D-needs): the holes in us that we try to fill up in order to feel healthy. When they're all (more or less) full, we're free to pursue our "being" needs (B-needs), which are unique to each of us. Just as our face and our fingerprint are unique, our purpose on Earth and our path to maximum fulfillment and self-expression are unique. I cannot follow your path and find fulfillment for myself; you cannot follow mine. We might travel together for a way, but at some point we must part company and go our own way.

And how do we know which is our own way? According to Maslow, our path is essentially the path of enjoyment. What we truly enjoy is our path forward to unique personal fulfillment.

Isn't this just the old 1960s ethos of, "if it feels good, do it"?

Well, yes, it is. But won't that just lead to a society of blissed-out drug addicts? Everyone getting their rocks off every which way? No, it won't.

Why not? Because (by the way, this is me talking, not Maslow--at least, as far as I know, being only 40% of the way through this first book!) being a drug addict is not really enjoyable. It might feel good to get high, but if one gets out of control with it, consequences ensue that feel very un-good. I remember the addiction expert Vern Johnson's description of the difference between the proto-addict and the non-addict. When the non-addict wakes up with his hangover, and is confronted with the fact that while drunk he embarrassed people by, say, hitting clumsily on the hostess, he feels remorse and resolves never to let that happen again. The proto-addict, on the contrary, rationalizes his behavior, or simply doesn't believe that he did anything wrong. In short, he resorts to the defense mechanism of denial--laying the groundwork for hanging on to his addiction.

The addict is stuck, with an ever-thickening wall of denial between himself and the misery of his existence. He has become estranged from himself, and clutches at short-term physical gratification as a compensation for having lost the path to his own actual enjoyment of life.

The kind of enjoyment that Maslow really means is the enjoyment of the "peak experience"--an event that particularly interested him. He conducted surveys, asking people questions about their experience at the most wonderful moments of their lives--times when they had felt most happy, joyous, and fulfilled. Everyone (or almost everyone) has such experiences in their lives, but people on the path of self-actualization--those attending to their B-needs--have them more often, and also regularly exhibit many of the mental traits that the rest of us take on only during those peak experiences.

I want to tune in to the wavelength of my own enjoyment of life. As I go about my day, I check my response to what I'm doing: how do I feel about it? Really, honestly? When I do certain things, I think, Yes, this is what I want to be doing; this is what I enjoy.

Writing is one of those. Even with the difficult struggle of a large, uncertain creative project, I still feel that it's what I want to be doing. If I were doing something else, no matter how "exciting" or rewarding in other ways (such as, say, financially), I would feel that was playing hooky. Something would nag at me, urging me to get back to what I want to be doing.

I feel the same way about reading. When I sit there with my highlighter, reading, I feel that I'm doing the right thing--right for me. I feel natural, at home, and I enjoy myself. For me, that's exciting.

In reading I also feel a big difference between different books. When I feel a book is not really taking me where I want to go--is not part of my path--I get a feeling of distaste and revulsion. Reading starts feeling like forced labor. Now, when I start feeling that, I put the book aside. That's why I leave so many books unfinished.

So that's today's hot tip: If it feels good, do it.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the psychology of health

I continue to read Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow. I find it fascinating, provocative.

One of his points is that he believes that Western psychology has missed a huge dimension of human nature in focusing on "motivated" behavior. He says that psychology takes it for granted that all behavior is motivated, in the sense of being done in order to attain some aim--to fulfill some need. But Maslow disagrees.

He says that motivated behavior (in this sense) occurs only to fulfill what he calls deficiency needs (or "D-needs"). This behavior is driven by a sense of lack: we lack physiological necessities, or safety, or love, or esteem, and do things to achieve these ends. But when all these needs are met (and for many of us, they seldom are), we don't stop doing things. We don't just like back on a couch waiting for another D-need to surface. Rather, at that point, we shift into the spontaneous expression of our nature. We follow our interests and curiosity, and our experience becomes deeper, more aesthetic, and less instrumental, less "means-to-an-end".

These self-expressive behaviors arise from what Maslow called our Being needs (or "B-needs"). When we're not driven by lack, our life becomes joyful and more fully human. We tend to do things for their own sake, and relate with others in a more total way--appreciating the individuality and totality of other people, rather than trying to use them as means to secure our own needs.

This is what Maslow means by a "psychology of Being": a psychology that looks at and comprehends this vast field of normal, healthy, fulfilled functioning. It's natural that psychology has focused on psychopathology: how to recognize and treat mental illness. But this focus has subtly enshrined the notion of "normal" (that is, not ill) as a mere lack of symptoms. And, to be sure, when you're ill, a lack of symptoms sounds great: you'll take it.

But the psychology of health is a field in its own right. And this was the field that interested Maslow, at least toward the end of his career (he died in 1970). What are the features of mental health? What are its aspects and behaviors?

As I read, I find many things that remind me of what I've learned from Buddhism and Shambhala Training. For example, when Maslow talks about how the experience of a person living according to his or her B-needs becomes more aesthetic--they appreciate experiences for their own sake--I remember reading in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa that the "warrior" (that is, one practicing the path of spiritual fearlessness) experiences the world as an artist does: in his sensitivity to his world, he finds the sound of raindrops hitting his coat to be almost unbearably loud.

