Essaying on Fear

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Fear. What does it mean to fear something? Used as a verb, at one time, and a very long time it was — post-Hastings — it meant to frighten or feel fear in oneself. Used as a verb, it comes from the Middle English word feren, which evolved from Old English’s  fær, which might beg the question: if words and language evolve, are they naturally selected?

While that’s old-school, it’s not hard to see the frightening leap to be afraid of something, even something you expect. You might be afraid to get up when the alarm on your phone rings because it means another day’s drudgery at work. Or still asleep, a door creaks, pushed aside by the cat, or a branch scratches against the windowpane above your bed, and you wake startled, heart hammering. Under the covers you squeeze into a fetal ball, eyes closed, because what if that noise wasn’t a branch or door hinge in need of WD-40 and a cat in need of a scolding? What if it’s some meth-addled cretin looking to score a video game he can pawn for his next fix? Or what if there really are monsters under your bed? Just make them go away.

But, it seems a leap of faith to find yourself in Godfearing reverential awe of God. That’s what it means to fear God. Though most people seem to think the deity is something to cower from lest blessings not befall upon your house, and rather your house fall upon you. Ask Job about that.

And that’s what it seems we fear the most — the house falling in on us no matter what. It’s what I’m afraid of, sometimes, or rather its among my many fears — fear is now a noun, the naturally selected necessity in our emotional bank to alert us to danger. Useful on the savanna when a lion is stalking us, or when our Spidey-sense tingles when our enemies have set up an ambush. I like the idea of Spider-man’s Spider-sense, a hero’s enhanced sense of real danger, not the irrational stuff that usually gets to us, the stuff that has the house caving in no matter what.

I can see in myself the tiniest bits of this irrationality, as when the other day driving home from a freelance assignment I was listening to my favorite sports talk radio station out of Dallas and one of the hosts was reading ad copy for a car maintenance shop. The only words I heard were “flat tire”.

“Shut up,” I said. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires while driving. I especially didn’t want to hear how costly tire repair could be. Not then.

Afterward, I kind of snorted a laugh. I had just spoken to a disembodied voice coming from my car’s radio, as if the radio host were next to me in the front seat. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires or anything costing money at a time when my belt is cinched so tight the belt has creditors making harassing phone calls to me.

But that irrational fear seems with me all the time. As silly as it was to argue with a radio ad,what I really didn’t want to do was jinx my subconscious mind and somehow create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hearing those two words was bad mojo. It was like repeating Lord Voldemort and Beetlejuice.

Bad mojo — I need less of it. And maybe by writing about it — maybe I’ll exorcise that fear, beat the mojo, cast it out like I was a curandero, make my tire invulnerable to any costly repair. Should I rub an egg over myself and draw the evil out with it? Might as well blow smoke in my face, too, for all the good it will do.

(Cough. Cough.) So, fear. Look how irrational it is to fear things. But my alert system seems as if its at DEFCON 1 lately without any evidence the missiles are in the air.

One pop-psych self-help book I’ve read calls what I’m experiencing “Waiting for the axe to fall.” To sum up the author’s argument: I should embrace the fear, stroke it like you might the cat. But, have you ever tried to pet a cat that’s afraid of you? It either hisses and bares its fangs to frighten you away, or even more sensibly, retreats and hides under the bed.

Still, I think I understand what the pop psychologist means: perhaps a better word would be managing fear. Another bit more reputable pop psych writer Martin Seligman — in his book Learned Optimism, he at least outlines his research and shows how he came to his conclusions — suggests an evidence-based argument with yourself, a to-be or not to-be moment I suppose, with fewer outrages against the slings and arrows Fortune throws at us.

Maybe, though, we need the outrage, the anger, especially when Fortune, as it often is, out of our control?

