Habits

Habits are automatic you. They’re actions that you’ve done so often, know so well, that your brain has relegated them to the same place that it keeps the walking, talking, breathing, bicycle-riding and driving. They’re not the same as compulsions, they’re just things that have taken on a life of their own because you’ve stopped paying attention.

It’s great that we can create habits to keep us doing things that are essential. It’s not so great when non-essentials form into habits. They take on a stone-like, flinty quality which can spark anxiety if they are not executed when cued so that fulfilling the habit in itself becomes an action that must be performed to stop unpleasant feelings.

Wherever you have a habit you’ve become unconscious. It’s not only actions, but assumptions, thoughts, entire suites of theories, that become habitual. At some point in your life this was useful to have them automated. But if you never disassemble them you’ll never grow and move on and you won’t even notice.

It takes about nine conscious efforts to even become aware that you are entering an automated routine and about nine times nine sincere, focused attempts to overwrite the sequence. This can feel nerve wracking to some. If you feel that way remember that you will never really forget your habit and if you want to you can go back to it at some later date, no problem. It’s not like somebody’s going to run off with it.

Like Dave Lee Roth said, “We’ve all got our self-destructive bad habits. The trick is to find four or five you personally like the best and just do those all the time.”

Writing – is one of my habits. I’ve slowed right down lately. Maybe I need to bump it back up the list.

Mind

A mind is a structure for processing memory and sensory information.

All the sensory information it processes has been preprocessed by the body and put into the categories: Irrelevant, Um-Hmm, Maybe, Noted and This! Everything except This is kept out of your conscious attention along with all the other things you’re ignoring. If those things are important or ongoing they’re stored with a pattern of physical tension because nothing says Avoidance like squicky bowels.

Mind uses memory and combines it in new and interesting ways; the imagination. This is called thinking, if you are consciously doing it on purpose. If you are not doing it on purpose it’s called crazy. The mind uses memory and imagination to generate the psychological structure of a person, their personality and a lot of reasons why coffee and the internet are a great way of passing the time before mortality takes its inevitable toll.

If the mind is busy your awareness is limited to whatever it’s doing. You won’t notice nearly anything else unless someone sets off a firecracker. In this way if you are always busy everything in existence will calmly pass you by.

If you let your imagination run out of control in the endless interplay of possibilities between past and future – that is, if you have any inner experience that you don’t like of any kind at all which isn’t obviously caused by hangover related issues and other effluvia of the physical realm – it’s time to rein that sucker in.

How to Rein That Sucker In: practice. Like a toddler on sugar the thoughts never stop, but you can ignore them and wander off and put your focus on something else. After you get good at this you can turn your mind to your own uses and then ignore it. On its own it will just generate garbage in a constant narrative with varying connection strength to any actual reality.

It doesn’t matter what the mind does as long as you don’t mistake the stories it’s making for actual things. Sadly, anything you consider seriously has a way of quickly leaping into Actual Thingness so be on the lookout for that feature. By all means have fun with imaginary things but don’t get them confused with Actual Things. I think this is the basis of the contempt some people have for fantastic fiction but those people have usually failed to notice that their consensus reality including all social and cultural identities is entirely fictional. It’s just much less fantastically fun than the things I like.

On the downside of this sanity: the more sane (able to dip in and out of Mind at will) I got the less I was able to experience the thrilling possibilities of all kinds of weird shit that I thought at one point might be real and although that was great because I was no longer terrified/worried/constantly churning pointless things it was also a bit sad, like something had died.

Plot

I used to read all kinds of writing about plot. When I started I just wrote whatever was interesting and carried on from where I left off the day before. I ended up with huge amounts of text only loosely connected to each other. There was no organisation. I thought it was because there was no plot, but it wasn’t. I knew how things tied together. It’s just that I hadn’t organised it so someone else could see that.

Thinking in terms of plot meant looking at the writing in a different, more conscious way, as a collage of events. The events of the plot could put laid end to end on a timeline, but how they related was more interesting than that and required that they move around a bit. This process turns plot points into interesting narratives.

If you aren’t able to think up a story by yourself for some reason, these days you can use a plot generator to come up with a sequence of events that follow the basic shape of a story. This is an algorithm which combines suggested words (you do have to put something into it) and situations according to basic rules. These generators are fairly rough and feeble copies of the engine every reading and TV-watching human already has in their minds. Years of observation has ingrained it into your brain.

