Entries Tagged 'Creative Writing' ↓

How To Reduce the Need for Affection

What do you want?

Googling “how to reduce the need for affection” doesn’t turn up all that much, and if you ask your friends, they’re just gonna laugh at you. Until weeks later, after they’ve been ditched by whomever it was for them that month, and they come to you, tail between legs, asking “Hey…did you ever find out how to reduce the need for affection?” This has happened to me multiple times!

In researching reducing the need for affection, I’ve come across plenty of articles that try to dodge the issue by avoiding the word “affection.” They claim people are seeking “attention” or “prestige” or “approval” or some other medical-sounding reward. But I think the situation is a lot hotter than that, and by hot I mean a warm fuzzy HUG — get your mind out of the gutter.

A lot of the search results you DO get (YGMV*) are content-farm articles on how to spay or neuter your pet (…so that’s what they’re calling it now?) or y so srs/pitiful pieces in the Huffington Post about how to make your man show you more affection (…she really hasn’t figured that out yet?). I lost the very few useful links I came across. But here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • Get busy working on an idealistic project(s).
  • Get a pet (this is more of a hack: route around humans).
  • Get lost. Aloneness becomes a more comfortable habit given time.

And keep in mind this Theodore Sturgeon quote from his novel Godbody, which the character Britt Svenglund ascribes to the character Dan Currier: “any person who cannot be by himself, it’s because when he is by himself he thinks he is not in good company.”

In the last year, I’ve been in a totally unprecedented situation: I’ve had lots of friends! And I’ve conducted a lot of socializing. (Mostly at this excellent coffeehouse & computer repair shop in Fort Worth.) The whole experience startled me. “Wow, so this is what all the people I hated in high school were doing!” It gets so thoroughly, disgustingly addictive. You wake up one day, and your emotions are beseeching the universe to deliver you affection from others. Your long-lasting contributions to humanity? Yeah, screw those. WAIT NO!

You have to consciously pull yourself away if you get addicted. (Twitter, I’m looking at you.)

Now, you might not want to become a recluse. Currently you gotta interact with people to get where you want to go in life, and it turns out social skills are useful for that. Plus, a good social space generates good random. You encounter people who give you knowledge and paying gigs and culture. This happens in cyberspace, too, but it happens differently in meatspace; I’m not sure how to describe the difference, or why both are valuable.

Brain in a Vat Doesn’t Need Your Meatspace (Pic stolen from here).

A pickup artist is going to look at people with alleged affection-deficits and offer to teach them how to acquire more affection. Which, when you think about it, is not unlike a nicer (or at least nicer-sounding) Thrasymachus, who (according to Plato) taught that justice is nothing but “the advantage of the stronger.” (In the fifth century BCE, in ancient Greece, you could buy teachings from sophists such as Thrasymachus. Early-day Tony Robbins.) Pickup artists have a term: One-itis. Urban Dictionary as usual has the best definition:

Often confused with love, this is the feeling that a particular woman is actually special. This is just an illusion; she is the same as the other three or so billion. “Go fuck ten other women” is the most commonly prescribed treatment for this “disease” (hence the “itis”), as it tends to show quite quickly how very alike people are.

But everyone is a special snowflake, dammit (srsly, you are. And aren’t at the same time, too. Paradox WOAH!). Anyway, it is just remarkable, the difference in perspective, when faced with the question: “What do I do about my affection-deficit?” 1) Become more skilled at manipulating people into giving you affection; or 2) Reduce the need for affection. I’ll take option 2.

Not so fast, the psychiatrists are here. They describe “the self-effacing solution” of wanting too much affection, and the resignation solution of (among others) schizotypals wherein you want too little. Oh, good, the psychiatrists left. Continuing on.

Once I was chatting online with someone, importuning the person for attention affection, and found myself rebuffed; instantly my mind generated epic narratives about how they were full of shit and one day, despite my anger and bitterness, I would triumph before all! AT THE EXACT SAME TIME in another chat window someone was importuning me for attention affection, all plaintive, and I was like, geez, this person’s annoying, won’t they go away, like srsly. Humans are up to here in this affection-acquiring attention-economy business. It’s the pits.

So you want the golden mean of affection and social interaction that suits your purposes and not the purposes your addictions or inexperience define for you. (A golden mean is not necessarily in the middle of the continuum, and not necessarily any sort of average.) On the other hand, maybe you’re such an awesome mystic that you flat-out don’t need to interact with others at all. In which case … can we meet?

INTERLUDE. Let’s take a break for a second.

* YGMV: Your Google May Vary, depending of factors such as your IP address. Which is one reason why proxy networks such as Tor are fun: “Today I’m gonna Google from the point of view of someone in the Czech Republic. Podívejte!

Writing this I found out there’s a now-defunct Swedish goth metal band called Beseech.

They appear not to want my affection…but is it a reverse psychology trick?

Beseech covered ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” which is both awesome and horrible, and most fitting for this post.


Half past twelve / And I’m watching the late show in my flat all alone / How I hate to spend the evening on my own! … [Yeah I can’t take any more of this either.]

END INTERLUDE. Back to srs bizns.

I should point out that killing a social addiction is most conducive to creative thought. Which is much more useful to the world and (less important) much more happiness-producing than nightlife. What other people think really gets into you and mucks with your invention wellspring. Of course, not so good to invent something without people in it, so at least say hi to somebody today, okay? Or maybe just this week. (Even if just online ;-)

Creative Commons License

How to Reduce the Need for Affection by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

I Hate Game Theory

I have yet to read this book

A lot of people I’ve recently met center their lives around winning games, with scoring casual sex encounters as one of the main ones. In this Interview with Pickup Artist Chaser Clarisse Thorn, the interviewer, whom the answer-ready Clarisse just barrels over, splashing her slang about One-itis and strategic ambiguity and outcome independence, asks: “Must everything be framed in terms of a game? What if […] You want to opt-out of that worldview?”

Clarisse answers by saying everyone’s playing games regardless of whatever nobility they affect.

Protester nobly not playing a game; opting-out or super-rational opting in?

One guy I know who regards himself as a skilled pick-up artist (or, as their lingo has it, a PUA) denigrated a certain other person who likes to read books in public by saying the person reads books in public for the sake of appearing broody to women. Maybe the reader just likes to read books. Anyway, the guy writes off men who do not optimize for the degree of social success he regards as advisable by saying these broody idealists have lost so many social games that now they’re just bitter. (As if bitterness alone is damning.) That’s often partly true, I believe, but by not thinking further he’s foreclosing himself from understanding a dimension of human experience that for him just isn’t salient.

I think practicing idealists — let’s say good artists and whistleblowers for specificity — share something: they intentionally lose games in order to create new realities. Think about whistleblower and soldier Joe Darby who exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib — which included the gruesome CIA-assisted murder of “ghost prisoner” Manadel al-Jamdi. As recounted in Phil Zimbardo’s excellent book The Lucifer Effect (p.476-77), Darby said the abuse he witnessed

“just didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After about three days, I made a decision to turn the pictures in. You have to understand: I’m not the kind of guy to rat somebody out….But this crossed the line to me. I had the choice between what I knew was morally right and my loyalty to other soldiers. I couldn’t have it both ways.”