Meditation helps — and it too has been embraced in a pop-psych positive thinking way. Sitting and practicing mindfulness meditation, in which focusing on the breath helps you focus on the thoughts you have moment by moment and still them, has helped stem fear sometimes and made my mental focus somewhat better. And a deep breath can quench butterflies or slow anxiousness, say, before a job interview or speaking publicly. But, it’s no cure-all.

Like the other methods, it’s a tool to quiet the mind when we’re ready instead to talk to sports radio hosts as we drive.

But genuine fear of the axe falling is real enough, not irrational. It’s a necessity. I have to take up the slings and arrows courageously and act, knowing that success may or may not be guaranteed. I have to have the determination no matter.

Since this will probably go up before the Fourth, I was just reminded, while listening to a speech of Barbara Ehrenreich’s on Optimism and the cult of positive thinking, of the courage and determination the Founders took: by signing the Declaration of Independence they committed an act of treason against the crown; they could very well have died and some did just by signing their names to that document.

There’s a real reason I think we need fear. It’s not just to caution us to the dangers of the roaring lions around us — and there are plenty here in the U.S. from the top down ready to rend our society further apart — but to remind us nothing is guaranteed. Still, we have to have courage to resist and take action not only politically but personally.

Our best fear quencher is testing reality, perhaps embracing it even when its claws are out, or especially when its claws are out, and embrace and accept what we find under the layers, without embracing magical thinking of any sort that says the world will be a better place if we just think it so.

— Todd

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On Writing: Voice

giphyVoice and narrative, according to Terry McDonell in The Accidental Life, supersede pretty much everything a piece of writing offers to make it good — even word count.

As a magazine editor, who edited Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison, among others McDonell used word counts placed at the top of a manuscript page to “evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece.” Invariably, the writers he worked with would send features in either way over or way under the word count.

“None of this matters if the piece is good — and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length.”

But, what is this elusive Roadrunner of a thing writers chase after called voice?

It’s the sum of every writing strategy you use to makes you sound like you on the page, according Roy Peter Clark. It’s the distinct word choices and punctuation and rhythms and everything else that gives plagiarists fits when they try to pass your writing off as their own.

“Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative,” writes Ursula LeGuin in Steering the Craft. “It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind person; and so on).”

Certain voices are very distinct, easy to recognize:

We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. The grain was just beginning to ripen and the fields were full of poppies. The pastureland was green, and there were fine trees, and sometimes big rivers and chateaux off in the trees.

That’s Hemingway, of course, from The Sun Also Rises. What’s always made Hemingway’s prose distinct to me was the repetition of “and”— the conjunction’s got rhythm.

What would just that first sentence sound like if punctuated with commas as we’re taught?

“We ate the sandwiches, drank the Chablis, and watched the country out of the window.”

It’s still vivid and descriptive, clearly the eye of a good writer giving us concrete details of a train ride, but something seems lost. Those “ands” make it Hemingway.

Another distinct word choice is “fine” referring to “trees”. It gives the trees an aesthetic quality. Hemingway does this often with words like “fine” and “good,” to the point of parody. In fact, parodists often throw in a lot of “fines” and “goods” in their parodies of his style.

Here’s another favorite voice of mine:

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, goodlooking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

That’s Susan Orlean, from her feature “Show Dogs,” collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. With this lede, it’s the commas that give the sentences punch, when the sentences are long enough to warrant commas.

But, what makes it distinctive is its surprise and humor. “If I were a bitch” jumps at you, makes you want to read more. It takes you a moment to realize Orlean is talking about a dog, one that by the end of the paragraph, you’re in love with, too. The surprise of “bitch” in the first sentence is sweetened and softened with “He almost never drools.” There, if not before, you can hear Orlean’s smile, a bit of a “gotcha!”

The use of subjunctive in the first sentence also stands out. It seems like a useful strategy to get the reader inside your frame mind, and into the world of the piece, if not overused. Orlean opens her classic piece “The American Man, Age Ten” with the subjunctive as well:

“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”

What an interesting twist at the end of the sentence, to go from speculating about marrying someone to marrying someone who wants to have matching superhero notebooks. We’ve gone from adult speculation about the world and right into the world of a 10-year-old boy in turn of a phrase.

