Archive for November 2011

Nano Finale   6 comments

Did it! Amazing experience, helped by the online Nanowrimo forum, with 200,000 other people doing the same thing all around the world.  Dutch high-schoolers and Malaysian retirees and New Zealand farmers, Singapore lawyers and Hong Kong engineers.  Everyone talking about it as they’re doing it. Egging each other on.  Telling funny stories.  Making and soliciting suggestions.  Cries for help.  Competitions.  Excerpts for critiquing.  How-to’s for people writing about medieval French history, chameleons, murder by deuterium, dragon mating, the proper warping and beaming of looms, the spices in chicken tikka, etc.  Writing Buddies.  The online support videos and posts from published authors. The sense of an immense online community engaged in huge set of magical creative hopeful acts against the naysayers and wannabes and critics, and our own doubts and inner censors and resistance and procrastination and  sloth.

Word by word.  And now, 50,260 words of the first draft of a fantasy novel.  Or 106 pages in a Word document.  A month of writing.  Virtually no editing whatsover, beyond what spell-check does in true robot fashion.

Haven’t looked back at it.  Not sure I want to.  In any case I need to spend some time away from it.  Catch up on this blog, on laundry, dishes.

Free at last!  No, not free at all:  finished with the first step.  Let down a bit, to tell the truth.  Adrenaline and all.  Time to rest up, pull back from writing for a week, so the first symptoms of carpal tunnel subside (mostly my left arm).

Most productive day — over 5000 words. Had about five of those during the month.  Nice to know I can do it.  Wow.  OK, onward.  Get a fire built later (it’s sunny and in the 40s outside), shave, take a shower, write a letter, pay bills. Take a walk.  Breathe.

Thank you, Powers of the Worlds, human and incorporeal. Wife, friends, the earth, the gods.  And you, my readers, for all good thoughts. (It feels good to thank, to be grateful.  An annual holiday for it isn’t often enough, of course.  Daily.)

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Posted 30 November 2011 by adruidway in blessing, creativity, Druidry, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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What’s Freedom For? (Part II)   Leave a comment

B F Skinner

Years ago now, I remember furiously reading behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity on a plane.  I was making lots of notes and highlighting the text and writing exclamation points in the margins — at one point my seat-mate, who hadn’t spoken to me otherwise, asked  if I was prepping for a class.  I still have that copy, a cheap paperback, yellowing on my shelf.

But I wasn’t reading to complete an assignment.  I loathed Skinner’s conclusions, and I was gathering ammunition against them — all the false premises and counter-points and fallacies and over-generalizations I could muster. The most egregious of Skinner’s conclusions were that since — apart from genetics — we are machines controlled by our environment, there was no need to sustain delusional beliefs in freedom and dignity.  There is no such thing as an “autonomous” person who thinks and decides and chooses.  Any talk of political rights, a “soul,” consciousness, or freedom or any of a large number of other psychological states, was pointless, unfounded — an obstacle, in fact, to human progress.  We’re formed and motivated by reward and punishment, by reinforcement, Skinner claimed. And he asserted that a “science of human behavior” made designing any human culture we wished both a possibility and a demonstration of his conclusions.

A few years later I found out that linguist and critic Noam Chomsky had already done the job of demolition years before — 40 years ago, now — in a 1971 article in the New York Review of Books.  Chomsky takes Skinner down quite unapologetically:

Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.

I mention my personal story here because at the time I didn’t feel “free” to ignore Skinner — another way of saying I didn’t want to.  My freedom in this case was a choice, though one strongly influenced by emotion.

Here’s why I didn’t feel free — why I “had to” critique Skinner — again in Chomsky’s words:

Noam Chomsky

There is, of course, no doubt that behavior can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. This much is not at issue, and the conclusion is consistent with a belief in “autonomous man.” If a tyrant has the power to require certain acts, whether by threat of punishment or by allowing only those who perform these acts to escape from deprivation (e.g., by restricting employment to such people), his subjects may choose to obey — though some may have the dignity to refuse. They will understand the difference between this compulsion and the laws that govern falling bodies.

Of course, they are not free. Sanctions backed by force restrict freedom, as does differential reward. An increase in wages, in Marx’s phrase, “would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth.” But it would be absurd to conclude merely from the fact that freedom is limited, that “autonomous man” is an illusion, or to overlook the distinction between a person who chooses to conform, in the face of threat or force or deprivation, and a person who “chooses” to obey Newtonian principles as he falls from a high tower.

