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On Tolerance and Civility

There’s an appallingly common mindset which presumes that if someone holds this view, then they must hold that also. So if you drive a truck or work for the FBI, you’re probably a right-wing Christian fundamentalist; if you make a living as a teacher or writer, why, you must lean hard to the left.

This is, of course, bullshit.

That’s not to say that the above don’t occur, and may even be common: but to pigeonhole everyone is both preposterous and simplistic. Real life isn’t like that; hell, even fiction—at least the better sort of fiction—isn’t like that. The best villains, like the hero, are nuanced and complex.

Yet we’re encouraged to think in binaries and cleave to polar opposites. Stereotyping people who hold views contrary to our own makes it so much easier to dislike and ridicule them. That makes us and our gang feel good. Unfortunately, it’s a slippery slope, and what begins as simple disrespect and derision can end up in the dehumanization of others that leads, in its most extreme form, to genocides. Hitler and the Jews, anyone? Mao and the Chinese intelligentsia? Serbs and Muslims? Hutsi and Tutus?

I was brought up in a Jewish/Italian partisan family right after WWII, which might explain why anything that smells of conformity, lockstep thinking, brainwashing—from the far Right’s white supremacy to the far Left’s political correctness, from rabid, angry atheism to sinister, apocalyptic cultism and Scientology—makes me see red. I’m fine with anyone believing whatever they want to believe in religion or politics, but I despise intolerance, incivility, and character assassination. I’ll stand up for anyone who is attacked for sincere and honestly-held beliefs, even when I don’t agree with them. Where I draw the line is when they seek to impose their will and belief system on me.

There’s a real simple rule here, and it’s do as you would be done by. Maybe it’s time to start thinking for ourselves and start seeing people as individuals rather than as clones, well-meaning individuals who love their families and think they’re doing right rather than mean fools who are out to get us. Like the famous Christmas incidents in the trenches of WWI, maybe we’ll discover that the guys in the enemy uniform are just like us.

Ah, we say, but they started it! Well, maybe they did. Or maybe we watch too much TV or listen to too much talk radio, left or right, and—like those old folks who see the world only through the media and live in fear of everything—have  cut ourselves off from reality.

My personal beliefs are highly heterodox. I follow no party or school of thought. Accordingly, I’ve always had friendships across the political and religious spectrum (that seems unusual in the US, but is not uncommon elsewhere). We can have raging and wide-ranging discussions and arguments yet still remain good friends; sometimes, we learn from one another. At the least, we respect one another and know each other for good people.

I tend to the atheist side of agnostic, but in my 23 years here, two of my closest friends have been Christian fundamentalists, and these are two of the finest people I’ve ever met. Because we respect one another, we can agree to disagree, even though I think they’re deluded and they worry I’ll burn in hell. We laugh. We build on commonalties rather than differences. We enjoy the friendship and like being respectfully challenged now and then by someone who respects us. These are seeds that spread.

If one proceeds on the premise that even those who disagree with us mean well, there’s no need for enmity… but it’s so much easier to demonize people we disagree with than to deal with them, and isn’t that what the media and our environment wants us to do?

Look in the mirror. Whom do you demonize and ridicule?

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Ten Years On

It’s ten years since I attended Clarion West.

For those who don’t know it, Clarion West (aka, ‘Literary Boot Camp’) is an intensive, six-week writing workshop held annually in Seattle. Of the scores of applicants, only seventeen students are selected each year to work under the six resident instructors, one per week. Students come from across the nation and even from abroad, and ages vary wildly (my own class ranged from 21 to 50). The experience is exhilarating, the routine brutal.

Each day starts with a 9 a.m. class; after an hour or so of instruction, student stories are critiqued in rotation, three or four each day, with the class ending around 1 p.m. Grab some lunch and back to your room (thankfully, no sharing rooms), and start work.

On top of attending morning classes, each student is expected to write a new story each week, which doesn’t seem too much… except that you also have to read and prepare critiques of three or four of your peers’ stories every day, and these can be long. Get four 9k- or 10k-word stories on a day (it happens), and you have the equivalent of half a novel to read and critique on top of your own writing. Every day. Plus you have to eat sometimes, and of course you spend time whenever you can hanging out or going for a beer with your fellow inmates, all of whom are as sleep-deprived as you. It’s not unusual to find people in the common areas still working at three in the morning.

