After looking at a couple of online courses in fiction writing, I’ve concluded (not surprisingly) that a course is not what I need. These courses are expensive, and they’re directed at novices. You’ll get a week on dialog, a week on how to write a strong opener, a week on how conflict works, and so on — the basics. I already know all that stuff.
Applying it is not always easy, but a course is not going to show you how to build up the conflict between two specific characters who are already firmly ensconced in your pages. A course just gives you some vague generic guidelines, with maybe some examples from books the instructor has read that you probably haven’t. After that, you’re on your own.
What I actually need is an ongoing source of support and encouragement to keep me focused on the novel that’s sitting here on my hard drive. I have a complete second draft, and it still needs some fairly extensive revisions, for reasons that would take many paragraphs to explain. This book is a complex project, and the points of confusion that get me discouraged are very, very specific. As in, why does Jeroe dismiss the guards he hired? (Or is the guard asleep downstairs? Will that work?) How can I work Mother Hagel into the denouement? How will she feel when she finds out she was hoodwinked? Will Graysall work out how Lady Murassala died? How do Prince Rufallo’s men know Danforth has the shawl?
These are all real questions about my actual project; they’re not made-up examples. And they’re not going to be addressed in an online curriculum where you submit two 3,000-word excerpts over the course of 12 weeks. What the hell good would it do to have your fellow students read a couple of 3,000-word excerpts? That’s not where the problems are!
Unfortunately, even admitting that what I need is a source of support is, in effect, a sort of catch-22. If I say it out loud (or here in the blog, which is as close to out loud as shut-ins get these days) and get no meaningful response, that’s an emotional body blow. I experience the lack of response as rejection. (This is to do with childhood issues, nothing I intend to explain. You just need to accept it; don’t even bother trying to talk me out of it with some sort of pathetic pep talk.)
But if I don’t say it out loud, how will anyone know I need the support?
Mick Jagger: “We all need someone we can lean on.” Exactly. You can call it a crutch, or a prop, or a balloon lift, the precise metaphor doesn’t matter. Writing is hard. As I used to tell my cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
When you’re young, I suspect, you can give yourself some emotional support by dreaming about the success you’ll enjoy someday. You bask in the gauzy visions of the admiring fans who will someday flock to your book signings. But I’m 72 years old. I don’t for a moment believe that flocks of admiring fans will figure in my future. If a few people read my stories and enjoy them, that’s good enough. Beyond that, I just want to finish this novel because I think it’s good. I care about the characters. I re-read Chapter 1 this afternoon and it brought tears to my eyes.
A couple of weeks ago one of my Facebook friends (a woman I used to know pretty well down in Cupertino 30 years ago) said she had downloaded While Caesar Sang of Hercules and was going to read it. Great! And then … nothing. I have no idea if she even started reading, if she tried reading it and gave up because it didn’t interest her, if she read it and hated it, or if she read it and liked it but just hasn’t bothered to say so.
And you can’t ask. That novel has fallen into the void. I’m proud of it, but not a single person has yet said they read it and enjoyed it. (I checked. No customer reviews on Amazon.) So why should I struggle to wrestle another project, something that’s more of a struggle than that one was, into shape? What does it matter if I do, or if I don’t?
If it mattered to someone other than me, I’d be more likely to keep at it. But I’m not going to ask for support and encouragement, because if nobody responds, that will make the struggle much worse. Much worse when drums stop.
Interpreting words on a screen can be a fraught undertaking. I’ve found myself in a few interactions on Facebook where feelings were hurt and friendships damaged. In asking myself whether I might be to blame or need to do things differently, I’ve realized that it’s probably very significant that I’m an editor. Retired, to be sure, but I’ve spent more than 30 years reading and analyzing text and pointing out, not infrequently in great detail, the errors therein. I made a living at it.
Because of this, I’m pretty sure I don’t encounter text the way most other people do.
It’s a truism that on Facebook your facial expressions and the nuances of your tone of voice are lost. Irony and sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted as sincere statements. But it goes deeper than that.
Most people, if I can say this non-pejoratively, don’t put together sentences in anything like a careful, analytical way. They sort of grope at or blunder toward what they’re trying to convey. Not infrequently it’s about their emotional state. The sentence or paragraph may contain things that appear to be facts, and the facts may be wildly wrong — but that doesn’t matter to the writer, because what they’re saying has little to do with facts. The alleged facts are no more than symbolic place-holders.
Having slapped together a sentence or paragraph that seems to reflect their feelings, they don’t pause to examine or fine-tune what they’ve written. They just hit Return or click the Send button, and there it goes.
When I read what they’ve written, I read the facts. I read the logic. If the facts and logic are incorrect, I respond as an editor. (Also, I may have a great deal of background information at my fingertips that they don’t have, because I have a good memory and read a lot.)