Of course, by voice, some writers mean writing in a certain point-of-view, especially in fiction, when you’re telling a story from a character that isn’t you, or is just a shadow of you, even if you’re writing a roman `a clef.

Nonfiction writers use this kind of voice, too. Ian Frazier, for instance, parodies the language of a legal brief in his hilarious essay “Coyote v. Acme,” in which hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote sues the Acme Company, whose tricks and traps never trap the Roadrunner and leave Wile E. maimed, mangled, and otherwise bodily harmed.

My client, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory.

Sounds legit to me. That’s what voice does. It even gives a fake legal brief a sense of humor and makes it seem real.

So, work on your voice, until you can sing with authority and authenticity.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Current News: Cats, Freelance and Staying Focused/Interested in Writing

I’ve inherited a cat. I’ve never owned a cat and hadn’t really planned on getting one, but Callie the Calico became part of my  life just a little more than a month ago after a friend’s death.20180430_201537

Now, I wonder why I haven’t had a cat before, though I know next to nothing about them, other than they apparently evolved some 6-7 million years ago in the Middle East and were worshiped as gods.

Callie seems to be a good companion so far, and I’m glad I was able to adopt her. It’s probably good for writers to have cats and clearly there are some famous literary cats, like Hemingway’s six-toed feral cats that  roam his Key West estate.

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Since February I’ve had a regular freelance gig writing advertorials for local newspapers. These have been fun and a nice source of side/supplemental income. At the same time they’ve juiced  my journalism jones again.

I guess I’m like James Bond, never say never, again. I was convinced I was done with journalism last September, at least daily newspaper journalism, and maybe that part of my writing life — at least full time — is done. It’s hard to tell.

The renewed interest in journalism has also led me to reading some great nonfiction again, including Mary Roach’s Grunt, about which I’ll write more in another post.

Reading nonfiction and writing a form of it, though, has put me in the mood to write more of it and that’s why I’ve been blogging more lately. I hope you’ve enjoyed the output.

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This freelance gig and a renewed interest in journalism and nonfiction, though, has also distracted me from working on the second draft of a novel, a second draft I had fully expected to have finished by now.

Getting distracted by different forms of writing seems a constant for me. At times all I want to write is fiction or a specific genre of fiction such as science fiction or mystery.
Then I get occupied with wanting to write more nonfiction.

Do you experience this as a writer? Does your interest in a form jump around?

But, besides my mind jumping around from fiction to nonfiction, I’ve lost interest in the second draft, lost interest in the novel itself. In one way, this is a bit discouraging. I really wanted to see this thing to the end. But will I? I’m feeling doubtful about this.

Then again, it was about this time last year I was growing tired of the first draft and was ready to chuck in all in the trash bin.

So, maybe, I’ll push through and complete it. Maybe, what I need is some distraction like blog posts to push through the block. To keep writing.

—Todd

Review: The Raw and the Cooked


The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand

It was a bad week for meat.

The World Health Organization, as NPR relates, “deemed that processed meats — such as bacon, sausages and hot dogs — can cause cancer.”

The story continues:

In addition, the WHO says red meats including beef, pork, veal and lamb are “probably carcinogenic” to people.

A group of 22 scientists reviewed the evidence linking red meat and processed meat consumption to cancer, and concluded that eating processed meats regularly increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Their evidence review is explained in an article published in The Lancet.

The conclusion puts processed meats in the same category of cancer risk as tobacco smoking and asbestos. This does not mean that they are equally dangerous, says theInternational Agency for Research on Cancer — the agency within the WHO that sets the classifications. And it’s important to note that even things such as aloe vera are on the list of possible carcinogens.