When we're engaged with our B-needs, we hear the raindrops hitting our coat. When we're engaged with our D-needs, we're too busy worrying about making it to the presentation on time and making a good impression on the client. The rain is a threatening nuisance, wrecking our hair and damaging our chances of "success". We do hear the raindrops, for they trigger our worries and preoccupation with what we lack. But we don't tune in to them as an aesthetic experience. Instead, they're mere signals or alarm-bells alerting us to problems in our quest to fulfill our needs.

All of this is good news. First, Maslow is saying (and for that matter so is Chogyam Trungpa) that the "normal", fully human estate is one of joy and presence to life. And second, that you don't have to be completely fulfilled deficiency-wise in order to experience your Being nature.

I know this. For I myself have neurotic traits and behaviors, no doubt brought on by problems in dealing with my D-needs. And yet, nonetheless, I feel I have enjoyed a great deal of Being in life: in important ways I have done what I wanted, and enjoyed the ride.

But I'm eager to learn more about the psychology of health. Among other things, I suspect that this will be one direction in which East and West can fruitfully merge their outlooks.

It's raining out there. I must remember to listen to those raindrops hitting my coat.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

a writer and his vocabulary

By the time I was 10 years old, I was known among my friends and classmates for having a large vocabulary and knowing "big words".

I was proud of that, or maybe I just took it for granted. But by the time I finished high school, while I knew that my English vocabulary was larger than most people's, I was conscious that the language has far more words in it than (probably) anyone can learn. Also, since I wanted to be a writer, I needed a vocabulary, and it should be bigger than that of the average person, in the same way and for the same reason that an artist's pencil collection is bigger and more diverse than that of the average person, who uses pencils only to jot phone messages.

And, in my reading, whenever I came across a word I did not know, I recognized that the writer, in knowing and using that word, had an expressive option or tool that I lacked. I came to think, "I could not have written this--I don't even have the vocabulary to have written this." Never mind talent and training, do you have the tools? It's like looking at a painting and realizing, "I could not have painted that, simply, in the first place, because I don't have those pigments!"

Want to write like Lawrence Durrell? You've got some studying to do, pal. Want to write like Thomas Pynchon? Get thee to a dictionary.

By the time I got into my mid-20s I stopped letting words go by me. I started making my own bookmarks by cutting sheets of white 8.5"x11" typing-paper into 8.5" strips. One sheet of paper would make about six bookmarks. Then, while reading, when I encountered a word I didn't know, I would stop, open the dictionary, and write out the word and its definition on my bookmark. Each bookmark became a two-sided column of words and definitions. When both sides of a bookmark became full, I would then review the words, sometimes testing myself but more often simply reading over the list and the definitions, and then discard the bookmark.

As time went on I became more rigorous. Instead of looking up only words that I hadn't seen before, I started looking up words that were not in my "active vocabulary"--words that I could not use confidently and correctly at will. What does the word fletch mean? It's kinda familiar--something to do with arrows. Yes it is: it means to feather an arrow. When you put feathers on your arrow, you're fletching it.

I've been using that system ever since. I store a sheaf of cut bookmarks at one end of a bookshelf in the living-room. The first 20 or so are all partly used. When I stop reading a book (I was going to say finish a book--but often I don't!), I slip its bookmark at the front of the sheaf. When I start (or resume) another book, it will be the first bookmark I pull out. So it's a LIFO system ("last in, first out").

The stack of books I've got on the go at any one time keeps my bookmark sheaf fairly well mixed. Each bookmark has words on it from several different books, often read at widely different times and from different fields. Usually, when I look at the words on a bookmark, I remember what book I learned them from. I get a feel for the vocabulary of the writer.

For example, a couple of days ago I finished a bookmark. I've got it right here. The first word on it is band shell. (Know it? I was pretty sure I knew what it meant, but I was just assuming--and for me, that's not good enough, so to the dictionary I went: "bandstand having at the rear a sounding board shaped like a huge concave seashell".) I remember looking that up while reading Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs.

But the next word on the bookmark, carrefour, I remember from William James, specifically his Principles of Psychology. (Know it? "1: crossroads; 2: square, plaza".) The next seven words on the bookmark are all also from Principles of Psychology (inspissate, intussusception, holystone, sapid, sthenic, pyknic, whilom). But the next word is backwater, and with this I know that I've arrived at a new source--Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Scott chewed up the rest of that side of the bookmark, and the whole back side: 29 words in all before I had to fish out a new bookmark (and I'm still not finished Ivanhoe).

It's the archaic language, of course. What are the chances that I myself will ever want to use words like malapert ("impudently bold: saucy"), hilding ("base contemptible person"), or pouncet-box ("box for carrying pomander")? I don't know. I like having the choice.

Last night Scott finished off a second bookmark--although this one had room on it for only two more words when I pulled it from the sheaf (and what were they? quean, "a disreputable woman, specifically, a prostitute"; and bar, in the sense of "railing in a courtroom that encloses the place about the judge where prisoners are stationed or where the business of the court is transacted in a civil trial"). This bookmark began with the word by-blow ("an illegitimate child"). Most of the words on the first side are from the same book, but now, darn it, I can't quite remember what that was. Whatever it was, it was quite a long time ago, and featured medieval or archaic vocabulary (ewer, shotten, collop, etc.). Darn. What the heck was it?

