obsessive

Sometimes, I teach creative writing to the youths of the nation (high school kids) and the advice I always give them, no matter what, is to write your obsessions. To give into them. To chase them. To follow where they lead. Because whatever you’re obsessed with or consumed by will come out in your fiction eventually, whether it’s sex or pokemon or baking or art deco or frayed jeans, and it will make your fiction better.

It’s something that held me back for a long time. I thought I needed to write a certain way, and about certain things. I grew up on SFF, but then fell deep into experimental and avant garde literature, and that meant writing in certain modes and about certain things. But even when I was deep into this stuff, my heart was still with SFF. It’s why even my most experimental novels involve invented cultures and peoples and mythologies.

Like a lot of arrogant and angry young men, I thought that art had to be a specific thing. I thought, as an artist, that I had to be a specific kind of artist. Those things mostly held me back, and they led me to discourage my own impulses and obsessions, which made my writing worse.

Since coming home to the genres that defined and shaped me, I’ve felt much freer and just better. I mean, me being a better writer isn’t just because of the genres I now write, but it’s helped. I’ve written in dozens of genres and styles, but I think my home is in the fantastic and surreal.

Anyrate, I think about my obsessions a lot, because they repeatedly come out in my fiction, even when I was actively trying to bury them.

Things like dust and wolves are everywhere. Ravens too, and a recurring dream I had for about a decade. Then there are all the people missing a hand, missing an eye, and all the characters who just never say a single word.

But the bigger ones are totalitarianism,  systemic violence, cultural clashes, shared stories, theology, Taoism, and cooking.

Most of those have always been present, to one degree or another, but cooking is a new one. I love cooking. It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. And it’s recently found it’s way into my fiction. Three of the last four novel(la)s I’ve written have cooking as a major component. Two of them involve the invention of boardgames, like chess or go.

Weirdly, these little things are making my fiction better.

The big themes are fine, and the small details are good too. But what I’ve found is that specificity adds a lot. At least, this is something I’ve found from my own reading. A character in a novel can be working a loom, and while I have no interest in such things, it’s really obvious how much the author cares. And that level of care and all that specificity just makes the utterly mundane utterly fascinating.

And so I suppose that’s what I really mean about chasing your obsessions. It’s no good to just list things you enjoy doing. You need to dig into the meat until you’re grinding on bones, breaking through to the marrow. If you want to make the reader care about the mundane things your character does, you need to really care about those things.

A scene about cooking is worthless if you don’t care about cooking, and your ambivalence will come through. Too, why would you write a scene about something you don’t care about?

It’s something that I think fantasy does better than literary fiction. Literary fiction is generally less plot driven, but I also often find the characters weaker. And it comes down to these obsessions. If your characters aren’t obsessed with something, then they feel weirdly alien. Inhuman. And while fantasy gets derided for favoring plot over character (which I generally disagree with), I’ve found that fantasy is often lethargically paced (why else would it take three or ten books to tell a story?) but that it remains a page turner, whereas the literary genre is just a slog.

There are a lot of reasons for such things and unbelievably numerous generalizations to make, but I’ve found that genre fiction tends to allow their characters to be obsessed. To have them dig into the minutia of things.

Like, I just read Lonesome Dove, which is often considered the best western ever written (for good reason!), and so many of the characters are just obsessed with…something. Horses, guns, drowning, gambling, whoring–it really doesn’t matter.

Obsessions are good.

But, yeah, follow your obsessions.

Luckily for me, mine change often, so I always have something new to write about.

Right now, it’s extinction and witches and blacksmithing, which will reveal themselves in my next two novellas.

I guess I could’ve captured all of this just by saying that obsessions are good.

witches and poetry

So it’s been a few months, yeah?

I’ve been meaning to post all kinds of things since my last post about the Tao Te Ching. I really enjoyed doing a post a day about the Tao Te Ching, and you can just keep scrolling on the homepage to find a bunch of them. Or you can click here.