Jim Harrison would likely shrug the WHO’s research off, probably by snarkily calling them nutritional ninnies. At least I believe he would from his essay collection The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, which I re-read this past week, mostly taking a break from fiction, and because I was craving nonfiction to fuel my journalist’s brain.  Plus, it never hurts to get a shot of Harrison in your veins.

As with his fiction, Harrison is a robust stylist in his essays, worth studying for his original metaphors alone, as he demonstrates here: “Of course, an older fool should be able to counter the emotional claymores brought about by the change of seasons and the pummeling of fortune’s spiky wheel.” A lesser writer might have opted for the cliched “emotional landmines,” but Harrison gets specific and chooses the concrete image. Claymore mines are particularly destructive, flinging steel balls into an unwitting enemy to shred them to bits.

But, Harrison is more than just a writer to study, he’s a fun, witty read, an abundant mind to explore. These essays, many of which were columns written for Esquire in the ’90s, are true essays — attempts at writing down what’s in the mind and tying it to a idea or theme. These essays rove from food and friendships to politics and poetry, all neatly of one piece.

They are also essays rich with a mind that sees abundance. Some are tongue-in-cheek about Harrison’s quest for great meals. Almost all are fun to read. And make you hungry for life in the same way Henry Miller makes you hungry for life. And hungry for good food and drink. They have made me hungry for hot dogs, which I want to cook up in the next hour or so and gobble down with a glass or two of wine. The WHO be damned.

— Todd

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Cookbooks and chefs mentioned in the book (click thumbnail to purchase):

All Stories End: Links to an Obit and Narrative in Video Games

Both of these links are articles from Tor.com about endings, one an obit of writer A.C. Crispin, who died today, and the other about the ending of a video game that wonders about how video games are changing narratives. Do gamers want endings?

The first bit I posted earlier on Facebook, but thought I share it here as well:

I read this obit out of curiosity because I had seen her fans and colleagues share her post about her illness three days ago. I admit I haven’t read her fiction, but the obit writer’s second graf is as powerful of a tribute to the power and wonder of reading as any I’ve read in a while. Such a fine tribute. What a much better world it would be if more of us were stirred by the wonder and insight a storyteller can bring to us, rather than getting bent out of shape over a petulant twenty-somethings’ bare butt cheeks.

The article:

A.C. Crispin, 1950-2013

The other article Does the End of Red Redemption Underscore How Fractured Game Narratives Are? posits this question:

To see others protesting this ending left me wondering—very much in a thinking-out-loud way—if the very concept of narrative, or cause and effect, is simply broken in maturing gamers who have spent their lives absorbing narrative as it is constructed through games. Stories are typically elusive in video games, and even games that attempt it (like RPGs or similar adventure stories) usually have to ignore their own world and their own rules from time to time just so the characters live to see the next scene. If you grow up with that and only that, does this kind of jagged, cheat-able style of narrative become your baseline for how you judge all stories? John Marston’s death violates a core expectation of video game narratives; that there’s always a way to win.

 

My literary life: A photo essay

After completing a commercial project today, I drove across town to Avoca Coffee Roasters for a cappuccino or two. Delicious coffee and they dress them up with artful milk flowers, like this:

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Avoca is a nice little hipster coffee shop, a nice place to sip your drink, read, scribble in your notebook, and listen to an ambient selection of hip-hop and techno dance pop, and maybe a little Eminem. Or I guess that’s what the kids call it these days.

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I went here for the coffee and the experience. I flipped through the Dallas Observer and read a few pages of Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular, a trippy SF novel about out-of-control nanomachines and out-of-control people and other dimensions inhabited by “angels”.  I would stop to write in my notebook and it occurred to me that this is sort of how I imagined my literary life—sitting into cafes, sipping cappuccinos and writing. It’s a pretentious realization, I know. But, pretentious or not, it was a nice, pleasant diversion after a busy work day. And if having that sort of moment is pretentious, so what?

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