All That Stuff in the Middle

Penitents is going slowly as it should at this point, but is also making great progress. What it’s needed has finally been found — an antagonist — an ex-convict with a guilty conscience. Even a story based on character rather than action needs tension, and without an antagonist of some kind, there is no tension. There’s a real thrill in solving this kind of problem, especially when the addition of a new character wasn’t intended to solve that particular problem. It’s a light bulb moment.

That thrill is actually a problem of its own. I love this developmental period and its discoveries, much more than the writing itself. Writers tend to complain about “all that stuff in the middle” being the hard part. For me, it would be more accurate to say it’s all the stuff between the high points of discoveries.

I’m a fanatic about using the right words, so if there’s any area where I’m more of a perfectionist than is good for me, that’s it. Lately, finding those words means more dependence on my thesaurus than I’m happy with. It isn’t a matter of not knowing the right words; it’s a matter of recall. That’s always been a problem for me. I might not be able to call up the answer on my own, but I’ll recognize it when I see it. Whether it’s advancing old age or the cognitive effects of one or more of the meds I have to take, I wind up plugging the almost-right word into the thesaurus and hoping that I’ll recognize the word I’m looking for.

Now that I think about it, my personal style, if I even have one, seems less creative than the discovery process of constructing the story. That probably has a lot to do with why I have so many stories developed to the point where they’re ready to be written, but instead languish, untouched. Penitents is almost to that point.

Britain’s New Minister of Loneliness — WTF?

No, it isn’t a joke.Britain has appointed someone to help combat the “epidemic” of loneliness, which has come to afflict millions of people. And, according to the endless stream of articles that’s been popping up lately, it’s a scourge in the US also, and in the “rich” nations generally.

While it’s true that many, many people live alone these days, as a result of loose family ties or, heaven protect us, no family ties or friends, there’s a difference between loneliness and being alone. This isn’t a new issue at all, and may be more widespread than in the past, but it seems to have always existed. I first learned about this “problem” 30 or 40 years ago when I read Anthony Storr’s Solitude: a Return to the Self, first published in 1988.

Solitude was seminal in challenging the psychological paradigm that “interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness.” Indeed, most self-help literature still places relationships at the center of human existence. Lucid and lyrical, Storr’s book argues that solitude ranks alongside relationships in its impact on an individual’s well-being and productivity, as well as on society’s progress and health.

Call me naive, but what amazed me about Storr’s premise was that it was considered some kind of breakthrough in psychology, that it even needed to be said. Of course, I’m an extreme introvert, but that it was (and still is) normal to equate loneliness and solitude was hard to grasp. With a few decades of experiential wisdom at my fingertips, though, I’m much less surprised at the recent rise in concern. If loneliness is considered an epidemic these days, Storr’s book hasn’t changed anything, just as other such books fail to change anything.

Humans are considered herd animals, so their upbringing and education treats them as herd animals. Proper socialization is at the heart of how we bring up our children, so if everything’s going as it should, they have no time to themselves, no way to appreciate the benefits of at least moderate periods of solitude, no opportunity or incentive to look into themselves and discover who they are, as individuals.

Maybe the real problem with social media and smart phones is not selfies, sexting, and addiction, is that they guarantee that no one is ever alone.

Britain now has a minister for loneliness

People in rich countries are dying of loneliness




Penitents Progress Report

This is an expansion of the latest (today) journal entry for Penitents. It’s coming along, even though I still have no idea whether I’ll actually write it. Or anything else.

The notes and questions are accumulating, and I’ve even scribbled some text fragments. I have a much better idea of my central character, some secondary characters, a sense of where this story might go.

The character—Grayson— is still central, but I haven’t had much of a sense of what his world is like—until just now. It’s the same world that Camp Expendable is set in. Maybe even the same as A Well-Educated Boy. Though Well-Ed is probably set somewhat earlier, before the country is in near-total collapse.

So it might be interesting to find ways in which to link the stories, showing that they’re all outcomes of an ongoing process of social, economic, and environmental fragmentation and decay. Part of that would be setting actual dates for the action of each story so that (assuming I write them all–hah hah) they can be read in chronological order. Maybe giving characters from one story small roles in another, though that’s probably too much of a stretch.

Still a major concern is my reluctance to start a large project. If I’m going to write it at all, I want to keep it to novella length, and that’s looking less and less possible. Each new character adds complications and length if they’re to be more than cardboard cutouts.

