finding new ways and other thoughts about action

The title will make more sense a few paragraphs down, but first I’m going to ramble about writing a bit.

I sent out Songs of My Mother to several beta readers (want to be one?) a few weeks ago, and have already heard back from one!

I’m ridiculously pleased with the response. It’s not all positive, of course, but the reaction mostly fell in line with what I expected and what I wanted, which is good. The weaknesses I was worried about were called out, but none were really added. Some places I thought might be weaknesses proved to be strengths and, overall, the reaction was jsut positive. I’m ecstatic about that, truly. I’ve never spent so long working on a novel, and never written a novel even close to this length, so to hear good things about it was kind of exactly what I needed (especially since the Fear shrieked inside me almost immediately after I sent the novel to people).

And so I’ve been feeling good this week (got the feedback on Monday). Had to do a lot of driving (currently in Ohio and on my way to Pittsburgh), which means I’ve listened to several audiobooks and eaten a lot of Panera and just been spending a lot of time inside my head.

About a week ago, I got a new idea for a novella, too. What I usually do when ideas strike me is sit on them, let them percolate, but I decided to just start writing this one about an hour after the idea came to me, and it’s been extremely pleasant and fun and just kind of a joyous experience.

Several ideas kind of banged together at once, and all because of a wikipedia hole. Was looking at pictures of Greenland, and then reading about ancient piracy, and then, somehow, about Kasper Hauser, and was already rereading the Tao Te Ching for the hundredth time, and thinking about the Voynich Manuscript, and it all kind of came together for me. And because Kasper Hauser is such a bizarre story, it got me thinking about Visitor Q. And then because Greenland was on my mind (and cooking’s always on my mind), I was wondering what they eat there.

And so, in short, I’m writing a novella inspired by Greenland, pirates, Visitor Q, and Taoism (more on this in a bit). It’s called Days of Glossolalia and All the Days After.

It’s been fun and interesting. The Visitor Q influence is probably much milder than people would expect from such a claim (at least so far), but I’m hoping for this to be at least relatively normal, since everything I’ve written in the last four years has been kind of ridiculously bizarre.

But mostly it’s just kind of a come down from the arduous process of writing a 310,000 word novel. I wanted to do a lot of things differently, and a big part of that is writing something sort of bitesized. Something people can read in one sitting with relative ease, so I’m hoping it tops out at around 30,000 words. It’s already at 10,000 so I may be underestimating again, but I can’t imagine this being much longer than 40,000 words, even if it blows up on me.

I’ve been listening to real old Iron & Wine while writing it. I forget how much I love those albums and EPs. That kind of breathless beauty they have. But, yeah, mostly just The Woman KingThe Sea & the Rhythm, and Our Endless Numbered Days, though sometimes I go all the way to The Creek Drank the Cradle.

Trying to get a gentle feel in my head.

And I think part of this is because I’ve been thinking about Taoism a lot lately. I say that this new novella is inspired by it, but that could be said about most of my novels. The Tao Te Ching came to me at a strange time. Excerpts of it were assigned reading in my junior year of high school english class. The same english class that would introduce me to Dostoevsky, existentialism, nihilism, and other philosophical isms. But Taoism has always been the one that fits best in my head (besides the one I invented).

Someone even once asked me why the Twilight of the Wolves cover has a zen symbol on it, and I told them it’s a Taoism symbol (Zen Buddhism is basically a mix of Buddhism and Taoism). To me, Twilight of the Wolves is very much a Taoist text, and I think that’s partly why it means so much to me and why it still sort of breaks my heart that no one likes it.

But the Tao is in Songs of My Mother as well, and even Noir: A Love Story, and definitely in a handful of unpublished novels I have that are both extremely strange and extremely meaningful to me.

Pacifism is the driving force behind all my work, and Taoism has played a part in shaping that, too. My firm belief in nonviolence.

And so this new novella is dealing with that. How do you respond, as a pacifist, to pirates raiding your society?

The real reason why so much of this has been on my mind is because of Ursula K Le Guin’s blog. Click those highlighted words to see her post on the election, which goes into the Tao and resistance.

I’m going to excerpt kind of liberally here.

Americans are given to naming enemies and declaring righteous war against them. Indians are the enemy, socialism is the enemy, cancer is the enemy, Jews are the enemy, Muslims are the enemy, sugar is the enemy. We don’t support education, we declare a war on illiteracy. We make war on drugs, war on Viet Nam, war on Iraq, war on obesity, war on terror, war on poverty. We see death, the terms on which we have life, as an enemy that must be defeated at all costs.

Defeat for the enemy, victory for us, aggression as the means to that end: this obsessive metaphor is used even by those who know that aggressive war offers no solution, and has no end but desolation.

[. . .]

I will try never to use the metaphor of war where it doesn’t belong, because I think it has come to shape our thinking and dominate our minds so that we tend to see the destructive force of aggression as the only way to meet any challenge. I want to find a better way.

