when novels blow up on you

Been a while since I posted, which wasn’t intended, since I hoped to blog a lot more this year. I’ve probably written more words on the blog than I have in a long, long time, but most of those are political or abstract questions of morality, which no one really cares about.

I might not even care about it.

Anyrate, I’ve been burying my head in a novel. It’s the novel I began back in January but I took a quick break to write a novella, which I talked about here. Unfortunately, as often happens to me, when I take a break, it often accidentally goes on and on.

So I had about 14k words written when I took a break to write that novella and I didn’t come back to this novel until May, which is just too too long. But I was able to start sprinting and get a big chunk of it finished.

Thing is, way back in January, and even at the beginning of May, I believed this novel would top out at about 80k words. And even that seemed unlikely. What I’d whisper to myself in my head was that the novel would probably end up being 70k word, which, for a fantasy novel, is kind of short. Especially since places like DAW have a soft minimum of 80k words.

So my goal was to finish the novel in May, which was no problem. I wrote about 80k words in two weeks back in 2011 when I wrote Twilight of the Wolves, which ended up being 95k words in its final form. So reaching 80k was not going to be a problem, and it wasn’t!

The problem is that I reached the 72k word mark and only finished the first of three sections.

Let me explain the novel a bit more.

This novel actually takes place in the same world as Twilight of the Wolves. It’s in a separate part of the continent and deals almost exclusively with one culture, and, really, just one village, though it will fan out a bit. It also takes place about 500 years before Twilight of the Wolves.

The novel originated in two short stories that I wrote for a workshop where my instructor was Valerie Valdes, who is an immensely talented teacher. Also, her novel is absolutely fantastic and can’t wait to see it get published somewhere. Anyrate, the length issue I’m having right now is because of her!

So I wrote these two short stories. All together, they were about 14k words. One of those stories was pretty much a failure, as it was largely a 7.5k word summary of a novel, which is what I’m writing now. The other short story was about 6k words and I wanted it to basically be a first chapter.

Unfortunately, because of Valerie’s suggestion, it also became a very detailed outline. So I started with a 14k word outline, more or less, to work from.

Which is awesome. It’s why I could leave this novel for so long and come back without any trouble. Even with this outline, I still thought it would only top out at 80k, which is basically taking those 14k and blowing it up by a factor of six.

What happened, though, is that the first 6k word of that outline blew up by a factor of eleven, which is ridiculous.

So the other 7.5k was the outline for part two of my novel. I’m currently 30k into that second part and I’m really only just beginning, so part two is likely going to be as much as 150k, which is, by itself, longer than anything I’ve written in my life.

At the novel’s current length (108k words), it’s longer than any project I’ve ever finished. I have an abandoned novel that’s almost 150k words, which may someday get finished and probably reach close to 300k, but I have no idea if that’ll ever be finished. Possibly not.

Anyrate, it’s becoming very possible that my current novel is going to be up near 300k.

I’ll break down the structure:

Prelude – 6k words

Part One – 66k words

Interlude – 5k words

Part Two – 100k to 150k(?) words

Interlude – 5k(?) words

Part Three – 30-60k(?) words

Postlude – 3k to 6k(?) words

If I end up on the low end of everything planned, I’ll be around 215k. But it’s possible part two will be right around or even over 150k words, and part three may be well over 60k words, especially with the way everything’s expanding, which would put the total at about 295k words.

Anyrate, a bit more about the structure.

The novel takes place in the present, and reaches back to tell the story of a life. It’s a story within a story, which will hopefully have a nice juxtaposition and play off one another. That being said, if those parts of the novel that take place in the present don’t create a really interesting tension with the real heart of the novel, then I’ll probably cut it all.

Because it’s really not enough for it to just work. When you’re doing a structure like this, it has to be more than just an element that works.

It needs to be transformative. It needs to remake the novel into something grander, more beautiful, more everything. It has to take that novel and just make it synergistically better.

If it’s not doing that, then it doesn’t need to be there.

But, yeah, that’s where I’m at right now. Just over 100k words in, just tipping past 400 pages, and not even at the halfway mark.

Which means I’m writing in a very different way for this novel. If you come here often or have checked out any of my posts about the process of my novels, you know I typically write a novel in about a week. That’s 5k to 10k a day until the novel ends.

But I couldn’t do that. Not for a novel this big. So I’m taking a relatively more relaxed approach to the novel. I pumped out a lot of words in June. Hit about 60k words over the course of two weeks, which feels so slow to me.

It’s weird, honestly. And today I was looking at the amount of words I’ve written so far in June comes to about 36k words. That may seem like a lot, but I’m used to that taking about four to seven days.

But I’m happy with the process. My new goal is to finish the novel before I turn 29 in September.  Then I’m hoping to either sell it to a publisher or get an agent before I’m 30.