Anyrate, I’ve had essays I wanted to write and share about politics, art, love, life, my cat, and other stuff, but I seem to’ve sort of lost the habit.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about. The tendency to share and how it becomes habitual or ritual. Over the last couple years, I’ve been using social media less and less, and it’s sort of like I’ve been weening myself off the incessant sharing that happens online. There are all kinds of reasons, but mostly it’s just that social media isn’t good for me, personally.

But because I don’t really share much online these days, it seems less and less important to share anything online. It always seemed like the point of starting a blog was to do more long-form sharing of thoughts and so on. Then facebook came the place to share all my dumb thoughts, so I used my blog less, and then when I began using social media less, I thought I’d use my blog more.

The opposite has mostly been true. Like I said, sharing online is kind of like a habit or ritual. Once I broke the habit, it no longer seems to matter whether or not I share anything online.

Anyrate, there is some news to talk about.

i-am-alone-facing-the-moon-front-cover1

My first poetry collection is coming out from Hawkline Press. There’s an announcement on their site.

Obviously that’s the cover and title up above in that amazing image.

I wrote it a few years ago. I think it was 2014. I wrote three poetry collections that year. All of them over the course of their own individual weekends when I had fevers. I wrote like 600 poems that year, but haven’t done much with them.

Still, very excited to have this coming out. It’s about 130 poems, most in the ryuka, tanka, and haiku, and then a final freeform series that might be my favorite poetry I’ve ever written.

The collection is inspired by the life and death of Yoshiya Chiru.

The collection is dark and weird and simple.

It’s funny to have a my first poetry collection come out as my fourth book, since I used to primarily think of myself as a poet. Obviously I’m not, and probably never will be, but I’m proud of the poems I wrote, and I hope you like them.

I’ll probably talk more about them in the future.

witches

I also just wrote this novel. Or, not just now. I’ve been writing it for a while. I was hoping to have it finished before May, but then I spent all of April and May not writing. It was a weird deadline to put on myself, since I began this near the end of February. It’s about 130,000 words right now, though it’ll almost certainly balloon a bit once I do edits/rewrites.

It’s a big complicated novel about terrorism and imperialism.

Also, it’s a fantasy novel.

There’s a lot to say about it, really.  The novel is mostly about four people: a student, an activist, an immigrant, a 200 year old poet, a 500 year old teahouse owner, and a factory worker. They’re all elves, which is funny to me, since I never really ever intended to write about elves or other standard fantasy creatures.

But the novel is really about race, culture, religion, terrorism, aspirations, systemic violence, totalitarianism, and whistleblowing.

This novel really is a reaction to basically everything I love and hate about fantasy novels. For example, most fantasy novels treat races and cultures as monochrome. All elves are the same culture, all dwarves are the same culture, but humanity gets thousands of shades. So I decided to give my elves all kinds of shades, and so the novel is really about how no cultural purity is an invention, and a dumb one. But also it’s about how systems of power crush people.

I’m really happy with it, but it’s also one of the darkest novels I’ve written, which is kind of saying something, considering how many times I’ve written apocalyptic books.

But, yeah, this year’s doing well. Last year I wrote a giant novel and two short novellas. This year I’ve written two novellas and a reasonably large novel. Next I’m going to be writing a western novella, then a pirate novella, and then a novella about burning a witch at the stake.

But that’s not for a while.

It’s a relief to be finished writing this book because now I can get back into all the other things I want to do! Like read books, play videogames, and just not have the weight of a huge book on my shoulders.

That’s all for now, though. I’m going to say that I’ll keep updating things on here, but that’s a lie.

Mostly I’ll just be taking pictures of my cat.

I’ll see you when I see you, followers of this dumb blog.

telling it true

True words aren’t charming,
charming words aren’t true.
Good people aren’t contentious,
contentious people aren’t good.
People who know aren’t learned,
learned people don’t know.

Wise souls don’t hoard;
the more they do for others the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

In this final poem, Lao Tzu drums out several of the paradoxes and central ideas that make up the Way. To give is to gain. To learn is not to know. Being truthful and good may not make you friends or give you the kind of power generally thought of as power.