Emphasis mine.

Le Guin is a writer and thinker near to my heart. She’s one of my favorites. Maybe even my actual favorite. She’s the one that inspires me most, I think, and she’s the one whose worldview is most similar to my own. And in her blog post she discusses how we see the world and how we talk about the world.

It’s useful for me to see this, because she gets down to something that’s incredibly heartbreaking for every pacifist who must also be an american. It’s a neverending tragedy. We’ve been at war for generations and have no intention of stopping or even slowing down (all signs point to becoming more belligerent and aggressive, starting with China and Russia and Iran). There’s so much I could say here, but I’ll try to stay focused.

Though we’ve had some great scholars of peace, such as Martin Luther King, studying it is something Americans have done very little of.

The way of the warrior admits no positive alternatives to fighting, only negatives — inertia, passivity, surrender. Talk of “waging peace” is mere glibness, you can’t be aggressively peaceful. Reducing positive action to fighting against or fighting for, we have not looked at the possibility of other forms of action.

Like the people who marched to Selma, the people who are standing their ground at Standing Rock study, learn, and teach us the hard lessons of peace. They are not making war. They are resolutely non-violent. They are seeking a way out of the traps of anger, hatred, enmity. They are actively trying to get free, to be free, and by their freedom, free others as well.

Studying peace means in the first place unlearning the vocabulary of war, and that’s very difficult indeed. Isn’t it right to fight against injustice? Isn’t that what Selma and Standing Rock are — brave battles for justice?

I think not. Brave yes; battles no. Refusing to engage an aggressor on his terms, standing ground, holding firm, is not aggression — though the aggressive opponent will always declare that it is. Refusing to meet violence with violence is a powerful, positive act.

But that is paradoxical. It’s hard to see how not doing something can be more positive than doing something. When all the words we have to use are negative — inaction, nonviolence, refusal, resistance, evasion — it’s hard to see and keep in mind that the outcome of these so-called negatives is positive, while the outcome of the apparently positive act of making war is negative.

This final paragraph is especially interesting to me, since I’ve never thought about the language of peace. But it’s true: we always use it as a negative (linguistic negative, not moral one). It’s a subtle kind of thing built deep into english (and maybe many other languages?).

It brings me to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and might write a post about eventually. But I’ve been thinking about technological development. Not even new development, but the development of technology through history.

To keep it brief: Might is Right has been the prevailing moral and technological theory since Columbus crossed the ocean blue. Which means it’s probably been there longer. Since the Crusades, probably.

It’s not the idea even that technological advancement makes you morally correct (Silicon Valley ideology), but that having a superior military with technological advantages makes you also morally superior.

This was absolutely Europe’s policy in the americas, Africa, and Asia. Because it is worth remembering that when the west first encountered China, we were like baboons when it comes to their (at the time) advances in technology. We didn’t understand it and saw no use for it, until we discovered that their exploding powder could be used to propel metal balls through metal tubes at incredible speeds, allowing those same metal balls to tear through a human body, even when it’s armored.

That’s a simplification, of course, but I’ll leave it at that.

But war and might have been seen as positive moral attributes to cultures for a long, long time. Whereas peace has always been an undesirable alternative. Something for cowards and malcontents and agitators.

We confuse self-defense, the reaction to aggression, with aggression itself. Self-defense is a necessary and morally defensible reaction.

But defending a cause without fighting, without attacking, without aggression, is not a reaction at all. It is an action. It is an expression of power. It takes control.

Emphasis, again, is mine.

And this brings us back to that other way. What is it? How do we find a new way?

I see so many posts on social media about our need to fight. Some even are saying that we must fight in any way necessary.

It scares me, to be quite honest. I see nothing but ruin ahead of us, when all our solutions are fighting. Our only metaphor for action is combat.

I think it shows how terrible things have become. How terrible they’ve always been.

We have glamorized the way of the warrior for millennia. We have identified it as the supreme test and example of courage, strength, duty, generosity, and manhood. If I turn from the way of the warrior, where am I to seek those qualities? What way have I to go?

I won’t keep quoting this, but we come to an interesting point, because Le Guin doesn’t answer this question. She leaves us, instead, with Lao Tzu and the Tao.

So how do we act? How do we resist without fighting? How do we remain peaceful when threatened by belligerent and aggressive forces?

Unfortunately, I have no answers. I very much doubt that anyone does.

But it’s something I’m trying to answer in this new novella. Or at least it’s the idea that’s at the heart of it.

How do we act and resist?

For me, as a person, this may take several shapes. But it’s something I’ll be thinking about for a long time. Pacifism is at the core of who I am, and it’s perhaps the only beliefI know I can’t exist without. And since I have no answers (the Tao teaches that there are no answers), I intend to learn how to act. How to be.

Anyrate, some thoughts to chew on. Maybe you’ll like the way they taste.