If you are a well-educated human in the Western tradition then you will have already absorbed the fundamental story structures of this culture and can, at a second’s notice, punt out story fragments until you collapse from exhaustion. They might not be terrific or cohesive in the raw, but the system is there. Great! Or not. Probably, as soon as you get stuck into making your own work the first thing you will want to do with this is break it. When you come back from the fun mines and want to be published however, you’ll have to put it back together again somewhat.

Plot and story structure can be analysed in great detail but they are essentially fractal. A fractal is a shape or figure, every part of which shares the same characteristics as the whole. The story fractal is Beginning Middle End. Or Condition Upset Resolution. Or Open Explore Conclude. It’s a temporal structure, no matter how much you mess with the narrative timeline in the way the tale gets told. Something-Expansion-Contraction.

I think that it also contains a Golden Ratio feature. (From Wikipedia, “The Golden ratio is a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.”) Critical events of any story fractal need to reach their maximum crisis somewhere near the Golden Ratio for maximum satisfaction. I have no proof of this, it’s just my observation from reading and writing. I feel an inner sense of timing in operation as I write in the same way that I feel I want to naturally put the objects of interest near or along the Golden Section in a picture or photograph.

The plot is raw events on a cause and effect timescale. The narrative is where you put it together into something fancy. Where you put things in a story has a huge impact on how they are received – not just the big things, but everything that contributes to the whole picture. We all have endless plot and a machine to structure it as standard. Getting better with handling plot and making it into great narrative requires a lot of playing around practicing. You don’t have to be Nerd Analyst to do that, I just happen to enjoy thinking this way about it.

 

 

 

Arrow

Time’s arrow – our perception of time on a daily basis – goes only one way. It flies at the same speed for everyone. If you are having a great time, it seems to be fast. If you are having a terrible time it goes very slowly.

What you will do with your time is up to you. When it is gone it is gone. This moment is already passed by the time you read to the end of the line. The whole of existence is change, with you the change-rider, briefly atop the wave.

Soon you will turn under again, roll over again. You will never come back as you are. So, what are you going to do before the arrow strikes the mark and your body is recalled to the manufacturer? What matters enough to spend your time on it?

Air

When I was little I asked my mother what happened to all the stinky fumes from cars. She said they just spread out into the air and that there is so much air that the fumes soon are so spread out that they don’t matter. She is a scientist, and she also said that the bin was tipped into an incinerator or a landfill and that was the end of our chat. Because she thought it was OK I reluctantly said no more but I never felt it was OK. If we did that, then everywhere there were people they would do it, so eventually the world would be full of buried rubbish and the air full of smoke because air went around the planet but there was no filter, it just went around.

In my mind I didn’t grasp how big the planet was at the time. Nor did she, I think, grasp how small it is. Its smallness matters so much more now there are so many of us. Which brings me to the air again.

A decade or two ago I went up a big mountain, so high that the air was really thin, so high I couldn’t go any higher because I started to turn crazy paranoid with lack of oxygen and a deep, biological terror my body kept throwing at me that I was soon going to die up there. I reached a height of around 4.8 thousand metres (with acclimation days if you are interested in how so high) above sea level. We passed over a place where the last life of anything above a microbe lingered. Because the world is round it can seem huge and that it goes on forever, but if you change direction and go straight up you’ve got 5 thousand metres tops before you’re finished. One good walk. And that’s it. We live in a thin film of air. I think anyone who feels confident about the industrial destruction of the planet’s climate should go up there for a little sit on top of a mountain.

The rain does clear the air. It brings the particles down out of it and puts them on the ground where they are much more easily stirred up and inhaled. But nothing, no system, when constantly buffeted with pollution, takes things away. Recycling plastic, at least in my area, has turned out lately to be code for ‘we shipped it to a faraway shore’. (I clean out plastic and carefully adjust cans so that, if somewhere some poor person or animal picks over my rubbish on a mountain of broken promises they won’t be hurt.) But there is no  faraway shore, or ‘away’ on this spherical world. The wind, the water, the soil, brings it all around again. If not to me personally, then to someone, some being, some creature, some earth.

When I write and compose stories I feel very conscious that so much of the time I am merely a collection of idea-pollutants and a weather system for bringing it all around again, unless I concentrate very hard and question every choice. Unconsciously I will replicate. Only consciously can I adapt and move on. No doubt I’ve circulated my share of toxicity, without meaning to, but nonetheless I continue to pick over my huge spoil heap. If I have a goal in fiction it is to try to clear the air. I’ve failed to do much about the actual air; I let myself be persuaded into thinking it was someone else’s business and that it could be put aside. I will do what I can to correct things.