Because of the size and complexity of this, I’m hoping to get at least a handful of beta readers. My friend Kyle Muntz has already read part one and had only good things to say, which was a huge confidence boost.

But, yeah, if you’re someone interested in an epic fantasy novel written by me that’s largely concerned with family, culture, and so on, let me know. Because I really am hoping to get eyes on this so I can make it as good as it can possibly be.

In other news, after I finished part one of the novel, I took another brief break to write a heroic fantasy novella that I’m very proud of. If you’d like to give me feedback on that, I’d be interested in seeing what you have to say as well.

So, yeah–that’s what I’ve been up to lately. I’ll be continuing to write this novel for a few months.

 

chasing and running

The night alive with moonbright butterflies swarming over the massacre. But for the screaming, the night was calm.

That’s the start to the novella I wrote this weekend. I spent a few hours hammering it into shape, and I feel really good. Really happy.

The image at the top is also very fitting for the novella.

The story may be terrible, but I tried a lot of new things here, so it was exciting. I planned on finishing it this Wednesday, but I ended up writing nearly 10,000 words yesterday because it was just flowing, so now it’s all finished and edited just two days after starting it.

But that’s how it always is with my writing, yeah?

It’s been a weird year for me, in terms of writing. I burst out of the year with a lot of productivity, but haven’t done much since finishing Dusk Country Blues way back at the end of January.

I think I made a big mistake in taking a break from the novel I was writing to dive into Dusk Country Blues, though it seemed right at the time. But, as is typical, me taking a short break becomes a long, long break.

Anyrate, I’m going to jump back into that novel tomorrow (or tonight), and hopefully finish it this month.

But, yeah, this novella. It’s called Runner (for now), which is kind of a poor title and is most likely going to change. But I did a lot of stuff differently than usual. It’s a chase narrative, for one thing, so there’s a kind of constant tension and my protagonist is having a pretty rough time, to say the least.

I also included interior, even though this is third person. This isn’t weird to most people, because everyone does third person with the interior of characters. But I haven’t written like this in maybe ten years. I have a strong rule against interiority in third person. But, for whatever reason, I wanted to try it here.

It made some things insanely easy, which is why I think I always considered it a cheat. But it was a useful experiment, and hopefully a successful one.

I’ve come to realise, too, that the length I think I work best at is from about 7,000 words to 50,000 words, which is the most awkward length of stories when it comes to publishing. Too long for short stories, too short for novels, and novellas are hard to find homes for. There’s always Tor, sure, but what’re the chances of me getting into Tor?

So it goes.

But, yeah, feeling good. Feeling productive.

If you want to take a look, give me a shout. I’m proud of it but also would like to get some extra eyes on it.

I wrote a lot of it to this song.

if they are hungry

Don’t really have anything to say, but I wanted to share this maybe poem with everyone. It’s powerful.

It was written by Layli Long Soldier and published at Mud City Journal. It looks like she has a book coming out from Graywolf Press in 2017, which is all kinds of awesome.

Anyrate, you should just read it.

A quick excerpt:

One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakotas by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.

When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.

When Myrick’s body was found,

his mouth was stuffed with grass.

I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.

Read the whole thing here.

dakota-38-mankato-massacre

the labyrinth of care populated by monsters of choice

Change is a decision that you have to make constantly, especially when it hurts.

Phil Jourdan has responded to my response to his initial essay and it’s excellent stuff, as expected. It’s a powerful thing he’s talking about and it’s inspired me to do something I’ve rarely done in the last four years on here: talk about my own experiences.

Mostly this blog has become the ephemera and detritus of my thoughts. Much of the experiential stuff has been buried beneath that, partly out of a discomfort in talking about my every day life, the way I feel, and so on. I use fiction for that, hiding myself between the sentence folds. But I’ll be talking about some things that are uncomfortable for me to talk about, along with more specific responses to Phil’s post.

But first I want to talk about that quote at the top. It’s worth retyping.

Change is a decision that you have to make constantly, especially when it hurts.

Just linger on that a moment, because it’s a powerful and true statement. Every day is an opportunity to change your life. Every minute of every day is! But an opportunity isn’t as open or easy as the word implies.

We constantly have the opportunity to change our lives, sure. But changing is so much more than a moment or a day or even a year. Change is continuous. Much of it is irrational as well, in that we don’t often examine the way we’re changing. More than that, it’s something we’re not even necessarily conscious of. The truth is, we’re changing constantly at a variable rate. Just living life changes you. Surviving today changes who you are.

It may be very minute and seemingly inconsequential (probably most days are like this), or it may be something big that transforms the way you look at the world.