When I respond as an editor, it gets ugly. The person who wrote the text interprets my response as a denial of their feelings or as a rejection of them as a person. It never occurs to them to re-examine what they wrote with an editor’s eye to see if perhaps I might be right. In many cases they may not even have the skills they would need to do that.
Something similar can happen when people read self-published fiction. A typical reader (or, indeed, the author) may feel deep affection for a novel because it evokes certain feelings in them. I, on the other hand, read the novel (or at least the first 20 pages of it, unable to stomach more) as an editor. It’s clear to me that the novel is a piece of crap. It’s clear to me that the author ought not even to be allowed in the same room with a word processor. But I dare not say so, because it will seem to both the author and the fan that I’m dismissing their emotions and possibly denying their worth as human beings.
(Human beings have no inherent worth, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Should I remain silent? If remain silent, I’m stifling my own perceptions, my own gifts, my own personhood in order to tend to the other person’s feelings. That’s not a healthy thing to do, not as a regular course. I’ve only been to a couple of Al-Anon meetings, but I know that much.
There have been some articles recently in the British press about how universities are being asked not to lower students’ grades due to the students’ inability to spell, use good grammar, or construct coherent paragraphs. Fortunately, the academics seem to be pushing back. In the modern world, you do need to be able both to write well and to analyze what you’ve written to make sure it adheres closely to logic, facts, and simple common sense.
If you’re going to get all bent out of shape when someone points out that you have failed to communicate using written language, there’s really no hope for you. You might get along fine in a hunter-gatherer community, but it’s civilization now. You’re going to make a mess of it.
Group loyalty is such a basic human instinct that it’s likely to seem perfectly natural to us. We don’t even notice that an instinct is swaying our thought processes. I got to thinking about this this morning when I read an article in The New York Times about some terrorists who are active, even today, as part of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
You’d think that with the border open between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, any animosity would quickly have drained away. But that hasn’t happened. Northern Ireland has been bitterly divided for hundreds of years, and people are not keen to let go of their loyalty to their own group.
There’s an old joke about this. A man is driving at night along a lonely road in Northern Ireland, and he’s stopped at a roadblock. A man with a rifle comes up to the car and says belligerently, “Are ye Catholic or Protestant?” The driver realizes he’s likely to be in serious trouble if he gives the wrong answer, but he has no idea which side the man with the rifle is on. Thinking quickly, he says, “I’m an atheist!” The man with the rifle says, “Aye, but are ye a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”
The point of the joke is that it’s not possible to be neutral. There’s no middle ground. If you’re not for us, you’re against us.
We see this again and again, all over the world. If a group of people takes a public stand of any kind, and if you should be so bold as to raise questions about that public stand, it doesn’t matter how reasonable or how well-considered your questions are. If you don’t support our group in toto, you’re obviously in the enemy camp. If you’re not “us,” you’re automatically “them.”
This instinct once served, I’m sure, an important purpose. Our species evolved in small tribal bands of no more than 20 or 30 adults, tops. Not only did you know everybody, most of them were your close relatives. That is, you shared genes. A gene that was selfishly protecting other copies of itself would have good reason to favor members of your band against strangers. Genes that encouraged that behavior would proliferate.
In addition, it was practical to share resources and track the reciprocity within your own band. You couldn’t do that with strangers; there would be no reciprocity, so anything you did to help a stranger was a strict loss. (This is why the parable of the Good Samaritan is important, by the way. It urges us to act unnaturally.)
Another factor to weigh in is that the sharing of resources would often have been, in our ancestral environment, a zero-sum game. If they had more, we would have less!
In the modern world, none of these factors is really in play. Our in-groups tend mostly to be large and abstract. We don’t share significant genetic material with other members of the group, and the sharing of resources (such as by paying taxes for public services) is not likely to be a zero-sum game. Our society is much more complex than it once was, and the resources themselves are more abstract.
Nonetheless, the instinct continues to operate.
It can be used cynically, by those who have no loyalty to a group but crank up the group’s passions purely for their own selfish purposes. It can also be used by leaders who may genuinely believe in the group’s importance and shared values — and it doesn’t matter a whit whether those values are actually good or evil. The instinct for group loyalty doesn’t evaluate the group’s values; all that matters is that you stick with the group.
Also, it’s important to show that you belong to the group. There are various ways to do this — certain types of dress, shared language or customs, and also engaging in violence against “them.” It’s all rather sad.