I don’t know if many people read my fiction, but if they do it would be nice if it felt like a breath of fresh air. That’s what I try for.

 

Story

The extent of human storytelling was something I didn’t fully grasp until quite recently.

In the beginning, when I was a child, stories were something that came in books or something that was told. It had an obvious boundary. It usually had an obvious structure – the classic beginning, middle and end. It always had a point, if not a moral. It could feature anything, real or imaginary and the imaginary ones were the best, the more whimsical the better.

As I grew up and went to school the kinds of stories I read from the library and in class began to change. They became more complex. They more often than not did not have a moral or a purpose so much as a range, like a country to explore. There were so many that their diversity began to divide them up into different kinds of countries, with different expeditionary companions: fantastic, futuristic, historical, action-drama and romance. Then there were those which were dealt with under the label of Literature for their efforts to accurately render some part of the human experience without the use of Story Special Effects. These were valued for their verisimilitude.

The most marked divide was that between fantastic tales and ‘real life’ fiction. It was at this point that I first glimpsed the fact that the divide, apparently so clear, was an illusion. I only pushed at this notion a bit because I felt resentful that the stories I loved were being pushed steadily into the background because they were considered childish. At almost exactly this moment in my grumpy expansion I had a teacher who liked Science Fiction. She had us read Brave New World (Huxley) and Animal Farm (Orwell) just before we got into our exam text of 1984 (Orwell).

These books, although fantastical, were considered Literary. Other books I read at the same time, like Dragonflight (McCaffrey) were not. We spent a long time considering the world and story of 1984. The only difference that I could perceive between them was that 1984 (and BNW and AF) was using its fantasti-fu powers to grind a very grim and ugly axe with which to crack the reader’s head repeatedly (You Will See How Horrible And Or Alarming This Is, Damn You), while Dragonflight and the others of its kind did not have such an axe and wandered loosely about making vague statements almost accidentally. I formed the conclusion that Literary SF had to be grisly, brutal and alarmist to be taken seriously. Fantasy fiction had to be Lord Of The Rings, which was only let in the club because it had mythological, literary roots and was a tragedy in parts. Or it had to be written by C S Lewis.

At the same time I had begun to study Classics, purely for the stories. It was comforting to read stories of gripping drama and grisly adventure which had been enjoyed for thousands of years. Here the history of story in all its forms was clear and unburdened by the modern novel and its conceits about the purpose of fiction. Here too were writings about writing, which said, quite clearly, that all of life was a drama. But even then I didn’t appreciate how deep the story went. I could see that people enjoyed creating a big stink about various things in their lives and how they generated the events of tragedy and comedy as a result. At this point it was all still on the outside. People thought things and then they created some story and went about acting it out. Their thoughts weren’t something I saw as fiction. I thought that they came from some real, original source, within the individual. This was the stopping point, where story started and ended, and where reality began.

It was only when I really got into yoga for the second time in my life, aged 48, and began to look inward for long periods of time that I saw how far down the story turtle went. To paraphrase the late, lovely Mr Pratchett. It’s stories all the way down.

So, where is reality? I decided there was no way I was going to die without finding out the truth.

To see it all you have to do is lift off every story you have. When every story is gone what you are left with is the real. Here you are –

 

 

 

 

 

Layers

When I moved into my current home eleven years ago there was a feature wall in the bedroom painted a deep, dark purple. It was a nice colour in itself, but I didn’t like it there, so I covered it up with burnt orange. This shade was called Crome Yellow but it dried to be the complementary colour of the existing purple.

For the edges I used a paint pad. This did not go well. Uneven and wobbly, I transferred to a brush soon enough. For the majority I used a roller. No matter what I used the paint went on unevenly. Not only was it uneven in general but you could see where the layers had doubled due to overlapping, and you could see the purple through it, like a menacing background darkness.

Another coat ended the tin of paint but it didn’t end the issues. Now there was a lot more consistency and the colour was, while not as bright as on the tin, a particularly rich and interesting ochre, thanks to the purple still having its effect underneath. In art this is called underpainting when you do it on purpose to create a particular depth of tone. Mine wasn’t on purpose, and this showed where the pad and the brush hadn’t managed to leave even coats. It looked like a badly painted wall. But it had a kind of interesting feel to it, because every time I noticed the flaws I remembered the days after we moved in. But it was a bit of a mess. I had little kids, I didn’t revisit it until now, today.