The latter happened to me when I first read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is something I’ve written about many times, because it really was the single most transformative experience of my life, but I also touched on it briefly a few weeks ago when I was talking about another book.

But most change isn’t like that. Phil talks about that too.

It is narratively convenient to attribute a change in life to a single moment of clarity, or some near death experience, or whatever most suits our narcissistic self-image.

So much of our destructive behaviour rests on an implicit sense of narrative running through our lives, which gives it this mysterious “It’s bigger than me!” feeling. (It is bigger than you. But not like that.)

We each have a way of telling ourselves our own story, and most of the time we are not even aware of how much energy goes into keeping this story consistent. It is utterly exhausting. Human beings everywhere, whether they see it or not, whether they would care to take this as a hilariously sweeping generalisation or not, are exhausting themselves minute by minute trying to maintain an illusion of narrative consistency in their lives. When a crisis happens, when it’s time to change and there is apparently no choice, we have an ingenious way of preserving our sense of identity (the very thing that got us into this mess) while also caving in to the demands of external circumstances: We tell ourselves that we can change because we have decided to change, and pretend that this decision, now that we’ve made it, will take care of the rest. Even if we think we’re not that naive, we do tend to be.

It’s convenient to say one specific and discrete thing changed our life. The answer is probably much more complicated. It’s also probably not something you think about or even something you can articulate, which is why it’s easier to attribute it to that moment that sparked recognition of the fact.

So for me, I push blame/responsibility on Dostoevsky’s dead shoulders, when things are probably more complicated than that. I had to be at the right stage in my life for such a text to move me the way it did. And I was. I was broken. I was a nightmare. I identified with Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov so strongly that it’s actually kind of alarming.

I was obsessed with my Death and dying. I wished for it. Self-harm was not something I suffered from, mostly due to cowardice and apathy. I didn’t want to hurt myself. Not really. I wanted to die. I wanted to be hit by a car while I was crossing the street. This desire made me reckless with my own body and I’ve had many brushes with Death but never really managed to sustain much physical damage.

Why did I want this?

It’s hard to explain because I am so very much not that person anymore. I would say that I was a creature of thought back then, whereas I’m more of a creature of doing and being now. It sometimes shocks me how little I think about anything. But when I was growing up, I was trapped inside my head. Too, I was hopelessly depressed and stifled and frustrated and angry.

That probably makes you assume I was a quiet, friendless loner. Which isn’t true at all. For whatever reason, people have always been quick to befriend me. People like me. There’s no accounting for taste, especially back then, considering how little regard I had for everyone I knew. People liked me but I mostly just wanted them to go away.

I was lonely. Unbearably lonely, and having people around didn’t make me less lonely, though I always told myself it would help. They made me lonelier. I would smile and laugh with them, be charming and fun, but inside I just wanted to die. I felt empty or overfull. There was no in between.

I felt things so much that it physically hurt. I mean that in a very real sense. Even though I didn’t really like anyone, I cared deeply about them. To see them hurt, emotionally or physically, made me sick. I remember writhing in pain after a rather depressing argument with one of my fellow depressives. It felt like I was being stabbed, cut open, and having my entrails pulled out. I vomited.

And I lived like this for much of my life. Feeling either nothing or feeling so much that it felt like the world was trying to fit inside my too small body. I never slept. I was angry almost always, though I never expressed that anger. I was a waterfall trapped inside a well. I was haunted by the ghosts that kept me awake all night.

I remember lying awake in bed crying, holding my dog because she was all that mattered to me. My oldest and dearest friend. She may be the only real reason I persisted in living, reckless as I was.

I started drinking when I was very young. I would drink until 5am and then go to school at 7am and smile and laugh and be boiling with rage and pain.

And then I fell off a cliff.

I fell sixty feet, hit the rocks below, and quickly stood up, all the breath stolen from me. My friends shouted into the emptiness asking if I was dead. Eventually I was able to say no.

I spent the weekend in the hospital. I had a broken clavicle, and that was the only real damage to me. The weekend was surreal. My body was in shock so I slept through much of it. My dad was in the room with me the whole time. He never left my side but I barely remember him being there. I barely remember anything except how the nurses called me the miracle boy. They told me how life would feel new. like a gift. How my whole life would change because of this.

But it didn’t. And knowing that I wasn’t different made it worse. It was emotionally crippling to believe that I was somehow failing because the world didn’t look and feel new because I survived. I felt the weight of expectation on my young depressive shoulders and I buckled under it. My legs gave out and I felt worse and worse for not having some kind of epiphany.

I literally should have died. There is no reason that I survived, let alone that I was barely even hurt. Had I fallen a few feet to the left, I would’ve been broken in half over an enormous jagged rock. Had my body been rotated just a few inches, I would’ve snapped my neck. Had I been rotated a few inches another direction, I would’ve broken my back and maybe been paralysed if I survived.