Anyway. Two bookmarks are ready for the recycling bag. I'll review them, and let them go.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Paul's 80s Festival

On Saturday night Kimmie and I watched Driving Miss Daisy, written by Alfred Uhry based on his stageplay and directed by Bruce Beresford. This was the last movie in Paul's 80s Festival: a weekly viewing of the best movies (in my opinion) from the 1980s. (Hmm, maybe I'll put this movie in Paul's 90s Festival, since it was actually released mainly in 1990, being given only a "limited" release in December 1989, no doubt to enable it to qualify for the 1990 Academy Awards...)

The festival has lasted longer than I expected. I see from my Palm journal that it launched on Saturday 8 July 2006, when Kimmie and I watched the 1980 Canadian movie Atlantic City, written by John Guare and directed by Louis Malle (this movie was not as good as I'd remembered, and I dropped it from the Festival list).

Most Saturdays since then we have watched an 80s movie. Some movies turned out, on re-viewing, to be duds, and I weeded them out altogether. Others were good, but not in the top class, and I put them on my private "B-list". In a few cases I could not lay my hands on a copy of a movie either at a library or at any video-rental outlet on the North Shore (Videomatica has copies of everything of course--but it's over in Kitsilano and offers only a three-day rental period and highish rental rates). But these movies I believe will turn out to be, at best, B-listers. I think I've developed my 80s Festival into pretty much its final form.

Interested? Here they are, then. The movies of Paul's 80s Festival, my "keeper" movies, in order of North American release date:

  • Coal Miner's Daughter

  • The Gods Must Be Crazy

  • An Officer and a Gentleman

  • 48 HRS

  • Gandhi

  • The Verdict

  • Tootsie

  • Tender Mercies

  • Fanny and Alexander

  • Risky Business

  • The Big Chill

  • Terms of Endearment

  • Splash

  • The Karate Kid

  • Amadeus

  • The Terminator

  • Beverly Hills Cop

  • Witness

  • The Sure Thing

  • Cocoon

  • Out of Africa

  • Hannah and Her Sisters

  • A Room with a View

  • Stand by Me

  • Fatal Attraction

  • Baby Boom

  • Hope and Glory

  • Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

  • Wall Street

  • Broadcast News

  • Moonstruck

  • Babette's Feast

  • Big

  • A Fish Called Wanda

  • Die Hard

  • Rain Man

  • Working Girl

  • Dead Poets Society

  • When Harry Met Sally

  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape

  • Driving Miss Daisy

There you have it. It's a nice, well-rounded collection. The element they have in common? Each one is a good story, well told. That's how you make it into Paul's 80s Festival.

Next up: can you guess? You got it: Paul's 90s Festival.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

up on blocks

Kimmie took yesterday off to ice gingerbread cookies. A welcome respite from the morning alarm, and a bit of a change of pace. The blog-post got squeezed out.

I continue to work on my story. By that I mean, work on the story itself--the succession of "what happens".

This is anxiety-inducing. Why? Because while I tinker, fiddle, and imagine with a bunch of conversational notes to myself, and shift around entries in a list of bullet-points, the book itself, the prose, sits idle, like a car up on blocks. In this case the whole drivetrain has been pulled, and the mechanics going over it seem to be taking their time.

Some part of me is no different from the old-time Hollywood mogul Jack Warner, reputed to have walked past the writers' offices on the studio lot to make sure he heard the clack of typewriters. Lacking any idea of how scripts are actually written, he was merely expressing his ignorance, powerlessness, and superstition. I know a lot more about creative writing than Jack Warner did, but even I recognize that a text that remains frozen at the same word-count week after week is making no visible display of progress.

Hence the anxiety. Nothing beats the feeling of sailing ahead with prose that you know is good, that you know is telling your story, and doing so in close to the best possible way. At least, I assume that nothing beats that feeling. Not having actually experienced it, I'm kind of guessing.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

do your own thing

Last night: half a Sleep Aid, followed by a much better night's sleep. Do I move thus down the treacherous slope of drug dependency, as so many artists (and others) have before me?

What a difference to my outlook it makes, though. Instead of being buffeted by feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, pessimism, and guilt, I feel a kind of composure and even enthusiasm for my life and its quirks--warts and all, you might say.

Apart from the Sleep Aid, another source of uplift yesterday was reading further into Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham Maslow. This book came out in 1962 as a follow-up to his seminal Motivation and Personality, published in 1954 (a copy of which is now winging its way to me via the mail). It's actually a compilation of lectures on various aspects of his psychological thinking, fleshing out and extending some ideas from the earlier work. My copy, a 1968 Insight paperback, is in bad shape--two edges have been blackened with felt pen in an effort to obliterate the name of a previous owner, a certain Kratz; and the glue on the spine has turned brittle so that the pages snap away from it as I turn them--indeed the worst of any book I've bought online, such that I think the seller misrepresented its condition and should not have offered it sight unseen. But the content is excellent, and I'm drinking it in avidly.