I put on a coat of primer, which went on unevenly. But two coats would probably have fixed it. But for some reason I thought I could get away with three layers of colour paint. In one layer of colour paint my laziness proved to be, once again, a mistake. I will probably need four coats and even then I think that the legacy of the purple will still emerge, subtly, like the faintest memories of old wine under my brilliant sunset. Also, due to the paint pad fiasco I went for a brushed edge which has now left me with something that looks like an attempt at a Mark Rothko painting – darker at the edges, with an incompleted, worked obliteration in the centre.

It’s got an interesting texture and depth of field thing going on thanks to all the layers of attempt, failure and bad decision making. I think I like it more than I would like a wall of perfectly flat colour. When I look at it I see hidden depths, possibilities, the shadows of other worlds. I particularly love this effect in fiction too, when only the superficial story is in focus but there’s so much more in the background, underneath, behind, at the edge – glimpsed and then abandoned and never resolved or explored. It feels so real.

I like layers and my one real wall.

Brexit

Since the referendum I’ve considered the whole sad process of Brexit to be a Death March. Whether you had feelings on it either way and however passionately your feelings about where you belonged nationally and internationally one question only should have been researched and answered before any vote was offered: was delivery of it even plausible?

It isn’t. To be more specific, it isn’t possible to negotiate new deals on all the complexities of modern life and contemporary trading within a two year time gap, even when everyone is in a state of pleasant agreeableness. Naturally they weren’t in that state at all. The quantity and inflexibility of so many agendas grinding at each other within political parties, between the EU and the UK, between various parts of the UK and its neighbour, Ireland – not to mention the power jockeying of individuals – all these things would add years to such an attempt on their own merits. The sheer scale of disruption and the complete absorption of the civil service and the government into this one effort would be, and is, far too expensive in financial, social and human terms to be worth even trying it. Nobody could deliver it, regardless of their intentions.

The most revealing thing about the current situation and that of the USA, experiencing its own kind of Brexit as current governance shatters much of its civil estate into angry little bits, is what a magnificent lack of vision and lack of competence is on offer throughout various levels of government and politics.

Maybot chugs along. Corbyn has all the charisma of a dead sheep. Meanwhile the USA chooses Trump. I’d like to say it was all down to sense and policy and honest deliverables but it’s all down to whether or not you can ignite people’s passions and get them to stand with you. Having seen that this is true (and it’s not exactly news) why the hell did nobody with actual brains and policies find a figurehead and make a pitch that stirred the various internal organs of the UK population with a fire for, oh, I don’t know, a national identity based on kindness, fairness, tolerance but not of intolerance, intelligence, generosity, magnanimity, perspicacity, principle, honour, humour and compassion? Surely someone’s policies and goals could be honestly written within these terms and embodied by a human being with slightly more grasp on connectivity than people comparable to machines and ex-animals?

We plebs need something wonderful to rally behind and not all these pathetic exclusionary whiners on the far right and far left who’ve managed to figure out how to use the very worst way of uniting people in a tribal scrapping frenzy by yanking their fear chain and playing into their narcissism.  It’s a feeling thing. You have to engineer that first.

Britain should not be tied to a place but a feeling, very specific feelings that have learned from past mistakes (so, not located in anybody’s genes or colour or gender or location) and have a lot to offer the world, generous with all that is most valuable and protective of all. When we feel great and secure and happy, we create the best things. It’s not rocket science and you can still smite the wrongdoers of the world and exclude them from your borders.

The unsuitability for purpose of the present party systems of election and governance is beyond question. They’re simply too inflexible, unrepresentative and too staid. What they will evolve into has not yet appeared and isn’t even on the horizon. The interim period is very interesting, in that unhappy way.

I’m a Skiffy writer, so I like to imagine a future where there is no human governance. There is AI. Like The Culture, everyone is provided for in terms of their survival and basic comforts, according to where they live. Universal pay, regardless of what you do. A lot of competitive things from sports to gardening to anything you can compete at, but no pressure to join in. Free education and healthcare. E-sports as standard. Games galore. Believe what you like but you can’t force it on others.

Well, as I write that I realise there’s a problem. It sounds too good. Too peaceful. It doesn’t deal with human tendencies to tribalism and our enjoyment of our own aggression unless you add in a huge robot police force and surveillance.