But I didn’t die and not dying didn’t give me a new lease on life. Didn’t change my perspective about mortality.

I had been running for Death for so long that it didn’t seem significant to me that I lived.

To be honest, it still doesn’t. I don’t look back at that event as being particularly interesting. If anything, it taught me how tenuous our hold on the world is. Probably the most interesting thing about it happened when I returned to that cliff for the first time about two years later. I found myself unable to even come close to it. I was standing about 100 feet from the edge, my body shaking so hard I could barely breathe. I felt like I was going to pass out.

Because even if your brain doesn’t remember, your body does.

It was later that Dostoevsky changed my life, and it would be convenient to draw a somewhat straight line through all of this and connect the dots that way, but it would be largely incorrect.

Partly because I feel almost severed from that boy I was.

When I say Dostoevsky changed my life, I’m talking about a dramatic change. One day I was me picking up Crime and Punishment for the first time. A few days later I was a completely different me, crying into the page I had just finished, turning the book back to page one and reading through the tears blurring my vision.

Gradually, I came out of my head. I gave up my anger. I accepted my emotions. I forgave those who had hurt me–even those who broke my heart in ways that seemed cruel. I just gradually became someone who accepted so much of life. Maybe I owe this more to Lao Tzu than I do to Dostoevsky, but that doesn’t really matter, because, as Phil notes, the narrative isn’t especially useful or significant. Holding onto the me that I was and trying to reconcile who and what I was before with who and what I am now wouldn’t be a beneficial exercise.

I stopped thinking so much and began really inhabiting the world. I stopped being so obsessed with myself and put my focus on to the world around me.

Which has also crushed me at times. I’m a lifelong depressive, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s quite crippling. And then there are the delusional manic phases that are sometimes scarier, where I’m up for days just moving and grooving and hearing music that’s not there, my whole body vibrating as one and everything feeling so clear, despite how askew it may really be.

But my depression rarely comes from inside me anymore. I don’t hold my faults against me, just as I try not to hold them against people. But the weight of the world crushes me at times. The cruelty of it. The inhumanity of civilisation. I look around and see so much unkindness (especially online), so much hatred, so many ways to separate and delineate humanity, and almost no attempts to pulls us together, to remind one another that we really are just one species with billions of faces and variations.

To me, change is a constant gradual thing that happens whether we’re cognizant of it or not. Not just personal change, but global change.

The goal, I think, is to direct this change. But since we can’t steer our species or the planet, we’ll have to settle with ourselves. You are the captain of your own life. If you drift through the oceans of time, memory, experience, thought, emotion, and other humans, you may become lost and just keep getting loster until you find yourself in dangerous waters.

This is what people mean when they say, ‘She let herself go.’ What they mean is that you’re spiralling into a very dark place. You’re giving up or giving in.

I actually don’t like the imprecision of such language, because I think the process of letting yourself go is a positive thing, though my definition is different.

Letting yourself go, to me, is more about shedding all the aspects of your thought and behavior that lead to unhappiness (which is, in essence, what I did after reading Dostoevsky). Most of those are tied to your own sense of self and a lot of them are inherently selfish. Our desire to be correct. Our desire to be recognised. Our desire to be compared favorably to those around us. Our desire to just matter. Our desire to be loved. Our desire to be perceived as intelligent, beautiful, funny, exciting, interesting, whatever. All of these lead to looking externally for happiness, which, of course, leads to unhappiness. Not just personal unhappiness, but social unhappiness. Because, whether you like it or not, your behavior influences and affects those around you. Even the people that you only share a few seconds with.

So, to me, letting yourself go is more about manually directing your voyage through life without all the hangups and desires that veer you into treacherous waters. Being aware of how powerful choice is. How every moment of every day is a choice. The goal is to choose prosocially. Choose not only for yourself, but for all of those around you. Because that’s what you’re doing, really. When you choose to be rude or flippant or aggressive, you’re choosing the experience that other people will have when they encounter you.

This whole discussion that Phil started began with responsibility, and I find myself back here.

You are responsible for everyone, to an extent. This is what Phil’s getting at, I think, when he talks about collective responsibility.

To me, it’s become an incommunicably obvious thing that we are all equally responsible for everything; that is not just some thought experiment for a blog post.

And this is something that also became obvious to me all those years ago. The reason it’s incommunicable or at least difficult to articulate is because this process is so gradual and, I think, instinctual, to a degree. When you begin choosing prosocially for those who will have to share experiential space with you, it gradually becomes almost innate.