I’d like to pretend that I’m too smart to be swayed by this instinct, but of course that’s not true at all. I’ve been talking to some people lately about making a contribution to the arts center here in Livermore. It seems a worthwhile thing to do. But if I were approached by someone from the arts center in Pleasanton, which is only ten miles away, I would be completely uninterested. In my gut, I know that Livermore is “us.” Pleasanton is “them.” I’ve played in many concerts at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, and attended a lot of others. I’ve been to a couple of shows at the Firehouse in Pleasanton, and they were good shows, but I’ve never played on the Firehouse stage. The Bankhead is “us.” The Firehouse is “them.”
The operation of this instinct makes it quite difficult to criticize the beliefs or tactics of a group. It doesn’t even matter much whether you’re an outsider or a member of the group. If you question what the group is doing, you get the “them” sticker plastered on your forehead. You can expect to be attacked. Verbally, one hopes, not physically, but misunderstandings and hurt feelings are bound to follow.
For many years, my motto has been, “What we’re dealing with here is a fairly intelligent species of chimpanzees. It would be a mistake to expect too much.” The awful messes generated by the group loyalty instinct provide a fine example of how tragically screwed up our species truly is.
A quick note for my UU friends. This article in the New York Times discusses a vigorous campaign by a religious professional against the release of a film. According to the article, the film was not actually anti-Islam at all, but a prominent cleric in Pakistan decided it was anti-Islam, and without ever having seen the film.
The filmmaker’s career has been badly damaged.
The difference between this incident and the attacks on Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers by prominent people within the Unitarian Universalist Association is a difference of degree, not of substance. Aside from the intensity of the attack, the two incidents are very similar. In both cases, religious professionals chose to attack a work that they had not personally read or seen, because they had decided without evidence that it was an attack on their religion.
This is called virtue signaling. If you’re a zealot, you have to show your righteousness by attacking someone or something. If you don’t attack anyone, your credentials as a True Believer are in danger. You’ll be perceived as weak.
If no target that actually qualifies should present itself, no problem! Just choose a convenient target, make up some lies about it, and proceed with your attack.
My friend Rachel posted a cartoon on Facebook, and she was disturbed by my reaction to it. I’ll post the cartoon below, but maybe a little preamble would not be amiss. Although, since this is about gender diversity, maybe “amiss” is not a word I ought to use.
At the outset, I need to make it clear that I understand that trans people face very real and often tragic problems — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, violence, and family ostracism would be at the top of the list. When a trans teen is kicked out by conservative parents, what ensues is likely to be homelessness, suicide, or death due to preventable disease. There’s a reason why trans women sometimes become sex workers. It’s a dangerous occupation, but they can’t get any other kind of paying work.
This stuff is beyond horrible, and we all hope to see it change, radically and soon. We would all like to see gender-variant people treated just like everybody else.
The difficulty that quite often arises when trans people are around non-trans people (the awkward term “cis-gendered” means “non-trans”) is that the cis people don’t know what to make of them. Their social presentation quite likely includes some cues that say “male” and some cues that say “female.”
I like the observation that the word “gender” is a verb. We all gender people, even complete strangers, within half a second after we see them. This is normal mental behavior in our species. It’s part of being human to look at someone and almost instantly recognize, “That’s a man,” or, “That’s a woman.” The specifics of personal appearance and comportment will vary from one culture to another, but the gendering of others is part of our evolutionary heritage as a species.
We all pretty much understand the cues that are prevalent in our culture. Some of us prefer subtle cues, and some of us like to run the flag up the flagpole, so to speak. And the cues change from one decade to the next. A hundred years ago, a woman wearing trousers in Euro-American society would have been seen as dangerously gender-variant. A hundred years before that, a man wearing face powder, a long curly wig, and high-heeled shoes would not have been gender-variant.
When the gendering process gets hung up because we’re perceiving a variety of cues that don’t fit well with one another, some of us — perhaps most of us — are uncomfortable. Depending on our life experience, we may react to that discomfort in various ways. We might make a joke, or point and laugh. We might become angry and make threatening gestures. We might feel disgusted, or turn around and leave. We might shrug it off. We might even feel happy that the gender-variant person is comfortable appearing in public.
Or we might try to get more information in order to alleviate our discomfort. How do you get more information? Oh, I know! You ask questions. Do you ask the bartender or the bus driver? Probably not. The best source of information is likely to be the gender-variant person themselves.
With that as a preamble, let’s look at the cartoon.
Rachel posted this cartoon. I interpreted it in a less than flattering way. My interpretation upset her. Here is what I said:
In the first place, “I’ll leave you alone, then,” hardly qualifies as a desirable situation. Should we assume that trans people do not want to interact with anybody other than maybe other trans people? That’s clearly absurd. We all have a need to communicate with others about our human experiences, and we all live in a diverse society. Nobody can legitimately have an expectation that they will be able to live in a bubble where they never communicate or interact with anybody except people who are exactly like them or already understand everything about them.