"What makes people neurotic?" With this question Maslow launches chapter 3, "Deficiency Motivation and Growth Motivation". He sketches in the answer he found:

My answer was that neurosis seemed at its core, and in its beginning, to be a deficiency disease, born out of being deprived of certain satisfactions which I called needs in the same sense that water and amino acids and calcium are needs, namely that their absence produces illness. Most neuroses involved, along with other complex determinants, ungratified wishes for safety, for belongingness and identification, for close love relationships, and for respect and prestige. When these deficiencies were eliminated, sicknesses tended to disappear.

Maslow does not use the word need to point vaguely at our various wishes, hopes, demands, or cravings. Rather, it points to a specific thing the lack of which results in characteristic types of illness, in exactly the same way that a lack of water, vitamin C, or calcium leads to characteristic illness in the body. We need water, vitamin C, and calcium in order to be healthy; the Buddha and Jesus also needed them. Maslow says we also need safety, belonging, love, and respect in order to be healthy. If these needs aren't met, then we develop deficiency syndromes which broadly can be called the neuroses.

When we lack any of these things, they motivate our behavior. If we're not loved, then our lives become shaped by that lack, how we seek to fill the void, or compensate for not having it.

But these "deficiency needs" are not the whole story. When they're all satisfied, we don't simply come to rest and do nothing. Rather, a new set of motivations or needs opens up: what Maslow calls the "being needs"--the drive for self-actualization. These needs are manifested by psychologically healthy people, and they are never gratified in the sense of "plugging a hole", as are the deficiency needs. With being-needs, the more gratified they are, the more intensely the need is felt, and the more it serves as motivation to go further with it.

In addition, while the deficiency needs are generic, or "species needs", in the sense that they are needed by everyone just by virtue of being a human being, the being-needs are highly individual; their exact direction varies according to the talents, interests, and vocation of the specific person. With the being-needs, it's really different strokes for different folks. You might be fulfilled by tightrope-walking across a canyon; I might be fulfilled by designing origami airplanes. These interests arise from the peculiarities of our individual natures.

Maslow goes on to list 13 characteristics of psychologically healthy people--those who have (more or less) gratified their "D-needs" and are attending to their "B-needs":

1) Superior perception of reality.

2) Increased acceptance of self, of others, and of nature.

3) Increased spontaneity.

4) Increase in problem-centering.

5) Increased detachment and desire for privacy.

6) Increased autonomy, and resistance to enculturation.

7) Greater freshness of appreciation, and richness of emotional reaction.

8) Higher frequency of peak experiences.

9) Increased identification with the human species.

10) Changed (improved) interperonal relations.

11) More democratic character structure.

12) Greatly increased creativeness.

13) Certain changes in the value system.

Here is a cornucopia of things to think about. I'll single out three items from the list: spontaneity, privacy, and resistance to enculturation. Briefly put, the healthy person, even while feeling more fellowship with the human race as a whole, seeks autonomy from it in order to pursue his own interests and passions. The healthy person, recognizing both the uniqueness and the validity of his particular interests, engages with them fully and unapologetically, while acknowledging and appreciating the right of everyone else to do the same.

Sounds good to me. It puts me in mind of a quote attributed to Einstein that I found recently:

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.

Summing up: My worries and angst are symptoms of neurosis which is the product of certain deficiencies. The inspiration, interest, and passion I feel for working on my creative projects, regardless of how strange, implausible, or irrelevant they may seem from a culturally normal perspective, are signs of mental health--following the path of self-actualization.

I do have to see to my deficiencies. But never should I stop actualizing myself!

And friends, that goes for all of us. Do your own thing, and I'll do mine.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

in the pre-predawn

Once again sleeplessness drove me from bed, this time at about 4:00, into the cold darkness of the house. It was too late for whisky so I poured myself a glass of cranberry juice, twisted on the knobs for our electric heat (–2° C outside), pulled the living-room furniture back into its regular daytime configuration (seating not aimed at the TV), opened up Asimov's Guide to the Bible (Old Testament), and started reading.

I'd woken at around 2:45. By 4:00 I could tell that my racing thoughts would lead me only further into wakefulness. Might as well get up and do something productive.

And it was productive. While my mind is engaged with something to do, it is not distracted by worries and problems. I read up on Exodus, highlighting as I went.

Is there any use knowing things about Exodus? Isaac Asimov must have thought so. He wrote two good-sized guides to the Bible, even though he was a chemist (I think) by training and a sci-fi author by avocation. His interests were truly wide-ranging, and for that reason alone I like him and am inclined to trust him. His tone is always interested, balanced; skeptical but also open-minded--a brace of mental qualities that I particularly admire and regard as traits of the greatest minds. Without apparent effort, he brings tremendous erudition to any topic, seamlessly working all kinds of nuggets of otherwise hard-to-find information into his exposition. Asimov's prose style itself is a model of simplicity and clarity.