It’s one of the coolest aspects of our brains. The more you choose something, the more it becomes like muscle memory. When you make the conscious choice to be kind to everyone you come into contact with, eventually you’ll no longer have to consciously choose it. You’ll just be it.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. The longer you behave and think antisocially, the more rigid that behavior becomes. So when you’re often rude to people, it becomes easier and easier to be rude until you’re no longer even consciously thinking about being rude. You’re just a rude person now. The more you think that someone or some group is ruining the world/country/your life, the more ingrained that position becomes. Blaming others seems the only obvious answer to all that’s wrong with existence. The more you hold your mistakes against yourself (especially the little social gaffes that make up every day of every single person in the world), the easier it is for you to find fault with yourself and eventually that viewpoint will solidify into an assessment of your self worth.

The most difficult thing, for me, is seeing people suffer and knowing that I’ve been through that and found a way to come out on the otherside. It’s difficult for obvious reasons, like empathy, but the real problem for me is that I can’t guide them.

I’m not a therapist. I simply don’t have that training and wouldn’t know how to help someone work through it in a meaningful way.

I’ve often given advice to people but it’s difficult to tell them that they need to just start small. To try every day to think more positively. Or, it’s not difficult to tell them that, but it’s difficult for them to internalise that information and believe it’s meaningful. Which is not a slight against them, by any means. That’s a perfectly normal way to respond. If you ask someone for help and their advice is to try being kinder to yourself…it’s hard to do much with that advice. The problem with the advice is that it’s not especially meaningful without context. And your personal context isn’t necessarily useful to them.

I can say all kinds of unhelpful things like, Stay positive! But those kinds of statements can feel almost aggressive when you’re suffering. When you’re in pain and someone tells you to be kind, to be generous, to think about the positive things, it feels like you’re being attacked, that your emotions are being slapped and demeaned.

So how do you change?

That’s still the question, yeah?

How do you change and how do you know that the change you’re making is the right change?

You don’t and I can’t tell you.

But there is literally an entire field devoted to helping people in this way, so they may be part of the answer.

I, personally, have never been to a therapist. When I was younger it was out of shame but now it’s mostly due to cost, and I imagine many are in the same boat. Because I’ve never experienced it, I can’t tell you if it’s a good idea or not, but it does seem to be very positive for very many people, so, if you’re suffering or if you want to change your life, I’d encourage you to at least try it out, if you’re able.

Because the road I took was long. It was painful. It’s like holding a ghost. Like chasing rainbows. Sometimes the choice you think is the right one leads you down an uncomfortable and painful road that you need to claw your way back from. Sometimes making a choice is like climbing a mountain: It sucks and it’s painful and you’re exhausted, but when you reach the summit you’re elated and you can see for miles and miles and the world, for that moment, feels like love, like being enveloped by the hands of a god.

So how do you change?

One choice at a time.

Before I end this already too long post, I want to talk about one more point that Phil brings up:

You have to know for a fact (without even really know how you know it) that nobody in the world does anything except out of a deep and irrational caring about life. You can’t be angry without caring; you can’t be jealous without caring; you can’t start a war without caring; you can’t steal without caring. That doesn’t excuse any misdeed, but it’s a much soberer way of seeing things. We all care deeply and totally irrationally about being okay. From this totally irrational but all-powerful sense of giving a shit, there is no question that we are all equally responsible for everything. And understanding this right in the gut is the big change.

I think this is the most difficult part to resolve in your own head.

You may have heard of the idea that the villain of every story is just the hero to a different story. For example, Hitler believed he was doing something positive, something heroic, something unimaginably great. So did Stalin and Mao. So did Qin Shi Hua and Andrew Jackson and George Bush and Charlemagne. Never mind the extreme cost, the violence, the terrifying horror of what these people did. They believed they were doing something good for the world, for the people they loved, and even for the people they were subjugating.

 

Every act of greatness, whether it’s prosocial or antisocial, comes from a deep sense of caring. Every small act comes from caring as well.

We want to be loved. We want to be okay. We want to matter.

We care what people think. We care what we think about ourselves.

And this caring can lead us in a thousand different directions, can elicit myriad behaviors.

And I think part of being okay, part of coming to terms with your life as a human, as a person, as a part of a species, as an agent on a small planet in an uncaring universe is to understand that people aren’t good or bad.

We just are.

We’re all just trying to be okay, and sometimes the easiest way for us to feel okay is to lay blame on someone else’s shoulders. It may be incorrect or antisocial, but it’s not surprising. It’s not even unique.

We have to live with ourselves and trying to hold the enormity of human behavior is almost incomprehensible. It’s no wonder people would resist such a notion. And it’s not because they’re less evolved or enlightened or intelligent or anything like that.