After retaliation by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Darby “was whisked away, and eventually concealed in military protective custody for the next several years.”

“But I don’t regret any of it,” Darby said recently. “I made my peace with the decision before I turned the pictures in. I knew that if people found out that it was me, I wouldn’t be liked.”

“For many,” Zimbardo writes, “Darby’s calling attention to the abuses was unpatriotic, un-American, and even faintly treasonous. ‘Hero a Two-Timing Rat,’ ran a headline in the New York Post. [… Darby] was unable to accept [a Presidential Citation honor from the American Psychological Association] because he, his wife, and his mother had to remain in military protective custody for several years in the wake of the many retaliation threats they received.”

The game, the incentives lined up for Darby did not offer him victory for whistleblowing. He decided it was more important to create a new reality wherein injustice at Abu Ghraib had a better chance of being righted. These are the kind of people, I think, that pickup artists write off as merely being bitter. (Note the mainstream media’s dogged efforts to reduce idealist Bradley Manning’s motives to social frustration.)

Another guy I know defended Joe Paterno for not doing enough about the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. This guy said Paterno was being paid well, and when you are being paid well, you can’t be expected to risk things; he also said it with a wink wink, nudge nudge attitude that conveyed “Mature people in the know agree with me.” He is a popular, cheerful young man who is solidly liberal, solidly Democrat. His attitude that maturity consists in surrendering ideals belongs to the feel-good pickup artistry of political and social marketing: Romney’s RNC speech, Obama’s speeches, The Daily Show, TED Talks. The content is irrelevant here; the truth or falsehood or the value of a particular Daily Show joke or Romney claim is irrelevant here. What I am saying is that the way marketers prioritize making the audience feel good higher than the content is most dangerous. We have a world where marketing and appearance trump reality and truth-telling to such an extent that anyone who prefers the latter over the former is cast off as immature and bitter before they are even listened to. But how are you supposed to report CIA torture? With a laughtrack?

Good artists work the same way, though not in the conscious decision-making manner of whistleblowers. By a sort of instinct, good artists wind up rejecting the incentives the main of the art market offers them and create not ossified things but new and therefore real things. New realities. Creative writing is good to the extent that writers allow themselves to live fully while writing; that reality pays off in the voice or tone of the piece, which reminds readers not to trust in appearance but rather in reality. Somebody might be reading a book in public to remind himself of that.

Read this book

You could ask, though — what is the difference between perception-management (a negative term for a component of marketing: managing consumer or voter perceptions) and putting your best foot forward? After all, many of the techniques pickup artists teach are useful social skills to learn, just amped up and repurposed for sexual conquest. And though the horizon for contributing to humanity anonymously (see these to learn more) is improving, people pretty much still need to interact with others to get where they want to go.

When you put your best foot forward, you are primarily allowing people to perceive you of their own accord, rather than emphasizing your manipulation of consumer and voter perceptions. I say emphasize because of course people are always managing perceptions by picking out what outfit they want to look good in today, etc. But it is when appearance overtakes reality that you have a problem. Especially if you can no longer tell the difference between the two. The phenomenological difference between them in first-person experience is real, I think. I’m not entirely sure. More than one slightly ashamed person in a private moment has asked me how they can make themselves more authentic. Maybe I am bitter, but I never know how to answer that question, because it is a problem I’ve never really had.

Creative Commons License

I Hate Game Theory by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@riseup.net.

Literary Cablegate, Number 2 of Many

Clark Stoeckly‘s Wikileaks Truck on Flickr, Twitter

Second in a series of posts where I’m picking through WikiLeaks Cablegate for literary topics. See my first post in the series for an important introduction, and view the entire series here. At the time of my first Literary Cablegate post (then called Literary WikiLeaks), not all of Cablegate had been published; CablegateSearch.net showed 665 hits for the search term “literature” and 334 for the term “literary”. Now that all of Cablegate has been released (a.k.a. “Cablegate2″; see my remarks on the controversy surrounding the comprehensive Cablegate publication), CablegateSearch.net shows 1,214 hits for “literature” and 403 for “literary.”

I’m going through all of them.

I’m focusing only on cables where “literature” or “literary” is used in the sense of short stories, essays, the humanities, etc. So I’m mostly ignoring cables mentioning literature as in, say, campaign literature, or the medical literature for a malady (unless the cable mentions one of Oliver Sacks‘s highly literary case studies, you see?). Given the importance of intellectual property (or lack thereof) to free speech and the Internet, copyright and copyleft issues will be included as well. Literary Cablegate blog posts will feature about 8 cables each, starting from the most recently written cable. I’ll take on the 403 cable hits for “literary” first.

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Here we go!

  • The United States maintains an annual “Special 301 Report” that, in the words of the United States Trade Representative, reviews “the global state of intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and enforcement” and “reflects the Administration’s resolve to encourage and maintain effective IPR protection and enforcement worldwide.” The Report lists nations perceived as threats to copyright interests. Some nations wind up on the Watch List, and others on the more severe Priority Watch List. In a cable dated February 2010, the US Embassy in La Paz said Bolivia’s laws granted powerful intellectual property rights:

    the existing copyright law does protect literary, artistic, and scientific works for the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. Bolivian copyright protection includes the exclusive right to copy or reproduce works; to revise, adapt, or prepare derivative works; to distribute copies of works; and to publicly communicate works. Although the exclusive right to translate works is not explicitly granted, the law does prevent unauthorized adaptation, transformation, modification, and editing. The law also provides protection for software and databases.

    Compare the Bolivian law’s extreme length of copyright (50 years) to the US Pirate Party’s intent to reduce the length of copyright to 14 years and legalize all noncommercial sharing, and to the efforts of Creative Commons.

    Regardless of Bolivian law, the US Embassy noted, copyright was so laxly enforced in Bolivia that their

    Video, music, and software piracy rates are among the highest in Latin America, with the International Intellectual Property Alliance estimating that piracy levels have reached 100% for motion pictures and over 90% for recorded music. There are no legal sources of audio-visual materials in most of the country, since it would be impossible to compete with pirated products prices: in the capital of La Paz there is only one store that sells legal CDs. Bootleg CDs, DVDs, computer software, pharmaceutical products, and other goods are sold on street corners and in stores across the country.

    The Embassy blames the rampant piracy on Bolivia’s lack of human and financial resources to enforce copyright, and says pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to file patents in Bolivia due to fears of trade secret theft and counterfeiting. Despite all the piracy, the US Embassy suggests keeping Bolivia only on the Special 301 Report’s Watch List and not its Priority Watch List just so as not to frustrate Bolivia and thereby damage the copyright interests’ outreach efforts. In 2010 and 2011 Bolivia did remain on the ordinary Special 301 Watch List.

    (Original Cable “Special 301 La Paz Input” 10LAPAZ368.)