Here’s a bit that’s more or less the way I want it. Grayson is trying to explain to Lydia why he wants to do a one-week guest retreat with the brotherhood.

“What have you ever done that you need to do penance for? You’re just an ordinary person, like the rest of us. You’re not doing any of the horrible things that messed up the world.”

He opened his mouth to answer and knew that if he didn’t pay attention, he would stumble over his tongue as he usually did when Lydia put him on the spot. It was too much: get the words out properly and make sure they’re words that say what he meant to say. “It isn’t me, Lydia.” He stopped. Not him. That would make it even crazier in her eyes, wouldn’t it? “Okay, it is, a little bit, just because I’m living — eating, eliminating, using up resources…”

“So am I,” she broke in. “So I’m guilty too? Do you want me to share your poverty to make up for… Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.” She waved her hands in angry frustration.

“It’s a brotherhood. They don’t take women.” The second the last word was out of his mouth, he knew it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. He’d jumped off the track–again.

“I don’t care about that! It isn’t the point, Gray.” She sprang up from the couch, banging her shin on the coffee table. “Do whatever you want. I’m not going to argue with you about it. If we’re lucky, you’ll realize it’s just another one of your obsessions and it will burn out by the time you get back. So go! Sleep on the ground naked and eat grass, or whatever it is they do to demonstrate how we should all be living to make up for… for being alive, for heaven’s sake!”

A Concept Without a Plot

I hadn’t planned to post today, but I thought it might be interesting to meander about a story that’s set up active housekeeping in my head, even though it should be way, way down on my list of priorities. Because I have a protagonist, a concept, and a couple of possible themes, but no plot. No, none at all. This isn’t the first time I’ve started working on a possible story without any clue about the plot. It isn’t the best way to work, but that’s never inspired me to change. Either the story will work itself out or it won’t.

“I will devote my life to penance for all humankind.” Or something along that line. Grayson Browning is giving considerable thought to joining a secular monastic order — The Penitents. His girl friend (or fiancée) is outraged. If he wants to help people, there are plenty of ways to do it. Giving up his entire life and becoming a celibate vowed to poverty is just crazy.

The time is probably near the end of the 21st century. The central government is either non-existent or powerless. The country is fractured (by what?), with much of it reverting to a comparatively primitive state. Post-apocalyptic, more or less.

The big question is where I want to put the emphasis — the state of the world? Or Grayson’s place in it, and why he would want to become a penitent? I don’t have much interest in world building, but that isn’t the only reason for not wanting to go into great detail about the time and the place. For one, my own time and energy are running out, and the prospect of jumping into a really big project is just too daunting. Some of those I currently have on hold may never be finished for that reason. They’re too big. Second, and maybe most important, is that I’m much more interested in people than places. I want to know what makes Grayson tick, and that means I’m willing to let the world around him function as a shadowy framework.

I’m also interested in exploring how and why what is essentially a social welfare organization came to model itself on a defunct religion.

How much of a plot do I really need? An interesting question. Maybe the answer lies with Grayson himself.


January 3, 2018 — Irrelevant Nonsense of the Day

Table for One: the Controversial Art of Dining Solo. Think that eating alone, either in a restaurant or at home, can’t be turned into a hot subject for people with nothing better to talk about? “The stigma around solo dining is fading. Is this a hard-won victory for solitude, or a damaging form of isolation?”

Pay attention folks; this is important to your well-being, according someone who calls himself Keff. “…the stigma is there to prevent the long-term costs for human happiness and health that come with this kind of anti-socialization. ‘The more you eat alone, the more out of touch with humanity you become,'”

I could post stuff like this every day and never run out of topics.

Another Year Ahead?

It’s almost obligatory to sum up the last year and make big, never-to-be-accomplished plans for the new year. All I can say about 2017 is that it was a shitty year, in every possible way, for me personally, and for the world. The coming year? Maybe if I can find some motivation for continuing to write I’ll be able to salvage it. I wouldn’t place any bets, though.

I realize this is the time to be all chirpy and cheery and positive-thinking. Pardon me, if I view that as self-deception and delusion. Things (in general) are not going to get better, this year or any year in the future. It’s possible that the belief isn’t so much a matter of denial as it is deliberately promoted ignorance. For instance, somewhere in the news in the later quarter of 2017 I came across an article noting how much time had so far in the year been given to climate change by  tv news programs. I don’t remember the exact figure, but it was minutes. Not days, not hours. Minutes. Less than an hour collectively devoted to the single phenomenon that is going to turn all the major and minor issues that consume our attention into slag.