I think to be human is to be damaged by the weight of history, to a degree. We inherited a world that we didn’t have a hand in creating. We exist in systems of power developed decades or centuries or millennia ago. We learn to be human from other inheritors of this same world who also had some hand in shaping the microcasm that is their life. These people have been damaged by reality, brutalised by history and ideology, and they are our guides until we’re able to lift up our heads and scream at the sky and beg it to answer Why?

I don’t believe that humanity can be perfected or that we’re unwhole. I don’t believe in salvation.

What I do believe in is kindness and generosity and respect. I think the only way for us to deal with the trauma of history is to be kind to one another. To give one another shelter. Compassion. Empathy. Love. Beauty.

It’s a simplistic answer. The kind that sounds to many like new age nonsense, but I think it’s true. I think most answers are simple, at their core. Reality is built around elegant simplicity that we all implicitly agree upon and forge together through this agreement and the acceptance of this agreement.

Humanity doesn’t need saving.

It needs healing. And the way to heal it is really to just be kind and generous and loving to those around you. Not just your family and friends, but the people you walk by every day. The people you ignore on the bus or the plane. The people who pick up your trash and the people who live on the streets.

We’ve inherited genocides and wars and disease and the extermination of thousands upon thousands of species we once shared the planet with. We’re still complicit in the ongoing conflicts around the globe. Right now there are countless tragedies happening on earth. Not right now in a general sense, but right at the moment you read this sentence, countless untold and unrecorded tragedies are happening around the world. From slavery to exploitation to the rape of the environment to the neverending war machine exterminating and displacing millions.

We are all responsible, in very concrete ways.

Your phone and your clothes are made by child slaves on the otherside of the globe. Your car poisons the air and the natural gas or coal powering your house is poisoning the water. The plastic you throw away is clogging up the oceans to the point that it will soon outnumber fish in the ocean.

Just by being alive we are complicit in countless horrors against other humans, in ecological terrorism.

But life shouldn’t be defined by this. And blaming this on those who came before or those Others who are here now won’t change anything.

 

Know that living is hard for everyone. That everyone is afraid and lonely and hurt and terrified. That they all care about something. They may care so much it hurts.

But they’re trying.

We all are.

So how do you make this better?

How do you change?

You try.

Be kind.

Be better.

Smile more.

Be compassionate, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

And know that it’s okay to fail. Because you will.

Endlessly. You will keep failing, even when you think you’re succeeding.

But it’s all we can do.

If you’re still here reading, you deserve a bit of beauty so here’s a song that reminds me of you, starchild.

 

a response to the responsibility of everything

My good friend Phil Jourdan wrote a very thought provoking post on his blog about responsibility, blame, and maybe morality, depending on how you look at it.

You should read that before reading this because I’m just going to talk about it with the assumption you’ve read it.

His post is excellent and the points he makes are stellar, though my view on this is probably unsurprising for regular  readers (ha!) of this blog. I find myself often discussing our collective responsibility for the horrors of the world, but I’ll come back to that later.

 

A choice quote from Phil’s post:

There is also no more opportunity for you to delight in condemning other people. There is no more “us versus them” and the pernicious, sadistic, narcissistic delight that comes from elevating one group of people above another, appearing to be good because other people are bad, feeling helpless because most things are not your responsibility but someone else’s — the government’s problem, the terrorist’s, the people of the pasts’s. There is no more pretending to be rational while your enemies are irrational. There is no more being liberal while your enemies are illiberal. There is no more being more mature than somebody else. There is no more public recognition of your greatness, kindness or intelligence. There is no more being noticed weeping when an important human rights leader dies. There are no more important human rights leaders, because everyone is responsible for everything. Now what?

This is what I want to talk about first.

While Phil is making an excellent point and there may be a lot of people who read it (I hope there are), but this brings us into the problem that he’s also discussing in the paragraph above. For everyone who reads it and nods their head, agrees with the thesis and the arguments, there will be very few, I imagine, that will meaningfully change the way they inhabit or observe or interact with the world and people around them. That’s not a slight on Phil’s writing, mind, but just something a bit deeper and maybe more unpleasant about humans and the way social media has defined the way we frame the world and ourselves within that frame.

I’ll unpack this a bit.

We live in a strange time on social media. Clicks are all that count for companies, which is why clickbait is even a word that makes sense to as many people as it does. One of the indirect and troubling aspects of clickbait’s ubiquity is that it’s somehow made its way down into normal human behavior online. We share links and information in the search for reshares and likes (or favorites on twitter or reblogs on tumblr and other blog sites). Not everyone, sure, but for a lot of people, the search for likes is a real thing. And social media becomes about the likes, about the clicks, about the recognition.

This is probably more widespread than people admit. I know people who share articles they don’t read. Who share things they did read without critically thinking about what the article or essay or meme is really saying about topic A or B or X or what the implications are for groups F or L or Z.