It’s also the case that when you meet someone whose experiences are different from yours — let’s say, a Catholic priest, a beekeeper, or a man who has undergone triple bypass surgery — it’s perfectly okay to be curious! And if you’re curious about the experiences of another human being, it’s perfectly okay to ask polite questions!
What this cartoon is really about is, it’s about trans people claiming (or trying to claim) the right to be perpetual victims. As in, “You must at all times treat me exactly as I demand to be treated, because if you don’t you will harm and injure me.” And that’s bullshit. If you’re living in the real world, you can expect that sometimes some people will treat you in ways that you don’t want to be treated. Get used to it. Stop whining about it and get on with your amazing, beautiful life. Hang out with people who like and accept you. And when you go into the grocery store and somebody calls you “ma’am” instead of “sir,” or points at you and laughs, just go on with your shopping. Don’t make a big stink about it.
It’s certainly true that I could have avoided using the word “bullshit.” And “big stink” is really offensive. I ought not to have said that. I’ve been asking myself why I reacted so strongly to this cartoon, and after a few hours I think I’m figuring it out. (See below.)
Rachel responded: “You break my heart sometimes. Yes, having someone ask you a question that is insensitive or embarrassing multiple times a day for your entire life is absolutely one of those problems [i.e., discrimination in employment, violence, etc.]. It’s pervasive and painful and degrading on mental and emotional health and as a result, physical health.”
I find it hard to imagine that anybody is asked insensitive or embarrassing questions “multiple times a day for [their] entire life,” but I suppose I ought to give Rachel a pass on the exaggeration. Several times a week, sure, I’ll buy that.
But the real question is how you handle it when someone asks. A great deal also depends on who asks, what they ask, and what their demeanor and tone of voice are when they ask. On that topic, the cartoon is silent. We don’t know whether the person wearing the blue shirt is a stranger, an acquaintance, a co-worker, or perhaps a family member. We can see that this person is now upset, but we have no information about whether they had asked a question in a polite and friendly manner and been rebuffed, or about what question they asked (if any).
I’m thinking about my friend Richie. He passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. When I knew him he seemed to be an ordinary male-identified guy. He was the art director of the magazine where I worked. Later, Richie and his wife moved to San Francisco and he became a highly visible gender freak. Flouncing down the sidewalk in six-inch heels, a feather boa, and extreme makeup was Richie’s hobby. Maybe we should call it an obsession.
The point is, I’m sure he enjoyed it! And I would be shocked to learn that he objected to having total strangers ask him intrusive questions about what he was up to.
If anything, I would suggest that gender-variant individuals can help normalize themselves and others precisely by answering questions, even if those questions may be intrusive or based on basic misunderstandings. If you’re feeling good about yourself and about your life, why wouldn’t you be happy to help someone else develop an understanding? It will help you, and it will also help other people like you who may be encountering worse problems.
Gender identity and gender expression are simply part of the human experience. They’re not a taboo topic, or ought not to be, any more than beekeeping or open heart surgery is a taboo topic. Being trans does not, in point of fact, make you special. It doesn’t entitle you to any special privileges.
At root, my problem with the cartoon is this: The blond person is asserting the right to be free to appear in public in the way that they feel good about appearing. That is, they are free. And they should absolutely be free! They should absolutely feel free! Yet at the same time, the blond person is attempting to exert complete dictatorial control over how the person in the blue shirt responds to them. The blond person is insisting on their own freedom, yet arrogantly denying the other person’s freedom.
How does this help normalize gender variance as part of the rich breadth of the human experience? How does it help bring us together? It doesn’t. It’s a defensive, divisive tactic. It’s identity politics, and it’s wrong.
The cartoon presents an asymmetrical social situation. The person on the left has not, as far as we can tell, done or said anything wrong. He (we’ll assume this is a cis-gendered male) is upset because he is unsure what sort of social behavior is acceptable. He appears to be miserable. We might imagine that he would like some guidance, but he’s not getting any. Meanwhile, the person on the right (gender unknown, so we’ll stick with “they”) is smiling in every frame — clearly they’re happy — and in four frames displays no less than seven closed fists.
Who is the dominant person in this encounter? Clearly, the blond trans person is dominant. And being dominant, they’re instructing the cis person what sort of behavior is acceptable. Why is it expected (that is, why does the cartoonist advocate) that the cis person ought to adopt or refrain from a certain type of behavior? In order for the trans person to be happy, that’s why. Let’s be clear about this: The trans person is asking (demanding, really, by displaying fists) that the cis person take care of the trans person’s feelings.