An hour and a quarter (and two glasses of cranberry juice) later, I was feeling the chill, and my eyes were feeling gritty and unrested. I stalked back up to bed and crawled in to warm up and rest my eyes for the last 15 minutes before the alarm went off and it was time to formally start the day.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

creating by association

Yesterday was what I would call a good writing day. I focused and kept at it for, well, a certain length of time. I worked in my Notes document, following the heuristic approach of asking myself questions and then attempting to answer them.

One thought leads to another. The interesting thing about this is that, remarkably quickly, you move from the self-evident to the unexpected--or anyway to the not-so-obvious. One fact leads to another, in a chain of connection. And those other facts can be charged with new significance.

Harold Bloom makes the point that a large part of Shakespeare's genius was that he used soliloquies to show how a character comes to new realizations by hearing himself put something into words. While this isn't exactly what Bloom meant, I think about Hamlet's famous line, "To sleep, perchance to dream...", in which, in using the metaphor of sleep to describe death (his own contemplated suicide), he is led on to the connected idea of dream--that consciousness lives on even when the body is "dead".

Every idea, every concept has associations. I think that creativity lies exactly in following promising trains of association. The associations available to you for any given concept depend on your education. Not just your formal education, but your total experience of and learning in life. If you're not very educated, and if your mind tends toward the routine and prosaic, you won't be capable of coming up with creative ideas.

For example, take the idea of a banker. If you don't know much about bankers, don't know any of them personally, for example, and haven't learned anything about banking beyond your own consumer experiences, you won't be able to come up with many interesting associations. If you're trying to create a banker character, you will be limited to cliche notions, such as that bankers like money, enjoy power and prestige, and so on. Your banker won't be much more than the pinstriped mascot of the Monopoly board-game.

Linda Seger, in her excellent book Creating Unforgettable Characters, talks about using this process to sketch in the traits of a potential character. As an illustration, she suggests that you're creating a character for the next Indiana Jones movie--say a professor of religion. She then steps through a process of association to discover more about this character:

If this religion professor has a Ph.D., we would expect that he has done a great deal of research and can easily ferret out all types of obscure information in libraries or bookstores. It would be consistent for him to be interested in related areas, such as philosophy, church history, sociology, anthropology.

Many religion professors...have had liberal-arts backgrounds.... It wouldn't be inconsistent for a professor to love literature or music or art or architecture--or to be knowledgeable about these areas. This interest in archaeology and early church history could lead to a love of travel. Perhaps he might have done some archaeological research in Turkey, or Israel, or Egypt. It wouldn't be unusual for him to know several languages, perhaps Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

Notice how one set of characteristics implies other character qualities. A person who is sophisticated enough to know the music of Mendelssohn may also know the painting of Vermeer and Rembrandt. A person who grew up on a farm probably knows something about repairing tractors and cars, and about how to read weather patterns.

Linda Seger's professor of religion already starts to sound like a person, just by going through likely associations. (There's more to do, of course, to create an actual character.) If you were writing a story, any one of those connected traits might be a doorway to somewhere useful. If the character speaks Hebrew, maybe he's Jewish, and you have another field of associations. Or if he loves travel, maybe he flies his own plane--and voila, another set of possibilities. You move steadily in the direction of a more definite, unique individual--a character.

The connections are logical and probable, but not necessary: you choose the ones you want. The choices are guided by your intuition and the needs of your story.

It's work. It requires actual thinking: actively imagining things and working through the connections. It's rather like cooking: the creator works hard so that the consumer can have a relatively fast, pleasant experience.

Creating story events is similar. You imagine something happening, and then imagine how characters respond. If you're not sure, then you need to work more on the characters. Work, work, work.

That's what I did yesterday, and I inched forward once again.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

have a plan

Yesterday I had my weekly lunch with Mom--ham-and-cheese sandwiches at her dining-table while looking out at the milky-green water of Cove Cliff. We talk about many things: psychology, astrology, family, and of course writing (the supposed topic of the lunch symposium). Yesterday we touched on the topic of structure as an important part of creative writing.

We agree on its importance, but many people are skeptical. "Structure" sounds so dry, so...uncreative. Architects and engineers concern themselves with structure: they're making things that have to stand up in the physical world. But creative writers, channeling the Muse, spew free and original ideas on the page, going where their creative spirits take them, discovering images and writing them down...right?

Maybe for a very short piece such an approach could produce something readable. But a longer work, like a bridge or a convention center, has to stand up under its own strength. It's sustaining itself not against gravity and wind-shear, but against the wandering attention of the reader. Why should a reader stick with you?

In his Poetics, Aristotle determined that the most important element of a tragedy (the highest form of poetry, in his view) was plot, or "what happens". (More exactly, plot is "what happens" plus the arrangement or order of what happens.) It forms the structure of a story. Note that plotting has nothing directly to do with writing at all. You could devise a plot using pictures or some other symbolic system. Words are convenient for this, but not necessary.

Plotting is a selection and ordering of events. A good storyteller is someone who does this in a way that is compelling and that generates strong emotional responses in the audience. In theory it could be done entirely in one's head, without the use of words or any other symbols at all--just the arrangement of mental images, like a dream. Committing the story to words is a purely secondary task, as well as a secondary talent. As Robert McKee points out, many people have literary ability--the ability to write good prose. Few have story ability--the ability to imagine and arrange events in an interesting and meaningful way.