The Way is simplicity. It’s flexible.

The Way is smiling and laughing.

The Way is feeding ducks at a pond.

The Way is buying groceries for the guy who forgot his wallet at home.

The Way is walking through a city or field or forest or park.

The Way is many things and yet hard to state.

But at its core, it’s asking us to be kind and gentle and thoughtful.

That’s pretty much it.

Kindness can change the world. Every act of kindness you do will ripple into the acts of others. Kindness will swell, very gradually, and that rippling can become a wave and that wave can sweep over a city, over a state, over a country. But only if we don’t seek such power. Only if we simply act and follow the Way.

It’s a beautiful thought, and it may be a true one. But it’s a lot to ask of people, for some reason.

Being kind is a radical act. Promoting peace is a radical idea in this country that loves war so much. But it’s only through these radical acts that the nation will change.

So resist. Be gentle, be peaceful, be kind. It’s the most meaningful act of resistance we have available.

freedom

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.

Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.

Is this a utopia?

It’s hard to say, and it’s hard to say if Lao Tzu is even meaning for it to be.

I’d say he’s not, at least in any practical sense.

Mostly, it’s the idea of a place where people are content to live. They’re not chasing after the unknown or even the known. They’re living life, and that’s enough.

It’s been a trend for a long, long time. The idea that there’s something more for us out there. That life is meant to mean something. That the farther we go, the more humane we become.

I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t even know if it’s useful to think of it as sort of true.

I’ve traveled a fair amount. More than most people, I’d say. So it’s difficult for me to seriously say that it hasn’t influenced the way I experience and view the world, but I’m also not convinced that doing those things was necessary to my vision of the world. Or, to put it another way: I may have come to who I am through a different route.

Of course, such thoughts aren’t especially useful to think about, since hypotheticals about who I might be had I had a different life are, you know, boring and tedious and intellectually unsatisfying.

I think what Lao Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, in general, are saying throughout the text is that you must come to learn who you are. You must find yourself within yourself. Travel and education may bring you more easily to the surface, but it’s not the only path, and it may not even be useful for most people.

Be like water.

Know yourself, and then no matter how far you go or what you learn, you will be content. You will be able to fit into any mold, adapt to any circumstance, and yet you will remain yourself.

Imagine a society so self-possessed that life is just contentment.

I don’t know if it’s a utopia, but it’s certainly a pretty idea.

In a time of so much self-reflection and intellectual insulation, I think this is especially important. To understand who you are you need to find some kind of quiet. A place to meditate and reflect.

The issue we have, I think, is that our self-reflection happens publicly. We post our self-reflections on the internet. Even this, one could say, is an example. I’m simply writing private thoughts down, but then I’m posting them where anyone with internet access can stumble upon them.

Is it really self-reflection when it’s projected through the internet?

Can we ever know ourselves when we’re so wrapped up in the lives of others?

That’s not to say we should imitate Descartes. I think his version of self-reflection as road to self-discovery is pretty stupid. Because it begins with the idea that humans are, at some point, entirely alone.

This is too easy to reject because it’s never true.

And the Tao is never about self-isolation. Almost every poem is balanced by a regard for the greater world. Questions for state, for power, for peace. Taoism is about engaging with the world while being yourself. By following the Tao, we discover ourselves, and in discovering ourselves, we demonstrate the Tao for others.

Bring the Tao to the world, but do it in your every word, your every action.

That’s resistance.

That’s Taoism.

Be like water.

keeping the contract

After a great enmity is settled
some enmity always remains.
How to make peace?
Wise souls keep their part of the contract
and don’t make demands on others.
People whose power is real fulfil their obligations;
people whose power is hollow insist on their claims.

The Way of heaven plays no favorites.
It stays with the good.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The chapter is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treaties. Its realistic morality is based on a mystical perception of the fullness of the Way.

Make peace.

Be kind.

That’s really what it amounts to.

Don’t take advantage of others.

Don’t exert force upon others.