The inference remains absurd even where we can predict the course of action that most “autonomous men” would select, under conditions of extreme duress and limited opportunity for survival. The absurdity merely becomes more obvious when we consider the real social world, in which determinable “probabilities of response” are so slight as to have virtually no predictive value. And it would be not absurd but grotesque to argue that since circumstances can be arranged under which behavior is quite predictable — as in a prison, for example, or the concentration camp society “designed” above — therefore there need be no concern for the freedom and dignity of “autonomous man.” When such conclusions are taken to be the result of a “scientific analysis,” one can only be amazed at human gullibility.

OK, there we have the arguments of two white Euro males.  We’re equally gullible, of course, when we think freedom is some absolute thing, so that if we “have” it, it can’t be “taken” from us  except by violating our “rights.”  Societies organize and provide some things at the cost of others.  It’s always a trade-off.  Security in exchange for loss of freedom of movement has been a hot-button issue for some time now, with gated communities, and recent talk of a fence across the southern U.S. border, with the Dept. of Homeland Security scanning us every time we want to fly on a plane, opening our luggage, and fondling our pill bottles and mini-toothpaste tubes.  Have I tried to take away your freedom by slanting my comments here, to influence you and nudge you in the direction I want, so I can manipulate you later on?  Do you have the freedom to stop reading right now, or send me a nasty message?  You know the answers.  But how valuable is that freedom?

Changing gears, we have the pop version of freedom in Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee.”  Here’s the chorus:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, no no
Yeah feeling good was easy Lord when he sang the blues
You know feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

Is freedom “feeling good”?  To repeat, if we feel good, are we “free”?  After a medical misdiagnosis of mental illness, electroshock therapy cured my mother of some “delusions” that were actually caused by the onset of dementia, but I can’t ever say she was more free as a result.  Something in her shifted after that treatment.  It certainly sharpened the decline already under way.  It didn’t matter if she “felt good,” though of course I didn’t want to deprive her of whatever positives we could salvage from the situation.  In the other sense the song mentions, she was nearly “free.”  She had (almost) “nothing left to lose.”

But the song doesn’t exactly say that.  The lyrics assert, “Feeling good was easy when he sang the blues.”  In other words, if I have an antidote for my pain, or an outlet or expression for it like the Blues, it’s at least somewhat easier for me to feel good.  But actual freedom is a wash in this case, when I’m suffering.  Take away the suffering, and then I can begin to consider whether or not I’m “free.”  Until then, I got “nothing.”

The radically down and out, the homeless, the street crazies, the druggies — they’re free in many senses that I’m not.  Far fewer obligations, responsibilities, commitments, possessions.  Little of the self-building we do by putting on the right clothes, driving the right car, working at the right job, eating lunch with the right colleagues, and so on.  (I can see it start early, in school, with the cliques and claques and in-out groups.)

But I’m in no hurry for that kind of freedom, at least at the cost the homeless pay.

I’ve allowed myself to ramble a bit in this post, rather than arguing closely toward a conclusion. Is that freedom?

More to come in Part III.

Nano Home Stretch   Leave a comment

With just under two thousand words to get down tomorrow, I can finally see the finish line and the completion of a month of Nano writing.  I started with a character-driven story, knowing that with a vivid enough character, things would start to happen, and she was strong enough to make things happen herself.  Now plot detail has been flowing in abundance, complexities I hadn’t foreseen or imagined, backstory and unusual motivations and sacred mathematics and a dream sequence that foreshadows all hell about to break loose.

Posted 29 November 2011 by adruidway in creativity, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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Interim   Leave a comment

A singe grosbeak inspects our feeder, and as I look out through the living room picture window at the bird plumped against the cold, there’s a reflection in the glass of flames from the woodstove inside.  In its orange vigor, my fire faces west, Druidically inappropriate, but very welcome on this grade A gray day.

In the northern U.S. that’s an image of this time of year: reflections, of heat inside, of life still proceeding outdoors and in, of the time of year itself.

The interval between Thanksgiving and the December holidays can be a delicious space, a “meanwhile” or middle-time for re-tooling and starting to close up shop on the current year.  To feel that it’s often too busy, or merely filled with worsening weather forecasts, as though that is all it has to offer, is to miss something profoundly meditative about these days.  What’s the opposite of miss?  Attend, intercept, catch, be there.  Whatever it is, that’s what I want to do.

There is as well in November and early December a late-autumnal melancholy, it’s true.  The peak of Thanksgiving has passed, and some may see the next months as a pretty solid trudge through the valleys (in our boots, scarves and gloves, and hauling snow-shovels) until the climb to the next holiday.