And yet, the trans person is not, for a moment, offering to take care of the cis person’s feelings. At no point in this encounter does the trans person say, “Hey, I know this is hard for you. Let’s sit down and talk about it.” That doesn’t happen. The encounter is asymmetrical. The cis person is being told, “Shut up. My feelings are important. Your feelings are not important.”
That’s why the cartoon upset me. That’s why I used the word “stinks.” I didn’t know why I said what I said, but now that I’ve thought it through, I get it.
Let’s admit that sometimes the questions trans people are asked can be extremely intrusive. Questions about surgery and genitalia, for example, are blatantly offensive. And trans people do hear those questions from time to time (though probably not multiple times a day, unless they’re sex workers). But if you’re feeling good about yourself, it’s perfectly okay to answer such a question — or indeed, any question at all — by saying, “That’s a private matter. I’d rather not talk about it.”
See how easy it is? You don’t have to freak out when somebody asks a crude or embarrassing question. If you don’t want to answer it, just don’t answer it. Claiming that the other person ought not to have asked, however — that’s childish. And that’s precisely what the cartoonist is claiming.
The reality is, many gender-variant people suffer from deep emotional trauma dating back to early childhood. Some may have worked through their trauma and emerged stronger and more confident, but even then the after-effects will linger. In some cases the trauma will be a lifelong burden. In which case, yes, even an innocent question can trigger pain.
But if the question does trigger pain, the pain is not the fault of the person who asked the question! If the person is a close friend or family member, then certainly they ought to know better. But that’s not what this cartoon is about. And if the questioner is a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger, just deal with it. Stop whining and get on with your amazing, beautiful life. Be like Richie.
One of the dubious pleasures of retirement is that sometimes you unearth and then perhaps swoon over mementos that have long languished in cartons in your garage. The garage is not, of course, an ideal repository, owing to the not entirely remote possibility of mice. Really, certain things ought to be brought into the house — but what’s the hurry? Another year one way or another, what will it hurt?
From December 1975 through June of 2002, I was a full-time editor on the staff of Keyboard magazine. Keyboard (called, at that time, Contemporary Keyboard) had started a couple of months before I joined, but I was on board for the 3rd issue, and in fact I wrote as a freelancer the opening feature article in Vol. 1, No. 1. I was at Keyboard for somewhat longer than anybody else. They came, they went, I just sat there at my desk and did what I did.
In the late ’90s, the company started downsizing the magazines, which included Guitar Player, Bass Player, and at times other titles as well. I made it through the first couple of rounds of downsizing, but by the third round my salary, after all those years, made me too tempting a target.
Honestly, I was relieved to be let go. In the ’80s and ’90s it was an amazing place to work, but by 2002 the shrinkage and what we might call, if it’s not too pejorative a term, the institutional dry rot were not hard to see. The publishing company, originally called GPI, had been bought and sold a couple of times, and by the dawn of the new century the prevailing corporate philosophy was not, shall we say, entirely congenial to what had been our editorial mission 20 years before. I could say a lot more about that, but maybe I shouldn’t.
The last print issue was dated March 2017. The magazine still exists in some form, I believe, as a website owned and operated by the Future Publishing conglomerate. I never go there, so I have no idea what they’re up to.
After I was laid off, I remained on what’s called the comp list: I had a complimentary subscription. For a few years after I was laid off I continued to write for the magazine as a freelancer. (There was never any question about the quality of my work.) Eventually that came to an end as well; the corporation proposed a new contract for freelancers, and I found a couple of the contract provisions unacceptable. But even then, I remained on the comp list.
Because of that (returning to the topic with which this rambling reminiscence began), I have a complete collection of Keyboard issues. They’re not all in pristine condition; a couple have damaged covers; but they’re all well preserved, and the pre-2002 copies are mint. No mice built nests in the cartons while the archives were in my garage.
Today I brought the whole collection into the house, sorted it by date, and stacked it neatly on the shelves in the spare room. And now I’m thinking maybe I ought to write a memoir. I’ve never been even faintly interested in reading memoir, much less writing it, but I still hear occasionally from people who were reading Keyboard 25 years ago and have fond memories. Heck, I have some pretty fond memories myself.
Digging through the back issues would remind me of so many things I’ve half forgotten … and a few I’d just as soon forget. I’m still in touch with many of the people with whom I worked, and I’m sure they’d enjoy reminding me of still more events, some glorious and others gloriously awkward.
A memoir? I’m not sure I want to go down that road. One of the things you learn, if you work at a monthly magazine, is that it’s all waste paper. You keep churning it out, month after month and year after year, but it’s all dust in the wind. As Mick Jagger said, “Who wants yesterday’s paper?”
But I don’t know. Maybe it would be fun to write a memoir. Maybe somebody would enjoy reading it. Maybe somebody would even want to publish it, though that seems doubtful. I’m kind of looking around for a project, so maybe this idea is worth mulling over. Oh, I could tell you stories….