It’s not a problem of comprehension that we have when we read the news (or even just share the link without having read the article), but an issue with meaning. We’re inundated with so much stuff and it all means…something…This is where the narcissism that Phil mentions comes into play. The meaning we’re looking for–especially on social media, but also off it–is a meaning of self. What I mean by that is that we want others to perceive us in a specific way or as a specific type of person (I use type there very purposefully, since we are currently obsessed with being a type of some kind–one of the most popular websites seems particularly devoted to allowing people to define the type of person they are). We want to be perceived as thoughtful, political, kind, inquisitive, adventurous, anti-establishment, apolitical, punk, goth, fun, pick your own descriptor and fill in the blank. Social media was designed to bring us together (if you buy into the story told) but what it’s really done is allowed us to cultivate how we want people to perceive us. We turn ourselves into a brand, into a type, and those are actually more important than the connections that the platform was designed to enhance. We fit ourselves into a type or create our own type and bring others of that type to us, which may lead to genuine connection, but it may just as easily lead us into a recursive feedback loop or insular bubble of information and influence, wherein we believe we’re part of a larger conversation about the world, when, in reality, we’re stuck in a very small subset of a small subset of the world that’s uniformly ignored by anyone outside of that subset.

What this really means is that even sharing Phil’s excellent post becomes a tool for us to shape meaning about ourselves as perceived by other civilised people rather than a roadmap for us to find meaning in the wild (offline).

Our online behavior has, for many people, become about creating personal meaning. Or, to say that another way, it’s about creating meaning for ourselves about ourselves. This meaning is buttressed by the reactions (likes/favorites/reshares) we receive from our circle of online friends (which may be very different from who your friends are offline).

And that’s fine. That’s human! Or at least what human has come to mean. But, throughout the history of our species, we’ve always sought approval from others. Society and civilisation is more or less built around people trying to be perceived or approved or judged by others. Because, like it or not, we are who people observing us say we are. Our identities are determined by other people, no matter how we may wish the opposite.

That’s not a bad thing! And it’s okay to do things because you want others to approve or recognise what you’ve done!

The problem with social media is that this meaning and this approval and this identification can come through to you without you meaningfully changing your behavior or even doing anything beyond sharing a link that you may or may not have even bothered to read. And we get that same meaningful feedback and reaction from other people, which reinforces this kind of shallow behavior. I actually don’t mean shallow in a derogatory way. I just mean that it’s a behavior without depth. It’s on the surface and the meaning it creates is a personal one, which is, to a degree, selfish.

But this is all a bit abstract.

Let’s talk about the other aspect of Phil’s post.

Responsibility and blame.

Because I’m less of the philosopher than Phil, I’m going to get more concrete.

Like I said, if you come here often (no one does, so don’t feel bad), you’ve probably read how I feel about responsibility and blame several times, since it seems to be the topic I keep coming back to in this time of fingerpointing and blamegaming.

But let’s talk about Charlie Hebdo and Donald Trump. Two things people would probably not often put together. But if you read Charlie Hebdo’s most recent editorial, you’ll find that it falls pretty well in line with Donald Trump’s stance on Islam.

Of course, there’s no single link I can forward you to about Trump’s specific stance because he’s not that kind of person or politician. Not the kind who says, in a clear way, what he means about anything. But I shouldn’t have to point you in a direction. If you’re reading this you’re probably someone who follows the news, even if not closely.

So we have Charlie Hebdo, lauded and awarded for its bravery, writing and publishing this piece about how all Muslims are to blame.

Isn’t it odd how easily this could fit into a GOP debate? How Fox News could spend weeks patting themselves on the back, because even this alleged left wing provocateur has come to the same conclusion as they did about Islam, but it took the left wingers an extra decade and a half to realise what they’ve known since 9/11/2001!

And we love to blame the idiots who created Donald Trump.

But the truth is that we all created this. We all allowed Donald Trump to thrive and grow and become the political juggernaut that he’s become (a note on that link–certain points it makes are…tenuous, but I don’t think it should be ignored either).

What we learn from Charlie Hebdo (and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and any Western news organisation) is that hating Muslims is not a fringe political stance. It’s not even just a mainstream topic to be argued about. It is an acceptable belief. You’re not only allowed to privately think that the only good Muslim is a dead one, you’re implicitly encouraged to think that. Depending on which major news organisation you watch/read, you’re either encouraged to think that but keep it to yourself, or encouraged to say it loud and proud and maybe carry guns to a mosque and just stand outside to let them know they’re not only unwelcome but that you’re willing and capable to harm them.

I even recently wrote about how the Good Liberal is just as likely to tacitly approve of imperial war crimes, tempered by a reluctant shrug.

So while it’s easy and comforting to blame someone else for what’s wrong with the world, it’s not a meaningful way to deal with the world that we’ve inherited and helped create.