Speaking for myself, I find that my writing is easiest and best when I'm describing an event that has actually happened. When I write a scene that has happened in actual life (or in a dream), the characters, setting, and specific actions and dialogue are all taken care of. They've already happened, and I just need to select from among the details and choose how to describe them. There is much more in any real-life scene than could ever be described, so I have a cornucopia of choice. The choices I make put my stamp on the scene: I give it a particular meaning by choosing as I do.

In a simple real-life story, the relationship of the scenes to each other is also more or less a given. You start at the beginning and go on to the end. The structure and content of the scenes has been given you by life; now you really do just have to write it down.

But for fictional works, the writer has to come up with all the material that is supplied by life in the case of a nonfiction story. You have to think up the characters, the setting, and the specific actions and dialogue for each scene, as well as a sequence of scenes that lead to an interesting punch at the end. (In real life, this "interesting punch" already exists--and is presumably the reason you've chosen to tell the story in the first place.)

That's a lot of creative work--and it's creative work of different types.

For the past several months I've been reworking the detailed structure of my story. It's time-consuming and creatively difficult. But before my very eyes I see it leading to a better result. I'm organizing the content of a sequence of chapters, and doing this by way of bullet-points in Word. In the past I've used index cards for this purpose, but I'm experimenting with this even more convenient method (although I do miss the physicalness of the index cards, the heft of a growing deck of scenes that are gradually cohering into a story). I scan down my growing list of bullets, playing out scenes or steps in my mind, like a movie. When I hit a gap, or a step that doesn't feel like a strong, logical result of the previous step, I go back to my notes and start imagining.

"How would this character respond?" I ask myself. Well, that depends--what exactly is this character trying to achieve here? And why? The questions open up backward into the motivational world behind the story. They force me to examine the inner workings of my story-world, to confront the areas that are as yet unimagined, uncreated.

The goal is to create a fictional world that feels as close as possible to my real world: a place in which actual events in an actual world already exist, and my task as a writer is simply to find the words to describe them. In my experience this makes a story much more fun both to write and to read. I'm not fussing around trying to figure out how to describe a guy's fedora at the same time I'm trying to figure out who he is and what he wants in life. If you really figure out who he is and what he wants, you might also discover whether he really even wears a fedora.

Robert McKee says it, J. K. Rowling says it to would-be writer kids, Strunk and White say it in The Elements of Style, and now Paul Vitols says it: before you write, have a plan. Diving in and hoping for the best means harder work and a poorer result.

And who needs that?

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

sanity-check, global and personal

After taking half a Sleep Aid I slept through most of the night, and feel much better this morning. I felt freshness and enthusiasm in opening up the books from which I'm currently keying notes over my morning coffee (The Roman Conquest of Italy and The Pagan God). As Robert McKee says, knowledge increases a writer's choices, and therefore makes possible an avoidance of cliche. Tappity-tap-tap.

What I'm doing might be insane (laboring over a gigantic and obscure project that may or may not ever see the light of day)--but then, what counts as sane? How do people spend their time, and should I care? And if so, why?

In the evenings Kimmie and I are watching disc 5 of the documentary series Planet Earth. This disc contains three episodes that form an addendum to the main series, which focuses solely on wildlife and is narrated by David Attenborough. The extra episodes have an advocacy mission, and discuss problems with the environment and our global management of it. They feature interviews with various scientists, policy thinkers, and some of the Planet Earth filmmakers, including David Attenborough. Last night's episode was "Into the Wilderness", which examines the human effect on the quantity and quality of wilderness in the world, and the future of wilderness.

One of the experts interviewed (I forget his name) made the crucial point that our high-consuming Western lifestyle does not make us happy. We behave as though heavy consumption were itself how happiness is attained or expressed, but it's quite plain, for anyone who looks at it, that this is not the case. Beyond having a certain level of material security, surrounding ourselves with more and more possessions does nothing to make us happier, and, if anything, appears to make us less happy.

And yet almost all of economics and politics assumes that the goal for humanity is to promote ever more consumption as a sign of increased quality of life. "Consumption" means, ultimately, consumption of energy. The food chain is based on the transfer of energy from one level to another: sunlight and carbon are photosynthesized by plants; plants are eaten by animals; those animals are eaten by bigger animals; and so on, up to us. When we consume products and services, it's the same thing: if I buy, say, a bottle of wine, the grapes derived their existence and quality from the sun, while the harvesting, processing, bottling, labeling, and transportation of the wine consumed (mainly) fossil-fuel energy. Fossil fuels are the geologically transformed remnants of plants and animals that existed millions of years ago. The energy they derived from the sun way back then is still latent in them, and when we extract the fuel and burn it, we are consuming that solar energy. In this way we "eat" the corpses of life that lived long ago.

We make our livings in a busy economy based on relentless consumption. Economists and policy-makers worry about "growth", which means the continuing growth of consumption. The belief is that to prevent poverty, we have to keep consuming more and more. More and more and more, without end.

To me, the obesity epidemic, which is becoming global as developing countries adopt a more Western lifestyle (burgers, pop), is the living image of this mindset. Consumerism is the psychology of obesity.