One of my Livermore friends (naming no names) posted a truly offensive image on Facebook saying “Police Lives Matter.” I pointed out to her that this slogan is bullshit. I didn’t use the term “racist bullshit” in my reply to her, but I should have.
She snipped off a comeback about how there are some “core problems” in the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m not sure what she was referring to; she didn’t say. I did go down the rabbit hole far enough to check out a Stanford Daily opinion piece attacking BLM which complained that BLM justifies rioting and violence. A link in that piece led to a BLM-positive page in which it was pointed out that defending big-box stores against looting is, in essence, defending corporate capitalism.
I certainly don’t support looting and arson, but I have no sympathy at all for corporate capitalism. It seems to me the thing that anti-BLM commentators are keen to overlook is people’s anger at how their friends and neighbors are routinely killed by the police, and without consequences. That’s why they’re rioting, folks.
I pointed out to my friend that the reason for the Black Lives Matter slogan is that historically, black lives have not mattered in North America, not for 400 years. Lynchings, segregation, discrimination in hiring, laws against mixed-race marriages, a blatantly discriminatory “justice” system that continues to punish black people much more harshly than white people who are convicted of similar crimes — the list is long. I mentioned the white riot in Tulsa in 1921, in which white people burnt down the entire black business district of the city.
Has any of these outrages ever been perpetrated on police officers? Has there ever been a single case in this country of a police officer being lynched by a mob who then ate a nice picnic lunch and took snapshots around the tree where the corpse was swinging? I doubt it. Has there ever been a law against a non-police officer marrying a police officer? That would be inconceivable. Are police officers ever sentenced to longer prison terms than non-police officers convicted of the same crime? More often, the murderers among the police can’t even be convicted in court.
I’m sure most police officers are good people. They work hard, and I appreciate what they do. I would not want to live in a town where there are no police protecting us from criminals. And yes, their job is sometimes very dangerous! They occasionally have to make split-second life-or-death decisions, and anybody can make a wrong decision at such a moment! I would never blame a police officer for that, not if it truly is a life-or-death decision. But sometimes it isn’t. Kneeling on a man’s neck for nine minutes is not a split-second life-or-death decision.
So the real-world picture is somewhat nuanced. It’s not a good/bad, either/or question.
However, the slogan “Police Lives Matter” is not actually about supporting the lives of decent officers like the man who was run down in D.C. this week. It’s a thinly disguised bit of racism. It’s not just pro-police. It’s a statement in support of the police against black people. It’s a statement in support of the man who, while wearing a badge and under cover of authority, murdered George Floyd.
I will stand up in support of any police officer who is willing to publicly testify against brutal racist cops. I’m pretty sure there aren’t a lot of them, but I hope there are some. I don’t know any police personally, but my impression from what I’ve read is that in most cases their sense of loyalty to their fellow officers urges, or even forces, them to remain silent rather than call out the racists and abusers in their ranks.
I don’t support any organization in which ordinary people have to remain silent, or worse, have to lie, in order to keep their jobs and be safe from retaliation. I wouldn’t support it in the stock room of a big-box store, I wouldn’t support it in a black church in Alabama, and I don’t support it in a police department.
The original forms of art made by our species were almost surely singing and dancing. And maybe body painting. Carving in wood and painting on cave walls would have come along later.
We can easily see why the genes that caused our ancestors to sing and dance were favored in evolution. Singing and dancing demonstrate physical and mental fitness. And of course demonstrating fitness would be useless if we didn’t also have the right genes to perceive and decode the demonstrations. We’re artistic, both as creator/performers and as audiences, because those of our ancestors who were artistic produced in each generation slightly more offspring than those who weren’t.
None of this explains why individuals today make specific types of art rather than other types. That has more to do with how a variety of drives entangle with one another in the brain.
For the past couple of days I’ve been working on the design of a new board game. I find this process very interesting indeed. Many people would, I’m sure, consider designing a game very much less uplifting or ennobling than writing a novel. And for them, that might be a sound and appropriate judgment. Nothing to do with me, though.
It strikes me that what I enjoy is taking pieces of raw material and working them into a satisfying and coherent whole. There’s discovery in it, and pleasure. The nature of the raw material doesn’t matter much, and the nature of the finished whole will arise out of the raw material in whatever way it arises. For me, the process of construction is what matters — fitting pieces together smoothly. The idea that gets me going could be a character or a setting. It could be a melody or a synthesizer sound. It could be some type of interaction of pieces on a board.