  • A February 2010 cable from Baghdad discusses the membership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), formed in October 2009 as, according to the cable, “a nationalist, non-sectarian political” group. The cable identifies Hassan Sunayd as one “key figure” of SLA, describing him as

    SLA candidate 4 in Dhi Qar. A well-known poet and literary figure in Iraq, Sunayd has been in Da’wa’s political bureau since the late 1980’s. A member of the previous COR’s Security and Defense Committee, he is Maliki’s closest friend, one of his security advisors and liaison to the KRG leadership. Having survived physical torture during the Saddam regime, he has used his position as spokesman for the SLA to rail against the threat of resurgent Ba’athism and was critical of purported U.S. efforts to interfere in the de-Ba’athification process.

    A somewhat substantial search of Google’s various resources as well as academic journals and US newspaper archives turned up no discussion of Hassan Sunayd’s literary background, with one minor exception. (Sometimes his first name is transliterated as Hasan, sometimes his last name as al-Sunayd.) According to an April 14, 2008 BBC transcript, Sunayd recited a poem at a ceremony held in Baghdad to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the martyrdom of Islamic scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Sunayd is mentioned with some frequency as a spokesperson for the Iraqi government.

    Professor Hanan Hammad at the TCU History Department told me Sunayd used the pen name “Jawad Jamil (could be Jawwad Gamil). he lived in Iran in early eights along with members of al-Da’wa Islamist Party. his sister Balqis is also a poet, but with the Communist party. nothing indicate that he’s a great poet/ intellectual.” My searches for his pen name turn up nothing.

    (Original Cable “Coalition Profile: Pm Maliki’s State Of Law Alliance” 10BAGHDAD499)

  • The US State Department maintains an annual Trafficking in Persons Report to “engage foreign governments on human trafficking” and as a resource for “governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.” In a February 2010 cable, the first of three parts (part 2, part 3), the US Embassy in Paris gave its input for the tenth annual report. The cable notes “France prosecutes French nationals who travel abroad to engage in child sexual tourism” and goes on to say

    Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand faced criticism during the reporting period related to his 2005 literary work, which included depictions of sexual tourism in Asia. In “The Bad Life,” Mitterrand details the experiences of an unnamed protagonist with so-called “boys” in the brothels of Thailand. Facing pressure to resign for engaging in sexual tourism before he joined the government, Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand stated during an October 8, 2009 television interview that he had never had sex with a minor. “Each time I was with people who were my age, or were five years younger,” the 62 year-old Mitterrand said, adding: “I condemn sexual tourism, which is a disgrace. I condemn pedophilia in which I have never participated in any way.”

    The Guardian extends Miterrand’s quote a sentence: “The book is in no way an apology for sex tourism, even if one chapter is a journey through that hell, with all the fascination that hell can inspire.” The BBC termed Mitterrand’s book an “autobiographical novel” and said the scandal would have brought him down in other countries, “not because he is gay, but because there is an inconsistency between a government committed to fighting sex tourism and a minister who has been a sex tourist. But in France, where a belief in the right to privacy and a liberal view on sex are both near sacrosanct, many believe it would be hypocritical to hound Frederic Mitterrand from office.”

    The cable says France prosecutes child sex tourism, and Mitterand claims he was involved with people basically his age. More importantly, the book is, autobiographically based or not, a work of fiction. How much of it is true to Mitterrand’s life is therefore hard to evaluate beyond educated guessing. Mother Jones, reviewing the book, says the French right wing targetted Mitterand by quoting the book out of context. The Mother Jones reviewer makes the book sound pretty good:

    The Bad Life is a stunningly candid and beautiful book. Described by its author as an “autobiography which is half real and half dreamed,” it recounts his life as a child of privilege born into Paris’s haut bourgeois sixteenth arrondissement, his experience of homosexuality, and a number of deeply felt personal relationships. Much of this is set in a social milieu of movie stars, politicians, renowned artists, and other public figures. […]

    The Bad Life is an intimate, courageous memoir in which Mitterrand is brutally honest not only about himself, but with himself. If it includes a few sordid accounts of a homosexual underworld that some would rather not be asked to consider, it does so within a larger portrait of one man’s life and desires, a nuanced collection of affecting incidents examined with an unsparing eye.

    The entire scandal was complicated by Mitterrand’s defending Roman Polanski shortly beforehand, demanding the director be released after arrest in Switzerland over his US conviction for sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Yet again, the publisher calls The Bad Life a “novel inspired by autobiography.” You don’t take Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical novel VALIS as definitive proof of anything, do you? Or Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead. Writers build off their own experience, but don’t exactly replicate it in fiction. No crime was shown here. Mitterrand is still in office.

    (Original Cable “France: Input For The 2010 Trafficking In Persons Report (part 1 Of 3)” 10PARIS196)

  • A February 2010 cable from the Consulate Shenyang US Embassy in China noted traffic across the border between China and North Korea. “For all the talk about frozen trade between the DPRK [North Korea] and China,” the cable says, the Consulate General Office noted people crossing the border talking business and culture. For example,

    At the train station many different groups of North Koreans were seen waiting to take the train up to Shenyang [China]. On board, a middle-aged North Korean female trader was reading a Sino-Korean literary journal and a Dandong business weekly.

    The apparent significance for the Office is the interest North Koreans show in the Chinese, as evidenced in part by the Sino-Korean literary journal. One wonders which journal the woman was reading. In the United States, “literary journal” tends to mean a venue for highbrow literary work, as opposed to a “magazine,” which can run the gamut of literary taste classifications.

    (Original Cable “Prc-dprk Border: Amcit Crossers, Trade Push, Border Smuggling, Regional Growth” 10SHENYANG21)

  • A February 2010 cable from Berlin discusses German copyright law in the context of foreign investment in Germany.

    Germany is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Germany is also a party to the major international intellectual property protection agreements: the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, the Universal Copyright Convention, the Geneva Phonograms Convention, the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Brussels Satellite Convention, and the Treaty of Rome on Neighboring Rights. […]

    Germany has signed the WIPO Internet treaties and ratified them in 2003. Foreign and German rights holders, however, remain critical of provisions in the German Copyright Act that allow exceptions for private copies of copyrighted works. Most rights holder organizations regard German authorities’ enforcement of intellectual property protections as sufficient, although problems persist due to lenient court rulings in some cases and the difficulty of combating piracy of copyrighted works on the Internet.

    The Berne Convention — spelled Bern or Berne — was instigated by the writer Victor Hugo in the late 19th century. It says copyright is established when the creator puts the work into fixed form, bypassing the need for registration. The Berne Convention also establishes a minimum term of 50 years after the author’s death for written works. Cory Doctorow talks a bit about the Berne Convention in this Guardian article.

    (Original Cable “Germany – Revised Investment Climate Statement 2010″ 10BERLIN166)

  • A February 2010 cable from Geneva and the US Trade Representative discusses January 2010’s 7th Working Party meeting on Yemen’s Accession to the World Trade Organization, the in-progress effort to enter Yemen into the WTO. In a section about trading rights, the cable noted

    The US and EU had additional concerns about certain requirements that only Yemeni nationals could be granted the technical clearance needed to import medicines, medical equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, books, newspapers, audiovisual and other artistic literary works, and requested that the Trading Rights Action Plan be updated to include information on these technical clearance requirements.