Everyone wants to be happy. We expect to derive happiness from success. Success we take to mean worldly achievement, as reflected mainly in our material wealth. Material wealth is expressed as consumption. Therefore happiness = consumption.

It seems logical, and yet experience gives it the lie. For anyone who looks at it, it's plain to see that happiness does not equal consumption. Are billionaires happier than millionaires? I doubt it. I strongly suspect that Bill Gates is starting to truly enjoy his money now that he's giving large amounts of it away.

Where and when have I been happiest? Certainly one time was in 1985, when Kimmie and I were first going out. We did dine out and do some shopping together, but it was not a time that had very much to do with consumption. It was about a relationship.

Other happy times have been when I was involved in Buddhist retreats and programs, such as Seminary in 1994 or when I took temporary ordination at Gampo Abbey in 2002. On all those occasions, part of the happiness lay in the attention we paid to not overconsuming. As a monk I lost 10 or 15 pounds, and I enjoyed doing it. I still had my pleasures: I drank coffee in the morning, and loved it. And after a crammed day, your simple, cozy bunk feels mighty good.

But consumerism has become our spirituality, and it will be replaced only when another inspiration takes its place. The happiness of monasticism is possible only for those who are inspired by its vision. Nietzsche said that "someone who has a why to live can put up with almost any how." This is really the issue. In our materialist society, consumerism is the best that most of us have been able to come with for a why to live. It's not adequate--it fails even on its own terms. We're ripe for change.

Where does this leave me? I mentioned my sanity. Sane means sound, healthy. (Just looking it up in Webster's, I see this interesting note: "able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one's actions".) Sometimes, to be sure, I feel like Captain Ahab, obsessed with Moby-Dick--not exactly a poster-boy for good mental hygiene. People close to me have sometimes commented that I am uncompromising. There is certainly truth to that.

Ahab didn't compromise, and he went down with the whale. But what is a compromise, anyway? You give up something to get something else. It all depends on how much you want that something else.

So far, I suppose I don't see a need to give up anything. A comfortable bourgeois life and "success" do look tempting, but not enough to make me give up. Not yet, anyway. I want that whale.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


I'm an insomniac.

In truth, I'm not sure when one becomes entitled to use that label--how many wakeful nights qualify you?

Certainly this last one was wakeful. I woke around 1:30 and felt my mind drawn into the vortex of concern. By 2:30 I knew it was hopeless. I donned the sweats I'd left on the chair against this likelihood, and took myself downstairs to read. I cranked on the heat in the living-room, poured myself a scotch, opened up Asimov's Guide to the Old Testament, and got highlighting.

With my mind drawn to issues other than my own life, fatigue and befuddlement set in. But I could tell there was still a sharp edge in it. I returned to bed at around 4:00 to wait out the time till the 5:30 alarm. Then: up and at 'em!

It's not unrelated to my post yesterday about Pluto and Saturn. One of the points that caught my attention while I was typing notes from Howard Sasportas's The Gods of Change was a reference to Abraham Maslow's concept of "the Jonah complex". This was the term he gave to the fear of one's own destiny or calling--the principal obstacle to self-actualization. Sasportas continues:

Why should we fear our own greatness? One reason is a fear of responsibility. If we fully acknowledged our potential talents, we would have to shoulder the burden of doing something to develop them. Another reason for denying our full potentiality might be the fear of the power it would give us. We wouldn't be able to be "little" anymore. Would we use our power wisely, or would we mishandle it? Or maybe we are afraid that if we were truly in touch with living our greatness, other people would be envious and resentful of our achievements. Transiting Pluto, in making us more aware of what is buried in us, may ask that we confront these fears in order to grow into the self that we truly are.

Jonah (whose name means "dove"), ordered by Yahweh to prophesy to Nineveh (capital of Assyria), tries to dodge the task, catching a boat to Tarshish. A violent storm comes up, and the sailors, casting lots to discover the cause, find out that it is Jonah. Jonah confesses that this is the case, and that the sea will calm if he is thrown overboard. Jonah would rather die than face his mission. The sailors, in desperation, take his advice and chuck him over. He is swallowed by a "great fish" and remains in its belly for three days before being vomited ashore, safe and sound.

I'm not sure what I think of the Jonah complex, but I know it relates to me, because I felt a cold finger move into my core when I read about it.

One decision I came to was to read some Maslow. I ordered a book by him yesterday.

Fear of one's own greatness. Hmm...how about megaphobia? Yes: I offer that term to psychology--as well as a basket of symptoms.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Pluto and Saturn

After a fast cold snap over the weekend, which saw snow burying our city, warm rain now drums relentlessly outside. Only a white dot of snow remains here and there, and they will be gone by the time the sun is fully up. Wind speeds of 70 kmh are forecast for today--just like this time last year, when many trees in Stanley Park were blown down, shutting down a section of the seawall until just a few weeks ago.

I feel storm warnings within me as well: clouds darken over the scene of peace and composure built with such diligent effort over the years. Dark feelings swirl like whirlpools in the apparently calm water of my soul.