So when I can take a look from this end of the year at a season at the other side of summer, I do. Off to that start of spring transience which mirrors something in us now as well. I followed a link from an article in today’s NY Times and there on the page was the sudden pure pleasure of “Sakura Park,” a poem by the late Rachel Wetzsteon (pronounced “wet-stone”). Take a visit to late spring, six months ago, or six months to come. The cherry trees (the sakura of the title) are in bloom …

Sakura Park

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,
seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.

Yes, that’s a poet for you — insisting on a connection between cherry petals and the growth of self, when all the cherry need do is be a self beautifully ready to attract bees, produce fruit and fulfill its cherry-tree-ness.

And yes, there’s a whiff of early middle-aged cynicism creeping in here (Wetzsteon died at 42), the dry rot that afflicts so many who tell themselves to be content with meanwhiles.  “Give up on rooted happiness!” she urges.  There is still green chance and raw luck and sweet grace in the world, but until they salvage something greater than what’s at hand, be content with meanwhiles, the poet advises, the “far from nothing” moments that hum with possibility even now.  So it’s back to trees, where maybe we should have remained.

Too often we are literally “self-important.”  We worry about the self like a barefoot child abandoned in a parking lot, or an opened can of tuna that will spoil unless we eat or cook or refrigerate it.  The cherry tree sends out blossoms unworried about November.  Not because November won’t come, but because it’s not November when it’s April.  And when November comes, the tree will be a cherry in November, awaiting the next humming moment.

And yes, if I meditate among the swaying branches and crackling leaves this time of year (trying to fluff myself against the cold like an outsized bird, so I can sit or kneel a few minutes without shivering and breaking my focus), the “stolid tree on fire” matters more than it did before, and my own concerns matter less.  Restoration that we seek, visit all who long for it.  Find it in the silent witnesses of trees.  We who listen for “a voice that will save us” forget what burns in front of us, the fire in the stove in the living room, this day passing with us into “later” and darkness and tomorrow, the trees wintering, summering and wintering again, the air itself, with its metallic crispness on the tongue and in the nose, the fire that burns in all things.

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The 50,000-word deadline this Wednesday 11/30 at midnight looms before us “wrimos,” and I’m finally within range.   Woo-hah!  The Nanowrimo site obligingly lets participants grab icons of progress — anything to keep us writing.  Much of what I’m drafting now is detail, filling in missing scenes, background, snatches of dialog with disembodied characters, pieces of Harhanu physiology and psychology — and I suppose, not surprisingly, a brand-new and potentially primary character — because of course what I expressly did not need at this point is a strong new presence telling me “when you are done, you are not done, for I have more” — to paraphrase Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyat.  He already has a name (Tehengin) which he obligingly repeated to me till I got it right.  But, probably, I do need him — in some way which I’m sure he’ll inform me about.  In detail.

So anyway, here I dance at 44212 words, taking a break to blog, before I return to dance some more.  Wish me well in this home stretch.

Nano Update   Leave a comment

With the Thanksgiving holiday, travel to my in-laws in FL, and nano-ing, it’s been a busy week.  I’m in the home stretch as far as writing, with 38,177 words completed.  Huzzah!! 5000 words came through yesterday, including a draft of the ending, while I was tucked away and mostly out of earshot of happily noisy relatives.

Back to regular (full) blog posts soon!

Posted 25 November 2011 by adruidway in fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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What’s freedom for? (Part 1)   Leave a comment

With so much attention to freedom these days, both freedom from and freedom to (they can feel like — and amount to — very different things), it’s strange there’s so little discussion of what to do with it once we get it.  We’re supposed to know intuitively, like eating or breathing.  Let me “do my own thing,” “don’t fence me in,” “don’t tread on me,” “a man’s home is his castle,” “do what you want,” and countless other phrases and proverbs and old saws and aphorisms to capture that sense of a supposedly “inalienable right” to do — what?  Along with life and the often asymptotic* happiness we’re supposedly in pursuit of, this third leg of the American Independence tripod got declared and delivered to us and we haven’t done a paternity test to see whether it’s our baby.  Liberty.  As in “see Statue of.”  As in Patrick Henry, who gave himself and his audience only two choices (“liberty or death”), proving he was definitely not a true American, because as we all know, Americans love their choices.  “Have it your way,” goes the old Burger King advertizing jingle.  OK, my way.  But once I get it, how do I know I have it?  Is it like a lottery ticket — changing in value by the day, and up to me to claim it if I won it?  And then what?  What’s freedom for?

More to come in Part II.