    I suspect the technical clearance for Yemeni nationals who regulate the import of “artistic literary works” involves Yemen’s prohibition against the import of “Any item offensive to Muslim culture.” (Yemen’s population is 98% Muslim.) Reporters Without Borders ranks Yemen within the bottom 10 of all nations for press freedom. This might or might not be relevant: a May 25, 2009 piece in the Yemen Times by Dr. A. K. Sharma said if “a nation has to import and export not only goods and commodities but also knowledge and skills, it has got to have an army of well-equipped and professionally competent translators.” Currently Yemen isn’t a member of the WTO.

    (Original Cable “7th Working Party Meeting On Yemen’s Accession To The Wto Held January 26, 2010″ 10USTRGENEVA12)

  • A February 2010 cable from Beijing discussing the climate for foreign investment into China notes the country is a member of the Berne Convention (discussed above).

    (Original Cable “2010 Investment Climate Statement – China” 10BEIJING303)

  • Another February cable discussing the climate for foreign investment, this time from the Colombo embassy, notes Sri Lanka is a party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (discussed above). Original literary works are protected under a 2003 Sri Lanka copyright law that was “intended to meet both U.S.-Sri Lanka bilateral IPR agreement and TRIPS obligations to a great extent.” In a January 2003 article for Daily Variety, an entertainment-industry trade magazine, Bryan Pearson said the new law aimed to crack down on piracy; pirating software was “not illegal in Sri Lanka,” Pearson wrote, and the island was a “paradise for fraudulent imports.”

    (Original Cable “Investment Climate Statement, 2010 – Sri Lanka” 10COLOMBO72)

  • Creative Commons License

    Literary Cablegate, Number 2 of Many by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license? Email me: dal@douglaslucas.com.

Searching Wikileaks Cables for Literary Topics, First of Many

Clark Stoeckly‘s Wikileaks Truck on Flickr, Twitter

This week WikiLeaks published thousands more US diplomatic cables as part of its Cablegate operation. Among many other items, Cablegate has confirmed or revealed the following:

  • Referring to the United States’ secret air strikes in Yemen, Yemen’s president promised US general David Petraeus that “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” (Original Cable, Salon, BBC.)

  • Though Canada publicly claimed opposition to the Iraq war “for domestic political reasons and out of a deep-seated Canadian commitment to multilateralism,” it secretly told the United States it was “prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins,” using Canadian naval and air forces “discreetly” on behalf of the US. (Original Cable, CBC News.)

  • The United States ordered American diplomats to secretly and illegally collect top United Nations officials and others’ credit card numbers, biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, DNA), passwords, and more. (Original Cable, NYT, Guardian.)

  • In 2009 U.S. Senator John McCain promised Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi some American military hardware. (Original Cable, Politico.)

  • Texas security contractor DynCorp pimped little boys to be raped by Afghan policemen at a DynCorp-organized party. (Original Cable, Houston Press, Guardian.)

Whoops

WikiLeaks initiated a crowdsourcing effort, #wlfind on Twitter, ensuring its latest cable releases would be looked through. Inspired by Furry Girl (Twitter), who put together a post about the latest cables in her area of expertise (sex work), I decided to do something similar for literary topics. If you’re eager to dig through some cables yourself, try this cablegate search engine, and then share your findings online.

(Also! Watch Glenn Greenwald defend Wikileaks and Julian Assange on CNN with this embed.)

I restricted my work to this most recent batch of cables. Here are the search results, and the total number of hits when I first searched, for: literature (665); literary (334); … wow! This is going to take more than one post.

Reading the below, one should bear in mind Evgeny Morozov‘s astute critique of Internet-centrism, a lazy perspective that ignores the importance of local cultures when interpreting material and instead focuses faith on technology. I’m not at all an expert on foreign countries, etc. I can only fish out cables with some literary significance in the hope others might benefit from them.

  • In April 2006, a few months after gun-firing Chinese police in Dongzhou subdued villagers protesting land confiscations (WaPo), the American consulate in Guangzhou invoked a metaphor of Lu Xun‘s (“China’s most prominent modern author”): the Chinese sense, in the area, of rapid economic growth is that it “eats people.” From the cable (my link):

    in his “Diary of a Madman” short story […] the supposedly mentally deranged narrator has looked at the whole of Chinese history and found its grandeur and power to be founded on the eating of people

    The cable claims

    there is a conscious attempt led in part by Guangzhou’s most progressive and highly influential magazine, the “Nanfengchuang” (the “South Wind Window”), to revive the spirit of the New Culture Movement of the 1920s of which Lu was a key figure

    The cable goes on to advocate for increased injections of humanities programs to teach core American democratic values. These, the cable argues, will make rapid economic growth in the area more humane. After all, the cable says,

    there is a very large audience for American literature and thought. American literature specialist Ernesto Suarez, our Fulbright Scholar at Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University, is in demand not only at Zhongshan but also at other institutions every weekend throughout China. Recently, the Shantou University English Language Department approached the Consulate about strengthening the American literature component of its program in line with the desire of students to learn not merely the language but also the values of the American people speaking that language.

    (Original Cable.)

    The Cold War-style argument that humanities talks and courses (apparently) alone can sufficiently soften the steamroll of global economics makes one worry (especially in light of other cables).

  • A 2007 cable from the Beijing Embassy summarizes a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference that included China’s suggestion that the US State Department study up on its Confucius.

    Spokesperson Qin Gang said at the March 8 regular press briefing that the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2006 issued today by China’s State Council Information Office serves as “a mirror for United States to view its own human rights condition” and “understand why it has no right to use double standards in criticizing other countries.” Qin continued, saying the MFA would give the State Department copies of the “Four Books and Five Classics” of Chinese literature as a guide to good governance. Asked if the report constituted a double standard on China’s part by interfering in the domestic affairs of the United States, Qin referred the reporter to his previous statement.

    (Original Cable.)

    The Confucian work “Four Books and Five Classics” praises feudal values.

  • A 2008 cable from Taiwan noted growth in the market for simplified-character Chinese books as government restrictions on the products loosened and more translations of foreign books into Chinese were imported from mainland China.

    A survey done by local book dealers in 2006 showed that 50 percent of simplified-character Chinese books sold in Taiwan are on literature, history, and philosophy; 10 percent on social science, law, politics, and the military; 10 percent on Chinese medicine and art; 10 percent on education, finance and engineering; with the remainder on tourism and other topics. As for the consumers, Chu Fu-ming, head of the Eslite flagship bookstore’s simplified-character Chinese book section, told AIT, “those who buy simplified-character Chinese books are mostly intellectuals and academics. Only 20 percent of the buyers are in their twenties, while 40 percent are in their thirties and forties, and the remaining 40 percent are over 50 years old. Older people are especially noticeable because they come in the mornings and spend a long time poring carefully over selections,” Wu observed, with “history books being the most popular.”