As an astrologer, I link this feeling to the impending (indeed already underway) transit of Pluto over Saturn. Those of us born in 1959 are collectively feeling the effects of this transit, for we all have Saturn placed between 0 and 8° of Capricorn in our birth-charts--the place in the sky that Pluto is now approaching. As I type these words, Pluto is crawling through the end of Sagittarius, and will enter Capricorn by the end of January 2008. After that, it will soon retreat again as it turns retrograde and moves backward in the sky, shifting forward again in September, and reentering Capricorn in late November 2008, where it will then stay for some years.

Pluto, god of the underworld, was lord of the dead. He only ever came to the surface of Earth on two occasions: once to have a wound healed, and once to abduct Persephone, the virgin daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, to force her to become queen of the dead. The themes of death, wounding, and the compulsive aspect of relationships are all germane to Pluto's activities.

An excellent guide to the psychological aspects of transits of Pluto (and the other outer planets, Uranus and Neptune) is The Gods of Change by Howard Sasportas. Among other things ruled by Pluto are what Sasportas calls the "belly emotions". He gives a great illustration of what these are.

Imagine that you have a date to meet someone you really want to see. The appointed time comes, and the person does not show up. Minutes go by, half an hour, an hour. How do you respond?

For many of us, the first response is at the "head" level. We rationalize to ourselves why our date has not yet shown: stuck in traffic perhaps; or unavoidably detained in a previous meeting.

As time passes, we may move to the "heart" level: concern for our missing date. Has something happened to him or her? An accident? A family emergency? Gee, I hope she's okay...

But beneath these are the "belly" emotions: primitive, instinctive feelings linked to self-preservation--feelings that civilized, cultured people seldom exhibit or even acknowledge. Anger, resentment, and yes vindictiveness: "She can't do this to me. I'll show her--she'll pay for this..."

Sasportas, trained in psychology, describes how such moments connect us to our earliest life, when survival was not something we could take for granted, utterly dependent as we all are on someone else's care at that time. When you're helpless, a "no show" of food or attention can mean death, or at least severe suffering. The emotions connected with that type of experience are, let's face it, rage and hatred. "If I get out of this alive, I'm going to make those bastards hurt. Let's see how they handle being starved and abused. They'll think twice next time..."

These sentiments aren't polite. But they are real, and they form a system of subterranean rivers underlying our interactions. And the less in touch we are with our "belly" emotions, the more likely that their eruption will cause us severe distress, and the more likely that they will run our lives covertly, shaping our destinies without our real knowledge or consent.

All Pluto transits are stressful, since they tend to represent situations in which the belly emotions are aroused: the fight for life. A transit to Saturn is especially stress-prone, since Saturn represents the structure in our lives. In particular, it shows where we feel insecure, and how we adapt to feelings of weakness and inadequacy. Threats made to these spots provoke the strongest reactions of fear and resistance.

I think about chess, a game I used to play a lot as a teenager. In chess, all the pieces can move anywhere on the board, except the pawns: these foot-soldiers, once advanced, can never go back. A pawn only ever has three options: advance, hold, or die. As a player, when you move a pawn, you're irreversibly committed. As a game progresses, the pawns, through movement and casualties, form into more or less rugged patterns, often referred to as your "pawn structure". They form living shields, protecting each other and the more important pieces behind them. One chess strategy is to "attack the base"--going after the pawn that anchors a pawn formation. Having your pawn structure attacked and liquidated is generally catastrophic: an agonizing stripping of your defenses.

I think of another image: the cruel way in which conches are removed from their shells. A hook is passed into a part of the animal that cannot retreat far enough into the shell, and then the conch is hung by this hook, so that its shell is slowly pulled from its grip by the force of gravity. The home and protective covering of the conch is inexorably ripped from its grasp, leaving it naked on the hook.

This focused and inexorable attack on one's defensive base is, I think, the pattern I would associate with the transit of Pluto over Saturn. Emotionally it will be the feeling that comes from seeing someone raise a hatchet over your fingers where they cling to the edge of the cliff from which you're dangling.

Where we build these defenses is different for each of us. Astrologically it's shown by house placement. I was born with Saturn in the 3rd house of siblings, neighbors, thinking, speaking, and writing. Saturn is our career planet: I'm a thinker and writer. I can hear the Jaws theme come up as Pluto makes its way to my Saturn, dug in and entrenched from long years of effort and consolidation. Who will win the confrontation?

That answer is easy: Pluto always wins. Pluto wins because whatever (and whoever) is born necessarily dies, and no force in the universe can stop that. Even mountain ranges, high and jagged, eventually are worn away to flat desert. Stars are formed, only to become, eventually, cold cinders. Death and life feed on each other.

One prediction I can make: for those of us born in 1959, the coming few years are going to concentrate our minds on issues we find to be grave and important. Pluto and Saturn share one quality: that of being serious.

Can we let go of things that, without our realizing it, have outlived their usefulness? When a wrecking crew suddenly shows up to tear down the house where you've lived for decades, how do you take it? How does it affect you? How fast do you recover--if you do recover?

In the end it all depends on your attitude. The more you identify with your house, the more painful the demolition will be. The more you can let go, the sooner you can breathe the air of a free man or woman.

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