Because We are all Charlie. Not just the Charlie Hebdo we approved of for standing up for their (imperialistic and racist) beliefs, but also for the Charlie Hebdo who says things like uninhibited Islamism, and argues that all Muslims, from the baker to the women who choose to express their religion via clothing to the child of Muslims, are to blame for every crime of every Muslim around the world.

You, me, everyone we know, and everyone we don’t know created this world and we are all responsible for it.

And while sharing information is great, it really is bereft of meaning if that sharing doesn’t go hand in hand with actual change. Information is dangerous to power and giving people more information can actually spark real change. We’re seeing it right now with the Panama Papers (since posting this, the Prime Minister of Iceland has resigned), we saw it with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, and we watched the Arab Spring, which many contribute to Wikileaks’ release of the US Diplomatic Cables.

So by all means, share content and information! It can really change the world!

But only if sharing is the first step. It’s fine to share for the recognition or the selfish reasons listed above, as long as that behavior transitions offline.

Sure, we can’t all go out and protest, and you don’t have to. You can donate to causes and artists you believe in, or just be a positive person to those around you, those you interact with on a day to day basis.

And I think that’s the larger discussion that Phil’s pointing to.

We are all the blame.

What are you going to do now?

How are you going to make things better?

How are you going to address the wrongs, the inequalities, and so on?

 

 

the apparent problem with ai and us

Microsoft rolled out an AI chatbot and within 24 hours it began saying racist, misogynistic, and generally hateful things.

Sample stories here and here.

Lots of people have come out over the years to say how a powerful AI would be a nightmare and possibly cause the very extinction of the human species. I could sit here and search for links for hours and days and still not grab them all.

But just know that a lot of really intelligent people have been studying the potential calamitous effects of AI on our species. Stephen Hawking’s warned the world about it, and he’s not alone.

I always thought this was a bit silly.

I mean, why would AI automatically become anti-human?

I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of AI and why it’s so fascinating, but that’s maybe for another time. I’ve written novellas about it, and maybe they’ll be published someday.

Anyrate, for some positive looks at AI, I’d check out The Lifecycle of Software Object by Ted Chiang, which is utterly brilliant. I’d also look into Hiroshi Yamamoto’s The Stories of Ibis.

I love both of those stories and they’re generally positive in their outlook for the future of AI and artificial species humanity may someday create.

But what happened here is more similar to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, where the AI essentially learns to be human from the internet.

I think this is the real problem, and the huge difference between Chiang and Yamamoto’s stories and Garland’s.

In Chiang and Yamamoto’s imagined futures, humans create AI and teach them to be human.

In Garland’s film and our real world, we’re taking a big shortcut. Rather than have it learn experientially in a more neutral and natural environment, we’re thrusting it onto the internet.

Something you wouldn’t wish on an infant, no matter how quickly it can learn.

Because, really, these are infants. Their development may be vastly quicker than a human’s, but they may be even slower. Because we’re creating another species.

I’ll say that again.

We’re creating a new species.

We’re not just uploading a program. I mean, in engineering terms, that’s kind of exactly what we’re doing. But, in reality, we’re doing something much more complex. Something that can’t be engineered easily.

I think–and this may sound silly–that we need to socialise our AI before letting it loose into the wilds of the internet.

Let’s be honest.

The internet is a nightmare.

I mean, it’s the coolest, greatest invention maybe ever, but it’s also where humans express their worst desires and represent the worst aspects of themselves.

It’s not a safe place.

For anyone!

Even adults!

But especially children. Especially a species that has absolutely zero experience.

If you throw one out into the world and tell the world that this is a new species, all the trolls will come out just to be the worst. Their goal will be to make it a vile thing. They’ll do this for fun.

Because, for a lot of people, that is fun.

And, see, this comes down to the amplification problem of the internet. Everywhere from gamergate to bernie bros to whatever else, you have a minority behaving in the worst possible way. And they don’t just say their piece and move on. They spend all day or week or year doing this. Attacking and attacking, doxxing, hacking, harassing, stalking. They go out of their way to ruin someone or something. To make them afraid. To make them ashamed. To rip their life apart. And to harass and dismantle their actual life and the lives around that person.

We even see it beyond fringe ugly movements. We see it in everything.

This is the lesson, basically.

If you let an infant onto the internet, especially if it’s an infant that can talk and reason, but maybe not discern information super well, you’ll have people twist it into a monster, because they think that’s fun or funny.

I think if we ever really get an AI going, we need to socialise it first. I don’t really know what that will entail, but it may take years or decades in a lab environment that’s closely monitored to make sure it isn’t made into a monster by those who think being monstrous is funny.

Anyrate, just a thought.