Happily, Friday nights—following a reading by the resident instructor for that week—are reserved for parties. These are held at the homes of the many Seattle area Science Fiction fans or authors, and, believe me, after a five-day, 80+ hour week, most students are ready to let their hair down. My own class was (I’m told) one of the more spirited and rambunctious ones: we’d go back to the dorms and start our own party and keep going, sometimes going till dawn. In six weeks we managed to set off a fire alarm and get the entire dorms evacuated as well as get visited by the campus police–yeah! Happily, the weekends are free for sleeping, writing, hanging out, writing, sleeping… before it all starts up again on Monday. Week four is known for crackups, and students are advised to arrange a brief conjugal visit around this time.

Clarion West is, as you might expect, a serious bonding experience. Ten years on, I’m still in close contact with perhaps six of our group, three of whom are in my current writers’ group, Written in Blood.

What have I achieved in those ten years? Not nearly as much as I’d have liked. A few short story sales to semi-pro markets and anthologies; a full-length nonfiction work, ‘Aegean Dream’, the bittersweet memoir of the year my wife and I spent living on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos in 2007 (which, nine months after publication, is beginning to sell pretty well). I also edited and published ‘Eight Against Reality’, an anthology of short stories from the Written in Blood group, and three anthologies of original SF & F novellas (the ‘Panverse’ series, One, Two, and Three), which have enjoyed generally favourable reviews, with one story from Panverse Two winning the 2011 Sidewise Award for Alternate History and another from Panverse Three currently on the final ballot for the 2012 Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards.

It’s not enough. Barely a beginning.

The last several months I spent writing a novel, a fairly mainstream caper-thriller about two old friends who don’t have the sense to just lie down and slip quietly into the long good night, and decide instead go on a last, insanely dangerous adventure which will most likely cost them their freedom and even their lives. I’m just starting on the rewrite and hope to be shopping it around this summer: working title is ‘Sutherland’s Rules’. Beyond that, another novel, a more fantastical one, is assembling.

Looking back, I see that I’m still integrating a lot of what I learned in those six mindblowing weeks in Seattle. I’m a late bloomer, but I’m far from done. And the rest of the class of 2002? One—Ysabeau Wilce—has written and sold several wonderful and unique novels; another, Doug Sharp, has an absolutely superb novel ready for publication; two or three others have sold a few short stories to pro markets.

Watch this space.

Dedicated to the extraordinary staff and faculty of Clarion West and to the six fantastic instructors of that luminous summer of 2002: Paul Park, Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Haldeman, and John Crowley.

Back row, left to right: Danny Llinas, myself, Simran Khalsa, Elizabeth Spencer, Jim Harris, Diana Sherman, James ‘Devilman’ Thomas, Adrian ‘media-ready’ Khactu, Genevieve Williams, Blunt ‘Bluejack’ Jackson, Ysabeau Wilce, Robert Brown. Front Row: John Crowley (instructor), Traci (T.L.) Morganfield, Lynette Aspey, Doug Sharp, Wendy Shaffer.

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Acting As If

Learning is a funny thing.

Beginner’s luck is a very real phenomenon. The very first time we attempt a thing, and this surely includes writing, we often do very well: by not having preconceptions and a head full of rules, we act spontaneously and without artifice, and in the process come up with a result which—however lacking in technical sophistication—is true, and may even be Art.

After that, things appear to go downhill. Encouraged by the first, surprising result, we want to understand more, to learn rules and skills. We buy a book on the subject. Maybe we take a class. Suddenly, it’s as though we’ve taken a bite of the forbidden apple: where before was only innocence and spontaneity is now duality, the knowledge of success and failure and the means to judge it… which we, if not others, surely will. Where before we were playing, we now have to struggle within a framework of rules and judgment. Play becomes work, and that’s the kiss of death for creativity, the point at which so many lose heart.

You can see this process at work in any class. Initial high enthusiasm, then a sudden, big die-off. A large remainder will stumble on for a little while, not enjoying the process at all, dropping out by ones and twos in the weeks and months that follow, until at the last a core of just 10%-20% of the original enrolees is left. If the teacher is a poor one, or the mix of students unfortunate, a class of twenty or thirty will dwindle to zero.

As writers, if we’re serious, we quickly start submitting work for publication, starting with the top markets in our chosen genre. We begin collecting rejections, impersonal form letters at that. And though the toughest, the tenacious few, will grit their teeth and carry on, most of us eventually lose heart and turn to something less punishing.