*An asymptote, if the Wikipedia definition above doesn’t do it for you, is a curve that keeps edging ever closer to a line, but never actually arrives.  (Unless you want to count infinity.)  Think of it as a geometric tease.

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Passing the halfway mark of 25,000 words a couple of days ago felt as big this year as reaching 10K last year did — a milestone. Inevitably I’ve fallen behind — this time by about 5000 words.  Got nothing written at all on Monday, and Tuesday was little better.  Today’s quota is 30K. I’ve gotten down 3000 words so far, in a burst of catching up, and hope for another few hundred by day’s end, which will bring me within striking distance.  I’m at 28,125 as I write this.  (Yes, my break from writing a novel is writing a blog entry.)  Definitely some interesting material has come through.  I’ve put my poor succubus Alza in a number of implausible, erotic, challenging, historical and dangerous situations, just to see what sticks.

I’ve also found out that in order for an important historical meeting to occur, she needs to be about a century older than I’d made her.  Not sure how she feels about that.  Will no doubt find out.  And I’ve gotten down a description of her original appearance that she has just discovered, the “face she had before she was born,” as the Zen masters like to say — before she shape-shifted the first time in her life among humans.  That discovery seems to give her a stability and sense of self nothing else has.  Here’s a striking image I found online and used for inspiration as Alza.  It comes, both appropriately and ironically at once, from an Australian evangelical website, in the form of a pamphlet providing counsel to victims of Incubi and Succubi.

Spiral   Leave a comment

A spiral differs from a circle.  There’s motion in it, and change.  The track or trail of movement is itself motionless. (Well, comparatively:  the boat’s wake dissolves in ripples, the jet trail fades, but some time after, at least; the jet’s long gone.)  It records the journey.  But journey in a spiral is not repetition.  It’s recognition, re-encounter from a fresh perspective.  History, planetary or personal, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often spiral.

[Originally when I took the photo I was simply looking for a background that would contrast with the bowl.  Only later after I’d uploaded the photo did I realize that the grain of the wood holds at least as much interest as the spiral design of the bowl.  Talk about not seeing the obvious.]

You may remember the chorus in Joni Mitchell’s lovely song “The Circle Game”:

And the seasons they go round and round
and the painted ponies goes up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
from where we came
and go round and round and round
in the circle game.

Joni, it’s lovely, and it’s easy to be seduced by the beauty of your song, but you’re wrong.  Or at least, you’re right only about one choice among many.  It’s a game, and therefore we’re no more captive than any player is who agrees to the rules in order to play at all.

We can choose to play the game this way and be participants in time.  That’s the only way to live in a material world anyway, from what I’ve seen:  in time.  Once we release the drive to “get ahead” or “win the race,” we can begin to jump through time, from moment to moment, recognizing “infinity in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour,” as William Blake has it.  Time is illusion, yes — but in the sense of play (Latin ludere, lusus, illusio = in+ lusio — “in the game”):  a set of rules to make sense or pattern out of the flow of experience, which is e-lusive. We need “before” and “after” in order to begin (or return) to experience “now.”  The moment of illusion, of play, then broadens and deepens.

“Time is the stream I go fishing in,” says Thoreau.  I use this as a mantra when I get stressed about deadlines, minutes ticking, the illusion gaining hold in a way that’s no longer a game, no longer pleasant to be playing. There’s nothing wrong or cruel about time, once we let go the fear that comes with clinging to any particular moment — of resisting the play because life is supposedly such a serious thing.  “Eternity is in love with the productions of time,” Blake says in another poem.

These “long lessons” are ones I keep learning.  Most of us do — most of us are slow learners — earth’s a place for those with “special needs.”

To live any other way is to suffer needlessly — never my favorite thing to do, anyway — and to be trapped in regret and loss.  We’ll all have a taste of these if we live long enough, as part of the balance that comes with fullness of life — why seek out more, and worse, elevate them to a kind of icon of authenticity?  “I’m not human unless I make a fetish of my suffering,” some people seem to say.  “I AM my suffering,” say others.

The Circle Game goes best when we treat it as a game, as a shape of experience.  But it’s not the ONLY one.  We hear of people being “lost in the past.” How about seeing what it’s like to lose yourself in the present?   Nowhere is now here, to make a linguistic jest with wisdom at its core.

Robert Frost was on to it in “Birches.”

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.  Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If I don’t experience it on this curve of the spiral, it won’t be there for me the next time to “come to and begin over” in that “can-be-delightful” encounter of the “familiar-new” that often flavors our experiences. I cheat myself of so much joy, thinking there’s someplace “where it’s likely to go better.” Now, here, is when and where it’s at.

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