So it goes.

Mid-holiday Ramblings

I don’t do holidays, so that title up there is just a convenient label. I spent The Day by myself and had macaroni and cheese for dinner. All quite voluntary. I could have had a big dinner and spent time with the family, but have less interest with every year that goes by, in breaking out of my comfortable hermit’s habitat.

Add to that reluctance, my hatred of extreme cold and our plunge into the second cold snap (even more severe than the last one) of the winter. Waking up this morning to -1 with a windchill of -7 doesn’t exactly tempt me to take delight in the great outdoors. We’ve already had more snow than we had all last winter, and the arctic temps forecast for the next week or more are making up for the nearly basky previous winter.

Writing has been off the table for some months now, except for jotting down notes and fragments. Most days, it has felt like a rather permanent end to my short career as an author. I look at the unfinished works and wonder where the enthusiasm went. But not just the enthusiasm — the belief that there is some reason for writing has escaped me.

So what have I been doing? Reading. Lots and lots of reading. My library is swollen with important or interesting-looking books picked up for pennies at the Salvation Army store. I probably discard more than I read through, and have discovered that literary fiction is the most likely to be put in the recycle pile. I just do not give a damn about the details of ordinary characters’ lives. Maybe I unknowingly satisfied my curiosity in my teens and 20s, reading all those classics. Maybe it’s just that most families, and most individual characters, seem so interchangeable, no matter how well they’re written. Their lives are of no more consequence than my own, which, even to me, seems to have had no particular reason for having taken up some space in the world for a short time.

I know all this must seem terribly sad. I must be dangerously depressed. There are days when it feels like depression. But most days, it’s a state of calm objectivity. That’s the way things are, so why cry about it? There are certain normal human feelings that I’ve always lacked, so it may be that the others get more playtime than would be considered healthy.

But I just made a loaf of bread, and I have one of my writing projects open. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” There was a time when that homily by Julian of Norwich was my mantra. Funny, considering that I’m a lifelong atheist, but I take wisdom where I find it.


An Observer’s Notes

It’s a shame, really; they had so much potential. Still do, as a matter of fact, although it’s nearly submerged now in the detritus of their civilizations. My colleagues insist that there were very few, out of the historical billions that populated this planet, who actually possessed any potential. As much as I would like to argue the point, I can’t, not if I don’t wish to join the nearly extinct species in the very delusions that inexorably steered them in the direction of self-destruction.

Yes, it’s a pity. Just one more of the universe’s failed experiments. But the majority have always been failures, haven’t they? It would almost lead you to believe that the universe is conscious, blithely mixing and stirring, just to see what the results might be, the failures and successes of equal disinterest. That the failures suffer along the way to their extinction isn’t any concern of the universe. That my own people have succeeded isn’t any more its concern than if we’d failed. For, after all, our sun will eventually go out, as they all do, bound by the laws that structure birth, death and decay in all its manifestations. In that sense, we are no more successful than these pitiful remnants on the planet home its inhabitants dubbed Earth.

We’re going home soon. When the last human has succumbed to the fouling of earth, air and water, to the near-death of earth itself, we will leave the planet to its own resources. When it’s deemed time enough, another group of observers will make their way here, to watch, to hope, to see what arises from the ruins.

Year’s Best Books in the Age of the Selfie

“Best of” lists are inevitable and unavoidable at the end of every year. I can’t think of any good reason for the existence of these lists other than as one more way to inspire “holiday” spending. But they can be interesting. Take this one, published today (December 18): Electric Literature’s 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2017.

In a year which has seen multiple serious issues come to the foreground, what did Electric Literature’s staff and contributors name as their”favorite factual writing?” Three are concerned with topics of substance, two or three with significant cultural issues that, while currently in the spotlight, are, on the somewhat ephemeral side. The remainder are either partly or wholly concerned with the author’s lives — memoirs.

In the main, this particular list is dominated by “me” as a subject of all-consuming interest, at least to their authors. It’s a bias I see everywhere on the internet: the apparent belief that the author’s life with its confessions, revelations, and angst is fascinating to readers. That’s as true of the essays that fill book review sites, sites like Medium, and even news sites, as it is of the year’s production of books.

If anyone needs to know why the issues that matter receive so little attention, they only have to observe the superficiality of our current “literature.” If a person’s talents don’t extend as far as writing even a long-form essay, they can always publish their selfies. My life, my opinions, my face. What could possibly be more important?