    The cable worries about simplified-character textbooks supplanting US textbooks more and more, since Chinese college professors were finding the former less expensive and easier to assign.

    (Original Cable.)

  • In the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, readers of Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Pearl Buck (Mike Wallace interview; Nobel write-up), who spent much of her time in China, worried, according to a 2008 cable, that Buck wasn’t getting enough attention in the United States.

    Comment: Zhenjiang’s fervor for its long-ago American “daughter” points to possibilities for the upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China relations.

    (Original Cable.)

  • A 2003 cable cited “the latest Human Development Report on the Arab states” as noting

    The economic, political, artistic, and literary creativity of the Arab states are being stifled by the exclusion of women, among other factors. As an example, the report notes that Turkey alone published more works of creative literature over the past year than the entire Arab world combined.

    (Original Cable.)

    Female Turkish novelist Elif Shafak spoke at a 2010 TED conference on the ability of fiction to overcome identity politics.

  • A 2003 cable said although “European public opinion may be skeptical about the politics of GOT joining the European Union, […] civil society has shown that sharing space with Turkey in the
    cultural realm is as natural as can be.” The cable cited the European popularity of Istanbul-born novelist Orhan Pamuk as evidence of Turkey’s “de facto integration into European cultural life.”

    His recent novel “My Name is Red” won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003; this award was the latest in a series of European honors dating back to his 1991 Prix de la Decouverte Europeenne for the French translation of his second novel, “Sessiz_Ev” (“The Quiet House”).

    (Original Cable.)

  • With a 2005 cable, the American embassy in Tel Aviv took note of an editorial referencing Egyptian playwright Ali Salem:

    “We have already seen that both Israel and Egypt generally obey when there is an American scolding…. Why not initiate, for example, the award of an honorary doctorate by an American university to Ali Salem for his contribution to peace between the peoples?”

    (Original Cable.)

    The original op-ed can be found here.

  • According to a 2006 cable, staff from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General’s office “held misperceptions” about the World Digital Library, “a project to put rare and remote items on the web.” The staff worried over Google’s involvement, saying it troubled European nations, and that the countries might be more receptive to a UNESCO label.

    (Original Cable.)

Thus far I’ve come away with the impression that the United States strongly believes spreading American culture is an effective way to spread its core democratic values, but other countries often see this as hypocritical given the States’ frequent disregard of those values. If you’re interested in reading more about that, I recommend Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion. Another observation: writers and their work do make more of an impact in international politics than you might suspect.

Creative Commons License

Searching Wikileaks Cables for Literary Topics, First of Many by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.douglaslucas.com.

The Exuberant Quandary

After Monday’s suicide of Russell Armstrong (a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star’s estranged husband), Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon.com called reality TV “A blood sport that must change.” Seitz said:

The type of so-called reality show represented by the “Real Housewives” franchise is the soft-bellied, 21st century American TV version of a gladiatorial contest. It has no agenda except giving viewers the basest sort of entertainment: the spectacle of people doing violence to each other and suffering violence themselves. Instead of going at each other like gladiators with swords and clubs, or like boxers hurling punches, participants in this kind of unscripted show attack each other psychologically. The show’s appeal is the spectacle of emotional violence. The participants — or “cast members,” as they are revealingly labeled — suffer and bleed emotionally while we watch and guffaw. […]

Unscripted shows encourage, and sometimes cause, emotional damage. That’s the whole point of their existence — the reason they get on the air, the reason we watch and discuss them. They record intense, bizarre, sometimes ginned-up conflicts during production. They transform the participants into caricatures of themselves […]

Yesterday I asked a story editor on a long-running dating series who did not want her name used in this story if, during her years of working on these shows, she had ever heard a producer express authentic concern for a participant’s well-being as a person rather than an abstracted “character.” She laughed and said, “No. That just doesn’t happen. If anybody working on this kind of show thought that way, it would make the shows less entertaining, and that person would lose their job.”

Tonight I went to the corner grocery store to buy Wifely some Skinny Cow dessert and me some Mexican Coke. The cashier, a young woman, wore a nametag that, under her name, said:

I LOVE U :)

I thought to myself: that’s an exuberant nametag. Although people who aren’t actually in my skull insist otherwise, I do automatically, non-voluntarily think such words as “exuberant.” If that annoys you, you probably shouldn’t be reading my blog, but rather watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

No one was in the lane behind me, nor was anyone nearing the lane. For a moment I considered saying something or other to the cashier about her nametag. After all, I’ve checked out through her lane enough times for us to share mutual recognition, though just barely. I prefer to interact with a person when checking out, instead of using the self check-out lanes, because something worthwhile, interesting and unique and unpredictable, might happen during my encounter with another human being.

Then for another moment I considered not saying something about her nametag. Because by now the time for exchanging a greeting had nearly ended, she was starting to scan my Mexican Coke, she was about to ask if I’d brought my rewards card (I always lie and say I forgot; cashiers then scan theirs on my behalf, and not only do I not have to deal with signing up for one, but also I singlehandedly defeat the company’s entire research division). But the only word coming to mind during this expiring hourglass time was exuberant.

I decided not to chicken out, to go for it.

“That’s an exuberant nametag,” I said.

Her smile wriggled as happily and confusedly as she did until she stopped to ask what “exuberant” meant. Ah-ha, I thought, a person who doesn’t become angry like so many do when someone else uses a word they don’t know, but instead has the laudable reaction of curiosity. Now it was my turn to wriggle my hand happily and confusedly, trying to pantomime the meaning of exude while telling her, “It means, like, … happiness … like …” I managed to stop stumbling and say “It means something like, ‘Shining out happiness.'”

She said, “I really like that,” and I sensed she meant it. A few moments of silent, shared satisfaction passed as she scanned my items.

Photo of Philip K. Dick by Anne Dick “I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities” — PKD

One of the commonplace remarks about reality TV is that it “isn’t real,” that it’s merely “so-called” reality TV. This supposed phoniness is alleged to cover up the “natural” way of being, the “real” way, which is usually not identified by the shows’ deriders.

As I paid for the grocery items, I nervously — as if invisible judges were watching — began to, as they say, “walk it back”: retract and qualify what I said. Anxiously I told the increasingly disappointed cashier the following nonfiction anecdote from a few days back:

I walked down an aisle at this same corner grocery store to pick up some ice cream. A middle-aged female customer was squatting down with a freezer door opened, scrutinizing the vanilla flavors. Without my saying anything, she suddenly started talking haphazardly about the proliferation of vanillas. French vanilla, old-fashioned vanilla, vanilla bean and more. “She told me to get vanilla; I wonder which she meant? There are too many!” In a bad mood, I didn’t want to talk at first; like a person wearing sunglasses indoors, I didn’t want to interact with anyone, didn’t want to engage with people. I resented her a little for introducing conversation. Then I regretted my self-absorption and told her I suspected old-fashioned vanilla would do the trick. The woman half-nodded sorta-assent, and said, as I walked away, “‘Tis a quandary.”

