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.

Loyalty

Loyalty is one of the most important values that humans trade in. As an ideal it has  nobility: a sense of purpose and unwavering devotion which play heavily into the feel-good factors for those in charge and their retainers; because of its ability to raise the way people are perceived socially from ordinary to the status of demigods it is considered beyond price. But in reality loyalty is always a currency.

Traitor is the epithet reserved for those who decide it’s time for a change of master. The penalties for treachery are severe, including the lasting label which, if it sticks, renders you unable to deal in the loyalty currency again. There are always people who will deal of course, you just have to change market.

But since loyalty is only a currency it would be stupid to treat is as an absolute binary. Everyone has their price and it is when the price of loyalty becomes too high on the collective stake and the personal stake or the rewards elsewhere too great that people will deal themselves out. Democracy is supposed to be one place where you can see this in action.

Because loyalty is an Unreal Currency – one entirely constructed by humans in their minds based on a primal instinct to group up with the best survival bet – it has a particularly high value socially. When it is mortgaged to something like a political party, a leader or a religion its leverage often outweighs individual value. It isn’t surprising that for survival reasons people will remain where their interests are not served when the buyout is so high. Everyone has multiple loyalty markets on the go. The complexity is high.

The most interesting point in Loyalty Trading is the tipping point where a person will cash-out. From brand loyalty to religion and national identity any union of identities in a loyalty bond is subject to the tipping point. It always pays to know where that is. I’m always astonished that people assume loyalty is a done deal forever and stop paying attention to these things.

By nature no deal is anything but conditional. If you want to be free of the constraints of loyalty you can’t identify with anything or anyone. You can escape downward to the One, our outward to the All, but anything between is subject to trading and you should pay attention to the price index.

 

Expectations

On the whole, you’d be better off without these.

An expectation is a future disappointment. Not inevitably, if you take each one in turn, but collectively it’s certain, especially if you expect something out of another person. Sometimes an expectation needs to be met – a rare circumstance, usually necessitating some kind of formal contract. Here disappointment may be avoided by a very careful statement of the terms and an assurance of comprehension on all sides. We want engineers building bridges to have exacting standards. But for personal needs and desires nothing can set you up for a good crushing like expectations.

So if you can do without them I would definitely recommend doing without them. They have no impact I can discern on your ability to achieve, aspire or progress and living without them is extraordinarily liberating.

Belief

A belief is a direct leap from the unknown into being certain. A belief is always considered justified, otherwise why take it? An unjustified belief is seen as something other people have. It could be based on their faulty perception and misunderstandings or their sheeplike gullibility. But no belief is based on facts, otherwise it wouldn’t be a belief.

Uncertainty is the best you are ever going to get about most things, other than proven facts, and even then you are going to have to decide upon the viability of the source of your information. Equipped with your massive grab-bag of uncertainties you will still have to decide what to do.

But there’s good news. Uncertainty is the great creative space, the endless vistas of possibility. There is room in uncertainty for everything and a chance for almost anything. No matter how long you wait or study, the chances are you’ll never know for sure, although it pays to educate yourself as best you can. Knowledge is valuable. Certainty meanwhile is a form of death, admitting no possibilities but one (one which is in doubt, otherwise you wouldn’t have had to believe in it in the first place).

 

 

NaNoWriMo

Someone decided November had nothing in it so everyone should write a novel. If you’re doing this you may decide to google a bit of advice at some point or you may be heading into it for the first time and wonder what’s the best way to go at it.

After thirty plus years of writing here is my only writing advice for the creative phase of construction.

Take a few minutes to get into your best state, your happy place, full of and reminded of all the things you really like, stories you love, images, feelings. Then imagine a single moment of something that seems very intriguing. Write down what’s happening. Continue until the month of November has ended.

At that point you might try looking at other things you could do with what you’ve got. But really you can write very successfully just by doing that. One moment at a time.

Questions

That question I put at the end of my last blog – a variant of “What will you do?”

I put it there because I read so many blogs that end with the invitation to do something and it perkily, saucily, automatically, full-of-itself just trotted out of my fingers into the keyboard with the presumptive smugness of a Chequers deal.

I hate those things, I just realised.  Hate. With a deep conviction.

It’s enough I stopped by your blog to check out your thoughts. Now you’re canvassing me for free entry into my mind as well? It’s like all those surveys, polls, questionnaires, justafewquestionstoseehowwe’redoing! feedback. Those false declarations of  “we love to serve you so much…”

Those things are obligations. I pay for one thing – the thing I wanted. I didn’t pay for an obligation, no matter how tentatively presented, plump with honest entreaty. It was cute when Innocent started doing it. It’s abusive now everyone’s doing it. The very value of it is diminished by care fatigue and, on the wake of that, cynicism. It’s a perilous route.

Big corporations with massive turnover: if you want me to fill in your survey, give me 30 percent off. Otherwise, no dice.

Unless I suspect you’re using the information to do something horribly disciplinary to your staff. Like supermarket delivery people. But that feels like I’m ticking a box to make sure you don’t hassle them more than it feels like you’ll give them a bonus, for some reason. Please don’t take us into  PhilDickian future full of staff feedback forms. I beg you.

There are questions worth asking, of course. So many. Usually those are the ones everyone squirms to avoid. I don’t see you sending me a survey about how I’d like you to re-shape your production systems to save the world and stop flogging stuff nobody needs.

If you read this far you already gave enough.