I’ll go further: The coherence of the whole should be perceptible not just from the inside but from the outside. Tonight I happened to tune in to an avant-garde piece on bandcamp (https://christopherbailey.bandcamp.com/track/retreat). There may be some internal coherence in this music. That is, the composer may have had some specific idea in mind and worked hard to bring the idea into fruition. But it’s impossible for the listener to tell what the idea may have been. All that’s audible is … well, it’s gibberish. Some people may enjoy listening to this sort of thing, and indeed brief fragments reminded me of Wendy Carlos or Frank Zappa. But the brief fragments don’t add up to anything. The brief episodes of coherence dissolve into incoherence, and incoherence leaves me cold.
I try to create structures that hang together — and honestly, that’s pretty much all I care about. Naturally, I’d like people to appreciate what I’ve done. I’m disappointed when they don’t. But what disappoints me, I think, is that I know I have done something good but my accomplishment is not being appreciated. If it didn’t satisfy me to begin with, I would never bother showing it to anybody. But I suspect they aren’t excited by it, whatever it happens to be, because they’re hoping for something that’s not there. It’s not there because it doesn’t interest me, whatever it is.
Very darn few people are ever going to read my fiction. Very darn few are ever going to listen to my music. And if any of them do, I won’t be in the room with them. Designing a board game is actually more likely to lead to positive strokes than music or fiction, because I’ll need to cajole a few people into helping me test it. They’ll be in the room. We’ll be able to talk about the structure of the game. They’ll tell me what they like and what they don’t. I’ll be able to incorporate a few of their ideas, and then they’ll be happier and I’ll be happier too.
This will happen once the lock-down ends, of course. It won’t happen this month or next. But as a creative field leading to social interaction, designing a game is actually better than writing a novel.
Other people may write novels for other reasons. Some people write them in order to present ideas that they feel are important. Some people write them in order to work through the implications of some emotional dilemma. Or to have a framework for pouring out beautiful sentences. Or to make money. That’s all fine. I have no quarrel with it.
Me, I value formal and intellectual coherence. If nobody else cares about that, it’s their loss. As Bernard Shaw once said, “A picture gallery is a dull place for a blind man.”
Sometimes I write fiction, and sometimes I compose and record music. They’re very different activities, but I enjoy them both. While I’m not a stellar artist in either area, I have a basic level of competence in both.
Here’s where it gets a tiny bit puzzling.
This week I posted on Facebook a photo displaying the covers of my two new books. More than 30 people Liked the photo, and a couple of them said they plan to buy one of the books. This is important to me, because I need a bit of support to stay on an even keel. (I mean, who doesn’t?)
Last week I posted a link to a video of one of my pieces of music. I got NO responses from my FB friends. Not a single Like or comment. A few days later, thinking maybe the video was a problem, I posted a link to a different tune as mp3 audio. Again, not a single response of any kind.
I’m not trying to shame my Facebook friends, nor am I hoping they’ll offer excuses! They’re very nice people, and in many cases they’re undoubtedly too busy to sit quietly and listen for five minutes. Reacting to a photo takes no time at all. But since many of them are musicians, the difference is rather mystifying.
One possibility is that people are Facebooking on their phones. Unless you plug in your earbuds, the phone audio is going to be crappy. Another possibility is that for some opaque algorithmic reason Facebook is failing to poke my music posts into people’s feeds. I regard that as less likely. Or it could be that my mixes sound good on my own studio monitors but suck on most other audio systems. Again, not very likely, but possible.
In any event, here we are. I like doing music. Lately I’ve been doing some music. So as you scroll down you’ll find audio links to five new pieces. Not because anybody cares, but because I did this creative work, damn it, so I’m going to show it off!
Let’s start with “Human Maneuvers.” I was having a discussion with Drew Schlesinger about the Casio CZ-101, which was an important synthesizer for a year or two in the mid-1980s. I happen to have a plug-in called Virtual CZ that does a fine job of emulating the long-lost CZ-101, so I loaded it up and my fingers landed on a sort of bass riff. The tone repeats on the 8th-note, but that happens because I’m holding down the key. The envelope loop (for those who understand such things) is not syncable, so the tempo is baked into the preset, but it’s a good tempo.
This initial idea grew, over the course of a few days, into my own slightly twisted take on ’80s synth pop, hence the title. Maybe I ought to have spelled it “Manoeuvres.” I no longer write lyrics, so you’ll have to imagine that the lead line is being sung.
Next up is “French Nails.” This is closer to my natural style, especially the rather slippery harmonic movement and the 5/4 time signature. here again, the tune started with me throwing my fingers at the keyboard and finding something, in this case the figure in 3rds that provides the opening melody.