Walking away still, I looked back at her, and she was still squatting, not looking at me. I felt irritated that she hadn’t continued the conversation, that she’d used the word ‘quandary.’ How would she have known I knew what it meant, anyway? Now I was feeling like those who call big vocabulary pretentious. But I guess something small helped her recognize that I’m the sort of odd person who knows odd words. I still feel bad for not engaging with her, for choosing instead to cultivate my sour mood.

I explained all this to the I LOVE U :) cashier who, like I said above, appeared disappointed with me for walking-back the happy shared moment of exuberant. I was disappointed with me, too. But at least when I was driving home I thought up this blog post; I realized there was a big connection between these interactions and the reality TV issue.

At their peak the destructive emotions flaring during these reality TV shows are definitely real. (Perhaps those who decry the shows and miss this point don’t actually see much of them.) Real doesn’t imply good, doesn’t imply that the shows shouldn’t be changed. (I like Seitz’s suggestion of psychologists and better screenings; you can’t eliminate a phenomenon like reality TV; and, to pretend an underbelly doesn’t exist doesn’t help anything.)

Here’s the point. I think that in our postmodern world, people are so hungry for authentic moments of human experience that, even it means havoc or worse for the participants’ lives, they’ll take what these shows offer, if that’s all they know how to find. Because sincerely engaging with other people during the day, even through a good work of art, and sincerely emoting, is a scary risk.

Creative Commons License

The Exuberant Quandary by Douglas Lucas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.douglaslucas.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.douglaslucas.com.

Clinical Teaching Day 1; Rumination on Roles

My first day as a clinical teacher went very well. Except: I’m exhausted!

Right now the coordinating teacher and I are together in the same classroom throughout the day. She’s running the reins, and I’m just observing, sitting at the side. Eventually I’ll be able to lead some activities. I’ve done that before when I’ve substituted for the same groups of students across a continuous week or so, but this would be more serious, especially as it’s long-term.

The day began quite early; my alarms blasted off at about 4:30am. I showered & got ready, and Wifely Kate cooked breakfast:

iPhone pic by me, public domain for you. Food by Kate!

How awesome is that? The coffee was ready and everything. I was able to write fiction for about an hour and fifteen minutes — quickly revising (line-editing) an older, completed story so I can re-submit it; didn’t quite finish, since I’m having to fact-check some details — and then I headed to campus, the lunch Kate packed me in tow. At noon-ish I discovered she’d left a note in my lunchbox. The note talked about how proud she is of me. I got teary-eyed!

The coordinating teacher uses a Promothean ActivBoard (I’m not sure if the link points to the exact same model) in some very effective ways. For one portion of the classes, she shows multiple-choice math questions on the ‘Board, then the students record their answers using controllers — all students have one on their desks. The coordinating teacher shows the results on the ‘Board — as a bar graph; looks like something off Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and uses them not just to motivate the class (the students love the video game-y vibe), but also to hone in on the students’ misunderstandings of the material in order to explain it again. Good real-time assessment.

Weirdly, one of the few TV shows I really like

The ‘Board can even export the collected data, so at a later time, we can analyze the answer statistics more precisely to spot recurring troubles. Totally something out of a Tim O’Reilly project.

Since I was mostly only observing — catching up to speed on this campus’s schedule, rules, etc. — I focused on watching one student at a time. (I’ve blogged before about developing observation skills. As for characterization, can a writer quickly notice in real-life what makes another person absolutely unique?) I noticed a boy whom I think might need glasses. Squinting, tilting his head to see better, putting his face inches from his paper. There’s a school program to address vision issues, but I’m not sure how prompt it is. Watching how in need and at risk students are can be upsetting. I’ve seen it before, substituting.

This particular student is enthusiastic, often raising and waving his hand even before the teacher asks another question. His enthusiasm hasn’t been disruptive. He seems to be a bit in his own world — smiling to himself, thinking his own thoughts. Good kid.

After leaving the campus, I went to Stay Wired! Coffeehouse and Computer Service for two hours, where I’m helping out as a computer tech. After my two hours were up, I informally sat in on a meeting for Democrat Cathy Hirt‘s campaign for the Fort Worth mayor position. There, upon being asked, I talked a little about my experiences and observations working for the local public school system.

I have to confess I’m bewildered about the relationships between my roles as a writer, teacher, newbie activist, blogger, and tweep (Twitter person). For example, working as an activist differs from volunteering for a political campaign (as I did for Bill White), from working for one in an official capacity, from blogging reportage or opinion about it, from incorporating observations of a campaign into a fiction project, etc. It’s a bit unnerving when you’re sitting there with a few people talking local politics and you’re trying to figure out which hat you’re wearing, so to speak. I have no real idea how to resolve these mini-conflicts, and there’s no one right answer.

The convention for blogs to be frequently updated conflicts with my personal preference for long-form or at least mucho-revised writing; and, when I’ve tried to blog long-form writing in the past, it’s often come off as too complex (Latinate, twisted syntax…) and hasn’t been revised well enough — a bad compromise between careful long-form writing and a quick blog post. Really, if you’re blogging long-form pieces, you’re essentially writing e-books. Since I consider myself a non-commercial writer (i.e. my goal isn’t profit; that possibility is a fringe benefit; I don’t mean that I consider myself highbrow — I try not to think in those terms), I’m not against the idea of eventually releasing more of my creative writing (fiction and otherwise) under Creative Commons licenses, but I sense that right now, I still need the bigger bullhorns and reputation-build of established venues (i.e. magazines, publishing houses).

Vika covers Metallica’s Orion

The increasing online success of vkgoeswild (Vika Yermolyeva) has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I thought she was cool before she joined forces with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione (Hipster cultural capital snobby-stupid FTW! =p). Vika supports herself by receiving online tips and selling customized transcriptions online. Other artists and bloggers have figured out similar business models (search through Boing Boing for many examples and discussions). But for creative writing, I just don’t excel at the very short, very quickly written form, which seems to be necessary to any feasible online business model I can actually think up for right now.

Besides, I love teaching!

Fiction Filmable … so what?

My good friend Cynthia Shearer said something in a long-ago (long-ago in net years) blog post, a review of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, that has puzzled me for a while. Before I get all critical of a single phrase in her post, lemme say some positive stuff to block any negative feelings.

  • Her blog post’s awesome.
  • Cynthia’s awesome and her blog’s awesome.
  • Revolutionary Road and Richard Yates are awesome.
  • Thanks to Cynthia’s review, Wifely and I both read the novel, and we found it so worthwhile, the book has since become something of a touchstone in some of our conversations.

Now with the kindnesses out of the way, here’s my quarrel, or really, quibble jumping-off point. In the course of otherwise spot-on praise for Yates’ novel, Cynthia gives the following as a thought on the book:

The novel is flawlessly structured, three acts, and eminently filmable.