One thing I’ve found useful is to act as if, to pretend that we have the chops we actually don’t yet; or, as Pat Cadigan once put it, “show me what you wish you had.” Now, there’s a lot of motivational hooey out there that suggests that this technique generates some kind of cosmic vortex of opportunity, which is fine if you want to buy into that—I don’t. But what it does do is free you up, give you the space to play again, allow you to act spontaneously. It changes your line of attack from timid to confident, from negative expectations to no expectations, from fear to fun. Let go of rules and fears and hit that keyboard in the spirit of Nabokov or Cordwainer Smith, Tom Wolfe or Roger Zelazny. Go for it. Take risks.

I took guitar lessons for a while. One-on-one, with a teacher I greatly admired. As a somewhat compulsive perfectionist with high expectations of myself, I was nervous to the point of paralysis at every lesson; try as I could, I couldn’t relax, which totally stopped me feeling the rhythm or getting into any kind of groove. I was a terrible student, and eventually dropped out.

At home, away from my poor teacher’s laser gaze, I one day just let go, attacking the instrument with spirit and abandon, sacrificing technique for sheer heat; I wanted to feel what it was like; so I pretended, just for a moment, I had all the chops. The effect was a revelation. Before long, I found rhythm and beat, I started to sound good. I’d rediscovered the spirit.

Like gas in an engine, there has to be something to power our efforts, and I believe that thing is our spirit, our creative impulse. You gotta have fire.

This is a technique you can apply to writing. I’d likely be wrong if I told you you’ll turn out deathless prose on your first try, but I promise that if you do this faithfully, from your heart, hitting the page with the spirit of a samurai, the results will be both surprising and motivating. Yeah, you’re probably going to have to go to back to the rules once in a while, but if you can begin to incorporate spirit into your work, you’re more likely to both enjoy it and not hamstring yourself from the get-go. Fear and timidity are Art’s deadliest foes.

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One Cozy Fiction

Why do we maintain and allow the absurd fiction that deranged evil dictators will play nice and cave to polite requests to stop killing their own or other people, building atomic weapons, or the like? It’s absurd. Yet the UN has now extended Al-Assad’s deadline to stop butchering his own citizens to April 10. And this after even the Arabs have washed their hands of him.

Imagine, if you will, the situation in Syria as a 911 call:

911 OP:    What service do you require? Fire Police, or Ambulance?

SYRIA:     Police! There’s a pair of armed thugs beating down the door!

911 OP:    Are you sure?

SYRIA:    Of course I’m sure!

911 OP:    Have you done anything to cause this, ma’am?

SYRIA:    Erm, I once complained about crime to the local paper. Look, I need help right–

911 OP:    And how do you know they’re thugs, ma’am?

SYRIA:    Because they have stocking masks and sawn-off shotguns! [crashing, tearing noises in background]

911 OP:    Assumptions can be wrong, Ma’am. Let’s keep an open mind see what they do when they come in.

SYRIA:    [screams] Oh God! They’re in the house! One of them’s holding his shotgun to my chest!!

911 OP:   Yes, ma’am, please calm down. Try asking them to leave.

SYRIA:   [Voice off-mike, followed by coarse, mocking laughter] They won’t!! Oh god get me the police!!

911 OP:   Please let me speak to them, ma’am.

THUG:   [Deep-voiced, after pause] ‘Sup?

911 OP:   Yes sir, we’d like to appoint an inspector to visit. Will this afternoon be okay?

[Long pause] Sir?

[Another long pause; background smashing and looting noises, woman whimpering in abject terror] Sir?

THUG:   Yeah, no, s’okay. We’ll be leaving later.

911 OP:  [Brightly] Thank you sir. At what time will that be?

THUG:   Do I gotta tell ya?

911 OP:   We do require a commitment, sir.

THUG:   [Laughs] Yeah, okay. Say, midnight. [Woman screaming. Shotgun blast. Screaming stops]

911 OP:   That’ll be acceptable, sir. Have a nice day, and thank you for using 911.

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On Staying Sane

I have a deep mistrust of self-help and motivational books, videos, speakers, and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m every bit as prone to fits of existential angst as the next person. But I’m fundamentally a stoic at heart. I strongly believe that we’re all essentially alone; and we had better damn well be self-reliant and self-fixing, however unfair the world, and however personal a hurt may feel. I worry that anyone who makes a habit of going to hear motivational speakers, or believes that listening to self-help CDs is going to help them, is probably going to remain broken: worse, they’re giving up their freedom of thought.

That notwithstanding, there ARE two books that I occasionally refer to, the first for a chuckle and to get perspective, the second not so much for motivation but rather because it makes me feel sane, since just about every quotation in it reinforces my own philosophy and approach.