Be kind.

Find peace.

Be gentle.

Be like water, friend.

paradoxes

Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.

So the wise say:
By bearing common defilements
you become a sacrificer at the altar of earth;
by bearing common evils
you become a lord of the world.

Right words sound wrong.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Be like water.

This is sort of the central metaphor of the Tao Te Ching. Be fluid, flexible. Flow around impediments; don’t try to push through them. Fill up the containers of your life. Be patient, gentle, and persist. Any impediment will erode before you. No power can overcome you, as you shift and flow to fill up whatever container you’re given.

Any harsh words or cruel acts can be overcome. Be like water, friend. Water shifts and flows, expands and contracts, but remains water. No one can take away who and what you are.

Be like water and persist in gentleness. No one can withstand you.

Like I said yesterday, Lao Tzu is subverting the traditional metaphors for power. The mountain is strong and rigid. Water is weak and pliant. And yet it’s water that will define the shape of the mountain, that will cut valleys through the rocks and stone.

What’s rigid breaks.

It’s like flint. Flint is incredibly strong. It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s brittle. Which means that if you hit flint in just the right way, it chips and crumbles to nothing.

Then you compare that to water. No matter what you throw at water, no matter how you rage at it and feel it give against your hands and feet, the water just flows back and fills the space you left.

You cannot beat water.

But you can destroy stone.

Be like water.

three articles about russia

There’s a lot I’d like to say here about how absurd the american center has become with regard to Russia, but I’ll leave it to Masha Gessen and Matt Taibbi.

Russia, Trump, and Flawed Intelligence

Despite its brevity, the report makes many repetitive statements remarkable for their misplaced modifiers, mangled assertions, and missing words. This is not just bad English: this is muddled thinking and vague or entirely absent argument. Take, for example, this phrase: “Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.” I think, though I cannot be sure, that the authors of the report are speculating that Moscow gave the products of its hacking operation to WikiLeaks because WikiLeaks is known as a reliable source. The next line, however, makes this speculation unnecessary: “Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.”

Or consider this: “Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him.” Did Putin’s desire to discredit Clinton stem from his own public statements, or are the intelligence agencies basing their appraisal of Putin’s motives on his public statements? Logic suggests the latter, but grammar indicates the former. The fog is not coincidental: if the report’s vague assertions were clarified and its circular logic straightened out, nothing would be left.

It is conceivable that the classified version of the report, which includes additional “supporting information” and sourcing, adds up to a stronger case. But considering the arc of the argument contained in the report, and the principal findings (which are apparently “identical” to those in the classified version), this would be a charitable reading. An appropriate headline for a news story on this report might be something like, “Intel Report on Russia Reveals Few New Facts,” or, say, “Intelligence Agencies Claim Russian Propaganda TV Influenced Election.” Instead, however, the major newspapers and commentators spoke in unison, broadcasting the report’s assertion of Putin’s intent without examining the arguments.

The Russia Story is a Minefield for Democrats and the Media

Hypothesize for a moment that the “scandal” here is real, but in a limited sense: Trump’s surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had “contacts,” and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet. Trump is enough of a pig and a menace that it’s easy to imagine doing this and not feeling terribly sorry that your leaks have been over-interpreted.

If that’s the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.

The press has to cover this subject. But it can’t do it with glibness and excitement, laughing along to SNL routines, before it knows for sure what it’s dealing with. Reporters should be scared to their marrow by this story. This is a high-wire act and it is a very long way down. We might want to leave the jokes and the nicknames be, until we get to the other side – wherever that is.

Russia: The Conspiracy Trap

Russia has become the universal rhetorical weapon of American politics. Calls for the release of Trump’s tax returns—which the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) hopes to have subpoenaed as a result of its lawsuit alleging the violation of the Emoluments Clause—are now framed in terms of the need to reveal Trump’s financial ties to Russia. And the president himself is recapturing the campaign debate’s “No, you are the puppet” moment on Twitter, trying to smear Democratic politicians Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi with Russia.

The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.

More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.