Random Bits

Just washed out the bread machine, (instead of wiping it down) and while I’m waiting for it to dry, here are some odds and ends on my mind today.

Currently reading Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, by David Livingstone Smith. It’s a subject that has puzzled me all my life. Once you get beyond all the theories, all of which, when true, are still only part of the answer, the full answer is that the human brain is built that way. From my fly-on-the-wall position in life, I have to say I haven’t seen any improvement in the 3/4 of a century I’ve been alive so far.

To point that up in the most searing way (as if the current president’s political position isn’t enough to make its own contributions, one of the news sites I read daily had this article this morning: Libya is Home to a 21st Century Slave Market and the UN Security Council Won’t Act.

As with virtually all human rights causes, small battles are won, as this one may be, eventually, but the larger war is always lost. Slavery has always, existed, in many forms. I have no doubt that it will continue to exist. One of the stories I work on now and then involves the return of legal slavery to the US, along with an inherited political strata, much like England’s House of Lords.

My stories endlessly tug me between them, so for the moment, I’m back to trying to complete Bentham’s Dream, while still plugging in notes and occasional text fragments for A Well-Educated Boy.

Bread machine is almost halfway through its cycle. Fresh warm bread for lunch!

End Game: I’m Out

I deleted my novel and personal information from NaNoWriMo this morning. I can’t swear to all the reasons I took this step, other than a vague feeling of revulsion, about my novels in general, not just A Well-Educated Boy. There’s nothing wrong with them, or it, particularly, except that I can no longer believe there’s a good reason to write them. Maybe one possible spur was seeing the statement on the NaNo site every time I clicked on it: “The world needs your novel.” No, the world absolutely doesn’t need your novel — or mine.

I wrote a little over 2,000 words Wednesday, the first day of Nano, not quite 1,000 Thursday, and have found it impossible to set down a single word since.

But the problem goes back much further than this year’s NaNo. What is becoming clear is that my relationship with writing has changed. I’ve never been motivated by fame; neither has money served very well as a motivator. What has been increasingly uppermost in importance has been mastering the craft of writing, and creating work that is meaningful, that has long-term value for readers. I have no problem with the first. I still find satisfaction in a chapter, or even a snippet, well done.

But meaningful? What does that even mean these days? Maybe that’s the big question for me. Or maybe there’s a question I should be asking that I’m not even aware of. All I know at the moment is that I can’t find a reason to write. Maybe that will change. Even if it does, I suspect that it will have significance only for me.


How Do I Write Thee?

For several years, I’ve played around with the idea of blogging the novel-writing process, focusing on just one book, as I write it. I’ve never done it, and probably for the very good reason that it’s such a looong process that it would drag on for months, if not years. I doubt I could keep track of it, much less expect readers to do so. But a novel written in a month? That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, compressed tightly into just 30 days. Doable. And might even be beneficial for me, as a kind of reference for what works and what doesn’t

So, during NaNo 17, I’ll try to get a grip on exactly how I’m doing the thing. It won’t be daily, and there certainly won’t be any of those “I wrote 2,16 words today and I’m only 2,000 words behind the count,” or “Oh god, how am I going to get my hero out of this jam?” posts.

If it turns out that there are only two or three times it’s worth writing up, then that’s all there will be. I’m going into this year’s NaNo without much of what most people would consider necessary enthusiasm, just the need to do a job of work, and finish the month with a workable first draft. This old horse kind of laughs at the kids who seem to think they have to be out of the gate as soon as the bell rings at 12:01 am on November 1. I suspect that most of them won’t get very far.

As a start, here’s what I’m working with after five years of “preparation.” For the first time, a conscious attempt at structure, which turns out to be easy because the novel naturally breaks into three parts (acts). 1. After Zach’s death and up to Harte’s being sent off to Porter Alternative School. 2. At Porter. 3. After Porter.

What do I know about the plot? Enough for it to act as a framework, but not enough to outline or plan scenes. You could say that once in, I’ll be pantsing. Within each act, the action is somewhat non-linear — lots and lots of short flashbacks — with plenty of room for surprises.

Chapters will be third person, limited, with some of them preceded by Harte’s first-person commentary. How often he’ll do this, or what he’ll talk about? I have no idea.

A Well-Educated Boy is, to some extent, an experiment, both in its structure, and how I’m approaching the actual work of writing. That makes it different enough from my past books to be worth documenting, at least for my own use.