Pushcart’s complete “ROTTEN REVIEWS AND REJECTIONS” is an indispensable little volume both for writers and indeed anyone who enjoys seeing self-important people (in this instance, critics and publishers) proved deeply, desperately wrong in their reviews and rejections of great authors and books which went on to become classics. For instance:

OTHELLO (Shakespeare): “Pure melodrama. There is not a touch of characterization that goes below the skin.”   -George Bernard Shaw

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Emily Bronte): “Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.”  – James Lorimer in the North British Review

CRASH (J.G. Ballard): “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”   -Rejection letter

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (Le Carre): “You’re welcome to Le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”   -Rejection letter

THE TIME MACHINE (H.G. Wells): “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”   -Rejection letter

YOUTH and HEART OF DARKNESS (Conrad): “It would be useless to pretend that they can be very widely read.”    -The Manchester Guardian

The second book is an equally delicious little volume titled, “ZEN GUITAR” by Philip Toshio Sudo, and you don’t have to play guitar to read it, only to have a pulse. The book consists of a number of quotations from famous musicians, followed by a one- or two-page commentary from a Zen perspective by the author, and each one is a gem. Some of my favourite quotations (you’ll have to buy the book for the commentaries) are:

“Music should go right through you, leave some of itself inside you, and take some of you with it when it leaves.”   –Henry Threadgill

“I don’t think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.”   –Townes Van Zandt

“At the end of a show he’ll leave the stage, and the sirens will be going, and the limousines waiting, and Charlie will walk back to his drumkit and change the position of his drumsticks by two millimetres. Then he’ll look at it. Then if it looks good, he’ll leave… The drums are about to be stripped down and put in the back of a truck, and he cannot leave if he’s got it in his mind that he’s left his sticks in a displeasing way.”   –Keith Richards, on Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts

“You get older…you start having hopes for other people rather than yourself.”   -Bob Dylan

Finally, I have a few favourite volumes of poetry that I read from time to time. Everyone, happy or sad, sick or healthy, in love or not, should read poetry, and good poetry at that (and there’s a lot of really poor poetry out there to turn off the unwary.) My personal favourite collection is THE MENTOR BOOK OF MAJOR BRITISH POETS (ed. Oscar Williams).

Which reminds me, I must buy a new copy of MAJOR BRITISH POETS. My original is just about worn out!

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No Synaesthesia Required

Synaethesia is what happens when your senses get cross-wired (as in hearing a colour) and is usually associated with neurological disorders or hallucinogenic drugs. What I propose to examine here is an applied, metaphorical synaesthesia, and you’ll be pleased to know that neither neurological impairment nor mind-altering substances are required. A simple curiosity and a willingness to experiment will suffice.

In a lifetime of trying to improve my skills in various creative pursuits—decorative painting, photographic composition, guitar, and writing—I’m struck by the convergences, the aspects all the arts seem to have in common. I believe this insight is a valuable one for anyone engaged in an artistic pursuit.

Although ‘Art’ doesn’t lend itself to easy definition, we can discern the discrete building blocks of any art piece enough to name them: texture, tone, movement, light, shadow, contrast, empty space, nuance, bravura, balance, harmony, and so on. These same words can be applied to a number of disciplines, and—once understood in one context—can be equally understood in another. So a pianist who understands, say, texture and movement in music is already equipped to discern those same qualities in a painting or a prose work; and if our pianist (or even someone who understands these terms in the context of music) wants to learn one of these other art forms, he or she will likely find this understanding gives them an edge. Knowing what the component parts are in one medium will make it easier to identify them (or their absence) in another.

I think, then, that learning builds upon itself. By thinking in terms of these universal qualities, these building blocks, when considering our own created work or that of others, we can more easily spot the strengths and weaknesses of a work, and perhaps with more detachment than might otherwise be the case. If I understand the meaning and importance of empty space in a photograph, I can better recognize its presence or absence in a piece of music; similarly, a poet who understands dynamic can notice its absence in a painting.

It seems to me that many of these concepts work in antonym pairings. A short list follows, and though they may not all transpose equally well to every art form, I think there’s enough applicability here for most of us to find the notion worth exploring.