I’ve been thinking I might do a whole set of pieces inspired by Tarot cards. The argument against this idea is that Tarot enthusiasts almost certainly prefer acoustic music. Hey, I like acoustic music too! Would you like to bring your guitar, flute, or conga drums over to my house and sit here 16 hours a day every day for a few months in case I have a part I’d like you to record? No? Okay, then — what you get is going to be electronic, but don’t say I didn’t make the offer.
Anyway, here’s “The High Priestess.” The two pillars in the image on the card inspired the opening chord progression. Also, the fact that there are 22 cards in the Higher Arcana is going to lead to several of the Tarot pieces using an 11/8 time signature (because two bars of eleven 8th-notes each make a 22-beat pattern). Alternating between 7/4 and 11/8, as I did here, is maybe a bit odd, but everything I do is a bit odd.
A new synth in my grotesquely rotund software collection is the Cherry Audio Eight Voice. It’s a rather faithful recreation of the Oberheim Eight-Voice, another of those vintage synths from the ’80s. The Eight Voice prompted the riff that led to “Satanic Transfer.” The title is a reference to the Medieval music theory idea of the diabolus in musica, the supposedly satanic augmented 4th interval. You’ll hear it at one spot in the middle of this piece. Also audible is a new plug-in called the Mutation Collider, which produced the thoroughly mangled drum break you’ll hear a couple of times. That’s four different drum loops; Mutation Collider is morphing among them in a synchronized way.
To wrap things up, here’s “Looking Back.” This piece is a bit unusual for me in that it’s harmonically very stable — no modulations or weird chords. Also, it’s in shuffle time. Getting the rhythms to line up nicely was a bit of a slog. The inspiration here was the four-bar electric piano riff that shows up about one minute into the piece.
All of these pieces were done in Reason, with the aid of more than a few 3rd-party plug-ins. Reason is not perfect, but it’s awfully good.
Oh, and because Facebook leaves blog links blank if there’s no graphic, here’s a nice snapshot of the composer. This may or may not explain anything….
Yesterday the first paperback copies of my historical mystery arrived. I’m not a rabid fan of Amazon KDP, but by golly, they make it real. I can sit here, put together a book, hire helpers, drop money in their accounts, upload the final files, and a couple of weeks later, bam! It’s a book.
On the left is my story collection. (And yes, the quote from Isaac Asimov along the bottom of the cover is real. He really did say that about my story “Statues.”) On the right, the mystery. I first wrote While Caesar Sang of Hercules 20 years ago, but I never showed it to anybody. When I resurrected it last year I had to retype it from my printout copy, because the digital files were long gone. I hope my next novel won’t have such a long gestation period!
In preparing the publication, I edited it rather extensively, tightening up certain sections and adding some new material. It’s set in a town on the Bay of Naples in the year 65. Nero is a minor character; he appears in only two scenes. It’s about the lives of ordinary people, and of course their lives are disrupted by murder. I was living in Menlo Park when I wrote it, and I drove up to the bookstore on the Stanford campus several times to buy well-researched academic books on Roman culture. I’m sure I got a few details wrong, but the historical ambience is not slapdash. As for the story, I’ll leave you to discover that for yourselves.
Having gotten that thick wad of older work out of the way, I have no excuse for not writing something new. At the moment I have two or three novels in various states of disrepair. One is finished but needs a bit of rewriting (or more than a bit). I’m halfway through the first draft of another. And for some reason I’ve been encountering a lot of resistance to working on either of them. I just don’t want to!
I may be misquoting, but my brain tells me Brian Eno once said, “Honor your resistance as a hidden intention.” After setting aside for a week anything to do with writing, yesterday I used a bit of metaphorical Windex on my computer screen to take a look at those projects. What I quickly realized is that I’m resisting working on them because, at root, they’re not good.
The finished book is a YA fantasy mystery. The trouble is, it’s not a very good fantasy. The magic element in the plot is minor, and the magic itself is boring. A fantasy novel really needs to be about the magic in some central way — and if the magic is colorful, that’s going to give the book a big boost. Also, for structural reasons to do with how the plot unfolds, the book isn’t a very good whodunit.
I’ve pondered bringing the magic forward as a central plot element, but when I do that, the whodunit plot falls apart. The story in its current form has some powerful emotional elements. The YA part is okay, I think. But as a fantasy, it’s strictly blah.
Right now I’m thinking seriously about starting over. Dream up an entirely new book, one in which the fantasy element is both vivid and central to the plot. I don’t have a plot yet, but I have a vision of a culture. I also have an idea about the five main characters. I don’t know their names yet, but I can see them.
My goal, this week and next, is to develop an understanding of the magic and the culture before I try to do a plot. Trying to do the plot first and then fit the magic to it would likely be a mistake. Maybe other authors work more organically, but right now I’m inclined to follow the carpenter’s maxim: “Measure twice, cut once. Measure once, cut twice.”