Confirming what I thought, my OS X dictionary gives the following definition for “eminently”:

used to emphasize the presence of a positive quality

Maybe Cynthia wasn’t using the word so specifically, but regardless of authorial intent…and setting aside commerce, writers upping their audience — i.e., considering aesthetics alone — why is it a positive (or a negative) quality for a book to be filmable? We don’t say: “That’s a great sculpture; after all, it’d make a fantastic piece of photography” or “That’s a great painting; after all, it’d make an excellent symphonic work.”

Connections between artistic content remixed into another art form can be worth pursuing and elaborating and evaluating, but I don’t see any basis for using as a criterion of aesthetic appraisal the ease with which an artistic piece can be remixed to another art form.

By the way, one of my favorite remixes of artistic subjects is Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead Op. 29, composed in the early 20th century and then recorded with Rachmaninoff himself conducting. And yes, it’s “beginner’s classical,” shut up. Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead inspired Rachmaninoff’s piece — apparently the black-and-white version:

Here’s the color version:

And the music, low-fi and split into two parts due to copyright and YouTube limitations:

And here’s an online encyclopedia of Isle of the Dead remixes.

Anyway, the (wrongheaded!) idea of using as a criterion of qualitative judgment an artwork’s capability to be transformed from one art form to another got me to thinking: what can a novel do that no other art form can do? The closest (non-textual) art forms are probably plays (in performance) and movies (“movies,” not “films”; I don’t screen films, I watch movies). What can novels do that those art forms can’t do? I’ll not consider plays, as I haven’t thought much about them. So: movies.

In my tentative answers I’m going to put aside style, too, since sentence-level quality, I think, is a) not obligatory for a novel to be good, and b) not inherently novelistic. So, my first tentative answer: maybe novels can represent time, the workings of memory, changing perspectives, and the inner experience of emotions and thoughts better than any other form. As an example of what I mean (UPDATE: screenhead.com’s list of the hardest novels to film), Theodore Sturgeon’s excellent short story The Man Who Lost the Sea (legal full text at link) — warning, spoiler in the third quoted paragraph:

Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you’re too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn’t a toy, it’s a model. You tell him look here, here’s something most people don’t know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won’t listen. He doesn’t want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away. […]

His head isn’t working right. But he knows clearly that it isn’t working right, which is a strange thing that happens to people in shock sometimes. Say you were that kid, you could say how it was, because once you woke up lying in the gym office in high school and asked what had happened. They explained how you tried something on the parallel bars and fell on your head. You understood exactly, though you couldn’t remember falling. Then a minute later you asked again what had happened and they told you. You understood it. And a minute later . . . forty-one times they told you, and you understood. It was just that no matter how many times they pushed it into your head, it wouldn’t stick there; but all the while you knew that your head would start working again in time. And in time it did. . . . Of course, if you were that kid, always explaining things to people and to yourself, you wouldn’t want to bother the sick man with it now. […]

Say you were that kid: say, instead, at last, that you are the sick man, for they are the same; surely then you can understand why of all things, even while shattered, shocked, sick with radiation calculated (leaving) radiation computed (arriving) and radiation past all bearing (lying in the wreckage of Delta) you would want to think of the sea. For no farmer who fingers the soil with love and knowledge, no poet who sings of it, artist, contractor, engineer, even child bursting into tears at the inexpressible beauty of a field of daffodils—none of these is as intimate with Earth as those who live on, live with, breathe and drift in its seas. So of these things you must think; with these you must dwell until you are less sick and more ready to face the truth.

(Oddly for a science fiction story originally published in a straight-up “genre” magazine — The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction — “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was selected for the 1960 edition of The Best American Short Stories.)

I’m not sure a play or a movie could represent the Sturgeon story, its workings of time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience as well and as concisely — or even at all. But that’s a huge disjunction: are plays and movies able to represent the Sturgeon story — just not concisely or well — or is there something inherent to the story that cannot be translated to another art form? I think that depends on how inherent an aspect of an artwork has to be for it to be considered inherent. ;-) And, how good does the movie have to be? The movie could voice-over or crawl tons of text to get closer to the original fiction format, but that (probably) would become annoying. You never know, however; artists are always figuring out new techniques. All the same, because representing time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience is at least a huge strength of fiction (and especially the novel), more and more I try to emphasize those qualities in my own writing.

I said first tentative answer, so how about this second one, which I can describe best in a metaphorical way? Novels are like multicharacter, revised, organized daydreams — or, imagine being a kid and playing with dolls or figurines, making up stories. That’s basically what novels are, I think, but not so much created daydreams worlds as the daydream-y experience of personal identity as a network of multiple narratives, comprised of images, emotions, etc., and stuck into the context of particular settings and social histories/influences and so forth. Sorta sounds like Bakhtin’s account of polyphony in Dostoevsky. But I haven’t read enough Bakhtin yet to say much; besides, his name sounds like Bactine.

Please don’t DMCA-takedown me, Bayer

This way of looking at what’s unique to novelistic form doesn’t seem to strongly entail the memory rumination or time aspects or changing perspectives I mentioned earlier, but yeah, I think fiction — especially when it avoids too much exposition and abstraction — stages a vehicle for experiencing a daydream related to identity and traveling in a specific historical or social context. Yet in “When Narrative Fails,” an article in May 2004’s Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, J. Melvin Woody makes an interesting case that other forms of art can do this, too:

“Why […] should we limit our understanding of the constitution of the self to the narrative? Indeed, why limit ourselves to language? Do not music and dance often articulate our passions more eloquently than any literary form?”

Nevertheless I think my second answer is pretty strong, and pertinent to why reading fiction is not just another hobby or preference, but something people who have the ability and resources and time to read it really should do so.

With Wikileaks, will there be Forgiveness?

If you aren’t up to speed on Wikileaks news, try here and here and here, and watch this:

Now that you’re up to speed:

There is this goofy card game one of my brothers likes to play; to my knowledge, he invented it. The dealer (typically my brother!) passes out one face-down card to himself and one to each other player. At his signal, all players raise their cards to their foreheads facing out such that no one can see his or her own card, but everyone can see everybody else’s. The players then place bets as to how valuable they think their own cards are in comparison — a total guess, of course, but by this time everyone’s laughing from holding poker cards against their skin. After betting, the players reveal their cards, and the random results release laughter …

Here’s my version of the game, which so far exists only in my imagination. People find themselves seated at a dinner table, clutching their one card tightly to their chests, looking down at their stated worth — “7” or “3” or “10” — a value that is calculated according to all the good and the bad they have caused in life, according to all the secrets they know, according to all the things they wish they hadn’t said or they wish they knew how to say.

“If you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you” — Herbert McCabe

At this imaginary table of mine the players are making small talk, some of it happy, some of it sad; all are nervous about their value, and what the other players would think if their card were seen. After all, this player Sue’s card reveals that she said to this player Bob that this other, wealthy player Jorge’s a jerk, and now that Bob and Jorge are pretty good friends, does Jorge know what Sue once said about him, and if so, how does that affect who’s gonna pick up the check?