Static / Dynamic

Light / Dark

Balance / Imbalance

Symmetry / Asymmetry

Smooth / Textured

Balance / Tension // Dynamic balance

Contrast / Equal tones

Focus / Fuzziness

Bravura / Timidity

Spirit / Technique (non-exclusive opposites; used in sense of driving the work)

Empty Space (aka ‘blank space’)

Texture

Tone

Pace

It’s very possible I’m reinventing the wheel here… In which case, well, that’s not unusual for an autodidact, as touched on in my post, “Are We There Yet?’. I do know that academics in the visual arts can get very defensive when scholars from ‘text-based disciplines’ stray into their territory, but since I’m neither an academic nor a critic and have no pretension to either, I offer this up as a dilettante ever eager to embrace anything which will help deepen my understanding of what I’m doing.  Try it for yourself: grab the words from this list and use each as a lens, a filter, when next assessing a piece of music, art, writing, even an essay or article, yours or someone else’s. I think you’ll find them very useful.

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Are We There Yet?

Well, no.

One of the harder things for writers is how to gauge their own progress. Unlike, say, an engineer or a lawyer, most creative people—artists, writers, musicians—are at least partly, often entirely, self-taught. This makes it hard for them to see how far they’ve come, because unlike someone following a structured, guided learning trajectory with distinct modules, tests, and progress markers leading to a final graduation, many creative people have no such waypoints or benchmarks, only a lifelong continuum of developing craft.

To make things more vexing, most of us find that the more we learn, the more we realize we still don’t know—or, to put it another way, the larger one’s knowledge base, the greater one’s vision of the whole. The result is that we can be quite accomplished, and yet feel very insecure about our skills. To quote Sir Edwin Landseer, the great 19th-century British artist, “If people only knew as much about painting as I do, they would never buy my pictures.”  The target is receding all the time.

This issue came home to me several years ago, when I was a full-time decorative (aka ‘faux’) painter and wood finisher. I’d been plying my trade for fifteen years, and had risen to the top of my field, yet I would worry myself sick over every job, still traumatized, no doubt, by a screw-up very early on in my career. Fortunately, two near-simultaneous events ended my chronic insecurity.

The first of these came one day when I was trying to solve a technical problem to do with a specific wood dyeing application. The literature wasn’t helping me, so I started calling various manufacturers’ technical departments, and even got to talk to some chemists. Before long, I realized there was nobody out there with an answer: in my own, self-guided learning and research over the years, I’d become an expert in the field without knowing it.

The second epiphany came over a beer with another decorative painter, someone I’d been semi-mentoring. When I confessed to her that I approached every job with the fear that I’d screw it up, she cracked up laughing. “How long is it since you had a job go wrong?” she said. In truth, it had been at least a decade.

With regard to writing, it’s tempting to say that professional publication is the diploma, the graduation, the marker of attainment. I think that’s largely true, but not entirely. For one thing, you have to actively submit work; yet many people write for years, even becoming quite skilled, without ever submitting a story. It’s also possible—especially in today’s chaotic publishing environment—that the market just isn’t receptive, however solid your craft. In the case of my own nonfiction book, “Aegean Dream,” publishers felt it was way over length and didn’t fit the typical travel/settling memoir formula (find a ruin in Mediterranean country x, fix it up, live happily ever after); instead, I’d written a long (135k words) book which, despite a good deal of humour, had a plot arc more reminiscent of a Greek Tragedy. Happily, readers don’t give a damn: the book has been seeing steadily rising sales for several weeks, and is frequently #1 in both the Greek Nonfiction and Greek Travel categories in Amazon UK’s Kindle section. And not one person has complained about either the length or the lack of happily-ever-after.

It’s important, therefore, to look back at the road traveled and note just how far you’ve come. For writers, a good critique group is invaluable in that regard: you’ll see others progress, and they’ll be able to gauge your own development. As your own skills grow, you’ll likely become pickier in your reading; or you’ll be reading away and, in a burst of admiration, realize how much skill it took the author to achieve to a certain effect or pull off a particular scene (in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,“Mediocrity knows nothing more than itself, but talent always recognizes genius.”) . These are all signs of progress. And although we should never become cocky or overly confident, it’s important to understand that needless self-doubt and timidity can and will hold you back.

It’s also true that learning has a clear and quasi-universal timeline (this is why we have two-year and four-year colleges). As a rule of thumb, I’d say that any reasonably intelligent person, given moderate talent and a willingness to apply themselves, can become competent at something (the ‘journeyman’ level) in three to five years, expert in eight or ten, and attain mastery in fifteen. And the icing on the cake is that people who are self-taught, though they may spin their wheels more than those in a structured learning environment, tend to innovate, often finding unique ways around problems and discovering new techniques on the way.

So yeah, maybe you are there and you just didn’t know it. Only now you can glimpse just how far there is still to go.


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