On the other hand it sounds OK compared to bloody Brexit.

 

Doubt

The opposite of doubt is certainty but, actually, both are different degrees of confidence.

Doubt seems to be the thing I write about most in my fiction. I would say it has had a major impact on my life as well although in both cases I think that the doubt is rational: in the absence of complete information (largely impossible unless we are dealing in mathematics) some degree of doubt is surely wise. Two bits of common wisdom attach to this.

The first one is “She who hesitates is lost.” The second one is “Pride goes before a fall.” Here the kind of pride I always thought it meant is the kind of pride you have in your own correctness – the degree of confidence you have in your perception. You think you’re so right. Then you suffer the nasty consequence of being mistaken. Hesitation, on the other hand, is a necessary feature of a doubting person as they pause to consider the possibilities. The meanings seem clear. Forge ahead too boldly – disaster. Stand back for too long – disaster. Either way, it’s disaster. There’s no mention of the times that hesitation meant you didn’t drop to your death down a hidden crevasse or the times that forging ahead carried you safely while the ice cracked and broke after you passed.

We can all think of instances where foolhardy confidence or wavering insecurity has led to success or failure. I am the kind of person who wants to get it right. I want to know what’s right. When is confidence justified? When is doubt merely timewasting? I have doubts about confidence. My doubt just goes all the way down. But something curious happens when you follow the Doubt Rabbit all the way to the bottom of the hole.

There is no bottom to that hole. You can fall forever. After it’s been going on a while it loses its natural terror and becomes fascinating instead. So after ages of being exhorted from various worthy sides to Be More Confident I’m glad I wasn’t. Being wrong is nearly certain. Being right largely accidental. But looking to see all you can see – that’s a priceless experience I wouldn’t trade.

In some places (as noted by the late, great Douglas Adams), when you fall towards the ground and miss that’s called flying.

 

 

 

Ambition

When I started writing I had no plans of any kind. I just wrote whatever seemed exciting or interesting. I didn’t know anything about how to do this and that, how people liked to put stories together and then take them apart, whether it was somehow significant in the world to choose one kind of thing over another. No idea.

Writing on its own felt fun. If I finished a little story I liked to show it to my parents and, of course, they were very complimentary. Success! I had fulfilled the whole dream and I was satisfied on pretty much a daily basis.

Then I got older. School happened. English Literature class happened. I saw that there were a lot of expectations of people who wrote stories. I saw that there was a possibility of being some kind of very great thing that people thought was the bees knees, or at least very very valuable in some way. I saw that the bar for success here was very, very high.

So I got the ambition to be published, but, on the way to that my ambition started to eat up that lesser ambition. I wanted to be on a par with the classics. Meanwhile I got published. Then I started to understand what a classic is, and what a ‘great writer’ is.  I realised that it wasn’t in my control to be a great writer, because other people bestow that accolade and anyway, they didn’t have such good lives. Also, I didn’t like a lot of their work. But I kept quiet about that.

Meanwhile as that ambition faded I felt another one assert itself, one which had been there early on but which I had not recognised was an actual ambition, when I thought that only publication and money and reviews were ambitions. This ambition was to change the world and everyone in it to become better. I wanted to be a great writer so that I would be able to write something that would change people for the better because everywhere they are causing themselves a lot of misery. This spurred me on a good while.

Then I understood, recently, that I cannot achieve that ambition. I don’t even know what my books and stories mean to other people. I am sometimes not sure what they mean to me other than that I am attempting to embody some realities in which a certain kind of thing is happening. I felt completely exhausted by the realisation, my bubble burst. I realised that it was a stupid ambition and I felt a fool for ever thinking it was something I could do. Even in several lifetimes I would not be good enough for this task. Most writers, even great ones, at best are able to reflect human life accurately in some way. A few are enriching. A few are life-changing, but only because at the time you read them they are just the thing you needed to push you further on. So it was an accident, nearly.

I did nothing while I questioned my entire purpose. But I have returned to it and nothing has changed. I am not better, more able. I am committed to the same hopes and dreams, but I know they are only dreams. I know there is not going to be a success story and I’m not even sure that what I do has value other than to me. I can’t do it because nobody could do it, but now I know that the journey is different. It’s better now. I don’t have that horrible anxiety eating away at me that I must hurry on, hurry on, try harder, do more.

But my ambition is enough to last forever and, as a hopeful focus it’s the best one I ever found. I may not fulfil it, but I am fulfilled by pursuing it.