The dealer — a voice from the sky? — suggests the players lay their cards down on the table, face-up, on condition that they all, unanimously, forgive one another and love one another regardless of the cards’ value. The players agree, make their promises, and lay the cards down face-up. Angry yelling (“Jorge has the hots for both Bob and Sue?”) soon turns to laughter (“Jorge has the hots for both Bob and Sue!”) as people discover everyone’s a mess inside …

Except what if the players at the table included polarizing figures such as (take your pick) Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Julian Assange, or heck, even that driver yesterday who cut you off when you really needed to get over a lane? Would we the powers-that-aint agree to forgive they the powers-that-be permanently if they’d lay down their cards and their guns?

I would. I would, to get the cards on the table so everyone could be safe.

There are of course several things my card-game scenario doesn’t address. For instance, it seems radical transparency and privacy can come into conflict, and privacy is I presume often preferable: if you’re surveilled to death, your creativity is chilled (partly because honest creativity requires engaging in thoughtcrime) and also under surveillance you can’t experience as fully the fun premium privacy can add to events (e.g., sweet nothings can be more meaningful when expressed without others around). Further, logically there are possible worlds where security is unjustly threatened by radical transparency, and I am uncertain as to how such situations, when they do arise in this actual world, should be handled, although I am tempted to say, well, let the chips cards fall where they may, because 4000 years of trading our rights away to leaders whose trustworthiness is unproven in return for promises of security hasn’t worked out so well.

Minor edits made 18 August 2010.

Creating Character Emotions is Awesome

Most how-to fiction-writing books I’ve read — and I’ve read a bunch — are bad, worse, or useless. A few have helped me tremendously, however, and they don’t fall in either the pathetic HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLING NOVEL category (an actual title!) or in the John Gardner “Does anyone actually read this?” category. The three I’m thinking of lie in the Woah, this is useful! category that makes it worthwhile to occasionally visit that slightly embarrassing WRITING REFERENCE section of the bookstore.

Novelist and short story writer Ann Hood (Wikipedia entry; Blog), who teaches at The New School and whose latest novel is The Red Thread, wrote one of the three how-to books I prize. It’s titled Creating Character Emotions.

Creating Character Emotions cover

A Rectangular Read

After opening with an essay on writing about emotion, the book gives 36 short chapters, each focusing on a separate emotion — Anger; Anxiety; Apathy; Confusion; etc. — in a specific pattern: a short essay discussing the particular feeling, bad examples of its description in fiction (with discussion), good examples (with discussion), and exercises. (Myself, I always ignore exercises; I have enough writing projects of my own! So I can’t speak for or against her exercises.)

Here’s ANXIETY.

  • Excerpt of the first part, the mini-essay:

    Anxiety comes from matters large and small. Anxiety is worrying to an extreme.

  • Excerpt of the second part, the bad examples:

    “Would that doctor ever come out? Jon wondered. He bit his nails and tapped his foot nervously.” […] Nail biting, foot tapping, fingers drumming, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, a trickle of sweat, and pacing are all tired ways to show anxiety.

  • Third excerpt, one of the good examples (from Thom Jones‘s short story “I Want to Live!”:

    “But those people in the hospital rooms, gray and dying, that was her. Could such a thing be possible? To die? Really? Yes, at some point she guessed you did die. But her? Now? So soon? With so little time to get used to the idea?”

  • Fourth, one of the exercises:

    Choose a seemingly minor reason to produce anxiety, such as an invitation to a party, running out of hot water, a rainy day, and write a one-page scene in which a character obsesses on that concern. Be sure the character’s anxiety level rises as the scene progresses. Objective: To tap into the heart of anxiety. Even a small thing can cause great panic.

Too often I see in fiction the “He bit his nails”-type shortcut to expressing emotion — in fact, I don’t think these shortcuts express emotion at all, except for inexperienced readers or for characters with really important nails (what about biting the kind of nails you put into walls?). I think those shortcuts — “He bit his nails” — are, unless the writer’s really trying to speed a paragraph along or some such, simply announcements to readers’ left brains (so to speak) that amount to “Oh, the story is informing me that this character is anxious.” The shortcuts become mere info to process, sort of like a bus route chart: no emotion there.

Whereas a description of anxiety that startles or wounds or points uniquely will force readers out of complacency and keep them engaged in reading which is an active process of creating an experience in the mind. The Thom Jones example above makes readers (me at least) worry about suddenly learning of their own impending deaths. The bad example is just data, better suited to a computer than a person. CAVEAT SCRIPTOR: Don’t ditch all physiological ways of showing emotion, of course, unless you want your characters to represent disembodiment.

By the way, some writers/critiquers subsume the above advice under the precept “Don’t tell readers what to think.” That precept, I think, is imprecise. If a writer says “He wandered the hours away by the bank of a brook, watching the sun on the face of the chuckling water. A bird came to circle him, flew unafraid through the aura of gladness about him. The delicate tip of a wing brushed his wrist with the touch of the first secret kiss from the hands of Bianca” he should first win an award, but anyway, he is, in fact, telling readers what to think — at least to some degree — he’s commanding THINK OF A BIRD; and THINK OF A TIP OF A WING, etc. So drop the precept, people!

And buy Ann Hood’s book!

Clarion West Donation Drive 2010: Sponsor Me!

Clarion West, the six-week writer’s workshop I attended in 2008 on a space station in geosynchronous orbit above Seattle, hosts an online donation drive called the Write-a-thon each summer concurrent with the in-person workshop (June 20 – July 30). This year I’m participating in the drive along with many other former students and instructors. Here’s the deal: participating writers pledge to complete a certain amount of work individually; their friends, family, and fans donate whatever amount they choose to Clarion West as a show of support for both the writers and the organization. My goal: “Each of the six weeks I’ll either write a complete, good first draft of a new short story, or finish revising an older, in-progress one.”

I describe my feelings for Clarion West and my background in terms of the Write-a-thon further on my personal Write-a-thon profile page.

The donation drive works on an honor system — but, if you want proof I actually meet my Write-a-thon goals, I’m happy to accommodate you privately pretty much however you see fit. And, no promises, but if you do donate and want a character named after you in one of the stories, let me know that, too, as long as your name isn’t Forrest Gump or Darth Vader; if your name is euphonious I’ll ask the Muse to see if It can work anything out.

Clarion West is a nonprofit organization, and in the United States donations there are tax-deductible, as described on the main Write-a-thon webpage. Remember the organization has to fly the space station, pay the instructors, and so on — a lot goes into making this wonderful workshop happen. Rest assured that it is totally, totally, totally acceptable to donate a mere $5 if you want; $5 times a lot of donors times a lot of writers equals a whole lot of money.

To donate, you can either 1) click the PayPal “Donate” button on my personal Write-a-thon profile page, or 2) send with a note mentioning my name a snail-mail check to:

Clarion West
P.O. Box 31264
Seattle, WA 98103-1264

Thanks everyone, and I really appreciate even a single $5 donation to Clarion West. Let me know if you donate: it’ll make me work harder! Feel free to badger me about my progress towards my Write-a-thon goals, too!